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M. Ziauddin


No surprises

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists comprising hundreds of journalists are said to have spent 18 months trawling through the nearly 1.2 crore files to come up on October 3, 2021 with what are being called the Pandora Papers.

However, the big picture is not particularly surprising. Tax evasion or avoidance via offshore “havens” is hardly a novelty, and obtaining overseas properties is routine for those who have the resources.

How they came by the tens of millions, or occasionally billions of dollars required for such “investments” is a different story. Bribes, kickbacks and “money laundering” tend to be frowned upon, but it is all good if the monumental balances were racked up via the routine exploitation that sustains the capitalist order.

Panama Papers had led to a regime change in Pakistan. What will happen after the Pandora Papers leak? Not much, many believe.

Indeed, by comparison, the Pandora Papers investigation is bigger in size and revelations about politicians and public officials are also far more than what had come to public attention following the publication of Panama Papers.

And compared to 400 Pakistanis named by Panama Papers owning off-shore companies, the Pandora Papers have named as many as 700. Moreover, the earlier set of papers made public on April 3, 2016 had not mentioned any prominent politician, except some family members of the then Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif. The new set of papers have named as many as 7 prominent Pakistani politicians, most belonging to the ruling coterie.

However, since not a single prominent opposition political leader has been mentioned in the Pandora papers, except one small time PPP leader, the chances are, except for occasional official promises to investigate all the 700 named including the prominent politicians belonging to the government and sending those found guilty to jail, not much is expected to happen.

Truth be told, even after the publication of Panama Papers nothing out of the ordinary had happened, except loud promises that investigations would be conducted against the 400 named and those found guilty would be made to cough up the loot and sent to jail. Since Nawaz Sharif’s name was not listed in the Panama Papers, no media trial of his was taking place as well.

But all hell broke loose when on June 6, an exclusive front page report published in Dawn, later rendered infamous as Dawn- leaks, detailed a civil-military tussle during a high powered security meeting over the arrest or otherwise of non-state actors that were allegedly indulging in terror activities in and outside the country and some of whom were already under UN and/or US sanctions.

The said report had presented one of the two parties involved in the tussle not in the most ideal light prompting the affected one to hit back. Using the mention of his family members in the Panama Papers as a justifiable pretext a wounded establishment had the then Prime Minister ousted from his office through the courts which were clearly fixed. Following the regime change the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) arrested almost all the top PMLN and PPP leaders accusing them of using public offices to loot the public exchequer. Three years hence these operations look more like witch-hunts than anything substantive.

The ICIJ stated that key members of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s inner circle, including cabinet ministers, their families and major financial backers had secretly owned an array of companies and trusts holding millions of dollars of hidden wealth.

However, since the government has remained on the right side of the establishment over the last three years and the ousted PMLN leadership has continued to be vociferously critical of the perceived political hegemony of the establishment, the latter seems to be in no mood to disrupt the ruling coalition by getting substantive investigation started against the named cabinet members and their families.

Meanwhile, top investigation agencies have been tasked to investigate those individuals. The agencies will also seek help from the provincial revenue departments and Nadra.

But meaningful consequences seldom flow from such investigations. It is particularly embarrassing, though, when purported crusaders against corruption are caught up in such conundrums.

According to the leaked documents, Shaukat Tarin, the country’s finance minister, and members of his family owned four offshore firms. Tariq Fawad Malik, a financial adviser who handled the paperwork for the companies, told the ICIJ that the companies were set up by the Tarin family with the intention of investing in a bank with Saudi business connections. But the deal did not proceed, Mr. Malik said. The leaked documents also suggest that Chaudhry Moonis Elahi, the minister for water resources, pulled out of making planned investments through offshore tax havens after he was warned the investment would be reported to the country’s tax authorities. PTI’s Senator Faisal Vawda, son of PML-N’s Ishaq Dar, PPP’s Sharjeel Memon, the family of Minister for Industries and Production Khusro Bakhtiar, and PTI leader Abdul Aleem Khan, among others — have alleged links to offshore companies. Reacting to the investigative report, Aleem Khan took to Twitter and said that he has nothing to hide as he has declared all his assets to the Federal Board of Revenue (FBR). Ali Dar — the son of PML-N’s Ishaq Dar — also took to Twitter and shared the answers he had sent to senior investigative journalist Umar Cheema. “I had replied with a detailed account of companies, which were perfectly legal and were made for legal purposes. I have settled in the UAE since graduation,” he wrote.

Some analysts believe that the revelations brought by the investigation will not have a substantial impact on the current political order. Many don’t think there are major political consequences for Pakistani politics. Indeed, one does not see any serious implications or threats to the Khan Government or Cabinet after the leaks. This is no crisis for the government. Not even close.

In Pakistan the best way to postpone action or defer an issue is to create the illusion of accountability by announcing a high-level commission. And this isn’t the first commission announced by this government for such investigations.

Also, taking the cue, within days after the leaks, the media lost interest in the story. Some believe that the accountability process would hardly ruffle the feathers of military officials named in the Pandora Papers.

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