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Is PM’s ARU a Witch Hunter’s Tool?

Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Asset Recovery Unit (ARU) continues   to   draw   ire   from   the   opposition   for    its alleged unbridled powers to engage to conduct witch-hunts against the government’s political opponents

“I agree with the dissenting judges of the Supreme Court of Pakistan that there is no legal basis for this Assets Recovery Unit”, said Dr Nafisa Shah, a Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) Member National Assembly, talking to The Truth International (TTI).

Dr Shah raises serious objections to the ARU’s Terms of Reference (ToR) and legal basis to recover assets from abroad. “If the PTI government wants to recover any asset from abroad what legal mechanism is available?”

An eight-member bench of the Supreme Court of Pakistan has ruled by a 6-2 majority that the ARU is a legal body formed by the federal cabinet under the Prime Minister of Pakistan through an executive order. The two dissenting judges maintained the ARU had no legal basis.

Dr Nafisa Shah said: “The ARU was supposed to bring money from abroad but my question is still unanswered that if there is any [tainted] asset found abroad, how will it be repatriated or transferred to Pakistan and under what rule or law?”

Although the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), the Federal Board of Revenue (FBR), and the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) each have certain powers to recover money, the ARU has no powers to recover assets from abroad, says the PPP lawmaker. Recovery of assets held in foreign jurisdictions by simply setting up an ARU is beyond my understanding and it is simply impossible, she asserts.

Dr Shah makes a point of differentiating between principled opposition versus objection to the legal basis for an institution. The PPP is opposed to the NAB on principle but does not question its legal basis. Questioning the legality of the ARU, therefore, is quite another matter.

Similarly, FBR has certain powers and has signed some agreements with international partners, which is all well and good. What ARU is doing is something in the air.

Dr Nafisa Shah alleges that “There are suspicions which are now confirmed that this is just a gimmick and it is the only survival for Khan Government which victimizes the opposition and all the challengers who challenge Imran Khan’s illegal powers and especially his rhetoric of anticorruption”.

Noting the ARU has not recovered anything from abroad, she asserted its only object was to target the opposition.

During the hearing of the case Senator Raza Rabbani argued before the Supreme Court of Pakistan that the cabinet had decided to establish an asset recovery unit for the recovery of unlawful offshore assets. The purpose behind setting up the agency was not the collection of material, but to conduct an inquiry.

Senator Raza Rabbani took strong exception to the fact that its ToRs empowered the ARU to request any intelligence agency at the federal government’s command to assist it in the collection of material, any citizen including judges. This amounts to giving a carte blanche to intelligence agencies to invade the privacy of any individual and strengthening the executive’s hand against judges.

Rabbani said he did not know of any other organization in the world with such vast, unbridled powers.

The federal cabinet approved the establishment of the ARU under the chairmanship of Special Assistant to the Prime Minister (SAPM) on Accountability on 5 September 2018 with representation from the FIA, NAB, FBR, State Bank of Pakistan, and the private sector for implementation of recovery of unlawful assets abroad.

Being a coordinating unit, the ARU provides a forum to law enforcement agencies and relevant institutions to trace and detect new cases and fast-track all existing cases targeting eventual repatriation of unlawfully acquired offshore assets.

SAPM Mirza Shahzad Akbar vehemently rebuffs the opposition narrative. “There is no illegality in the formation and ToRs of ARU,” he told TTI. He said that the Supreme Court’s majority decision had settled the matter and the opinion of the two dissenting judges had no legal consequence.

He reiterated that the ARU was a coordinating body and it was not against the opposition “The opposition has a feeling which is not a fact. They should point out a specific case in which the ARU has targeted them”.

Akbar said that courts were free in the country, all the appeals, decisions and bails were being granted by the courts and nothing was being done by the ARU against the opposition.

He maintained the NAB had recovered more than PKR 400 billion in the last two years compared with PKR 100 billion recovered over the last 10 years. “Likewise, the data unearthed by the International taxation unit of the FBR is commendable. These are the good things that ARU is doing to revive the institutions of Pakistan”, said Mirza Shahzad Akbar.

He further maintains, “The role of the Asset Recovery Unit is coordination between the law enforcement agencies working for asset recovery. The Assets Recovery Unit does not recover anything itself – it just coordinates with other agencies because when you work in coordination it provides better results”.

ARU has made partnership with the UK in 2018 on justice and accountability initiative under which the UK and Pakistan worked on a number of cases, said the SAPM.

The SAPM said that the Assets Recovery Unit had unearthed hidden properties worth PKR 318 billion. “The FBR has recovered foreign assets of PKR 37 billion. Likewise, the FIA has recovered properties worth PKR 6.1 billion. Cumulatively, NAB has made recoveries of PKR 900 billion during the last two years”.

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