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Friday Dec 14 2018

What is the Paragon housing scam?

Saad Rafique had a meteoric rise from riding an old motorcycle to becoming railways minister. But this year, trouble began knocking at his door. Photo: File

When Khawaja Saad Rafique was young, he lived in a modest dwelling near Lohari Gate. During his college days, he would commute to Lahore's Government College on an old motorcycle. Even then, he had a reputation of being brash and arrogant. After misbehaving with a professor, he was expelled.

Later, he enrolled at the MAO College, which, in those days, was in the grip of the Muslim Students Federation, a student wing of the Pakistan Muslim League. From there, Rafique had a meteoric rise in politics. From Lohari Gate he shifted to the suburbs of the Allama Iqbal Town, and then to a large two-kanal bungalow in DHA, where he lives to this day with his brother, Salman, and his first wife, Ghazala.

During the Pakistan Muslim League-N's last tenure, Rafique served as the minister for railways. He remains, to this day, a staunch loyalist of Nawaz Sharif, the former prime minister.

But this year, trouble began knocking at his door. The National Accountability Bureau (NAB) summoned both Khawaja brothers in a case pertaining to corruption in a housing society, the Paragon City. Then, on December 11, after a court rejected their applications for a pre-arrest bail, NAB arrested the brothers.

The City, launched in 2005, was illegal and never approved by the Lahore Development Authority, yet it continued to sell plots – sometimes a single piece of land to more than one buyer, NAB claims. It insists that Paragon was being run by Rafique, behind the scenes.

His close friend and former MPA, Qaiser Amin Butt, has apparently agreed to be an approver in the case. According to my sources, Butt has told the anti-graft body that Saad Rafique joined his business in 1997. He then launched a housing society in partnership with Rafique, his wife, brother and a man named, Nadeem Zia. The society was called Paragon. Both brothers later removed their name from the company's shareholdings and used Zia as their frontman.

In 2006, Rafique, according to Butt, transferred 92 per cent of the shares to Zia. He also allegedly sold Paragon's commercial plots illegally and made an astounding Rs14 billion. (Zia has since fled to the US).

Rafique accuses the NAB officials of using "drugs and torture" to extract favourable statements from Butt.

This probe, although also of corruption, cannot be compared to that of former chief minister, Shehbaz Sharif. In the Sharif case, NAB prosecutors have themselves admitted in court that they have not accused the former chief minister of corruption.

But in Rafique's case, there seem to be solid grounds for the charges. More details are likely to come out in the future and this case will eventually link up with the probe in the Ashiana Housing Scheme.

In the meantime, Rafique has a lot of explaining to do.

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