British court issues orders to unfreeze Shahbaz Sharif, son's bank accounts

National Crime Agency says no evidence of money laundering, fraud and criminal conduct found against Shahbaz Sharif, Suleman

Murtaza Ali Shah

In a major relief for PML-N President Shahbaz Sharif, a British court has ordered the unfreezing of the Opposition leader's bank accounts and those belonging to his son, Suleman Sharif Monday. 

The decision was taken by the court after the UK's top anti-corruption body, the National Crime Agency (NCA) concluded there was no evidence of money laundering, fraud and criminal conduct against the two, according to evidence seen by The News exclusively.

The Westminster Magistrates Court’s Judge Nicholas Rimmer set aside the two accounts freezing orders (AFO) against Shahbaz Sharif and his son related to a December 2019 case filed by the NCA at the Pakistani government's request. 

The UK's top anti-corruption agency filed a unilateral application before Judge Rimmer to declare that its two-year high-profile investigation in the jurisdictions of Pakistan, UK and Dubai found no evidence of money laundering and criminal conduct on part of the two Sharifs who were investigated. 

Documents obtained by The News reveal that the bank accounts of Suleman Sharif were frozen and Shahbaz Sharif’s accounts were probed through a December 17, 2019 court order and both were subjected to high-profile criminal forensic investigation under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 (POCA), conducted by the NCA’s Investigations Command at the International Corruption Unit. 

Their accounts were frozen after the Pakistan government asked the UK to “assist in the recovery of criminal assets to the state of Pakistan”, triggering a wide-ranging investigation.

NCA probes Shahbaz. Suleman's accounts

After the Westminster Magistrates Court allowed the accounts to be freezed and issued a probe consent to the NCA on December 19, 2019, Suleman Sharif’s declared Barclays account, Shahbaz Sharif’s HBL UK and Barclays account were immediately probed, seized and monies frozen.

This correspondent has seen court evidence which shows that the NCA’s investigators sought consent from Shahbaz Sharif to have access to his closed Barclays account as well or else the account will be accessed through a production order. Shahbaz Sharif agreed to the consent on the advice of his lawyers.

Usually, anti-money laundering investigations go back only six years, but in this case, the NCA used its excessive powers and investigated Shahbaz Sharif and his son's transactions dating back to around 20 years. NCA's investigators started the probe from the first flat that Shahbaz Sharif bought in 2004 on Edgware Road when he was in exile and asked him to produce evidence of the clean origin of the money, including mortgage payments, sources of proceeds in his accounts, salaries and dividends, and full proceeds of the property purchase in the UK, bought during exile.

The NCA investigated Suleman Sharif’s Barclays account declared in Pakistan with the Federal Board of Revenue (FBR) and looked into all transfers which were made from Pakistan after the State Bank of Pakistan’s approval. The NCA went through each receipt of transfers from the official money exchangers.

The court documents obtained by this correspondent from credible sources show that the NCA received a letter from the ARU on December 11, 2019, in which it levelled allegations of criminal conduct against Shahbaz Sharif and Suleman Sharif. 

The government of Pakistan had requested the UK government to seize all assets and funds of Shahbaz Sharif and his family, and asked them to return the same to Pakistan and extradite Suleman Shehbaz with his family.

The Home Office was in the loop and a separate letter was sent to the Home Office requesting Suleman's extradition, as well as asking Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) ministry to probe Suleman.

Court papers show that two AFOs were issued by the Westminster Magistrates Court on December 17 for 12 months in case numbers 011902628734 and 011902628947. 

A year later, on December 8, 2020, the NCA went to the court again, applying to extend both AFOs for six months, arguing that investigations were continuing in the UK, Dubai and Pakistan. According to court papers, Suleman Shehbaz agreed to the extension of the AFOs by the court on three applications filed by the NCA.

No evidence of money laundering or fraud

On September 10, 2021, the NCA submitted a unilateral application to the court informing that its investigations had been completed and the NCA crime investigators had found no evidence of money-laundering, fraud or wrongdoings in any of the transactions made either from Pakistan to the UK or from the UK to Pakistan in Suleman and Shahbaz Sharif's accounts.

District Judge Nicholas Rimmer signed the final order setting aside the AFOs, releasing and returning the accounts and monies to Suleman Shehbaz and his father.

According to a chronological order of the sensitive investigation - kept under tight wraps by the Sharifs, the NCA and the Pakistan government - a senior director of the NCA’s International Corruption Unit met Shehzad Saleem, Director General of NAB Lahore, in London on December 9, 2019 to discuss the formal investigation against Shahbaz and Suleman Sharif.

According to court papers, Shehzad Saleem explained to the NCA that Shehbaz Sharif’s wealth began to accumulate when he and his brother Nawaz Sharif gained prominence in the 1980s. The implication being that they were receiving bribes and other kickbacks because of their influential position.

The NAB Lahore official told the NCA official during their Central London meeting that Sharifs’ used the hawala system to transfer monies to make them clean and to legalise such transactions. He told the NCA that NAB’s investigation had identified a large number of remittances to bank accounts of the family, allegedly from Pakistanis living abroad.

It is therefore the NAB’s case, he told the NCA, and that the remittances are the laundering of illicit funds by, or on behalf of, Shahbaz Sharif and family, according to court papers.

The ARU's letter

This correspondent has reviewed the letter of December 11, 2019 from the ARU to the NCA explaining why Shahbaz and Suleman Sharif should be investigated and what action should be taken. The ARU told the NCA that Shehbaz was wanted in Pakistan, under investigation, on bail, and a person of interest for misuse of authority during his tenure as chief minister Punjab, namely in his involvement in the Ashiana Housing scheme case and Hamza Sugar Mills case.

The Assets Recovery Unit (ARU) said in the same letter that Suleman was the “principal accused and beneficiary of the fake international remittances and money laundering through front and paper companies”. The Pakistani government's letter to the UK’s anti-corruption agency alleged that its investigation revealed that Shahbaz Sharif and Suleman “patronised a local network of front companies in the name of their low paid employees to launder their proceeds of corruption to show as legitimate money” and that both had “used informal money transfers (hawala) to shift and conceal their money abroad”.

The Pakistan government further told the NCA that the Panamagate investigations had “already culminated in sentences to Nawaz Sharif, Maryam Nawaz Sharif and others from the accountability court and these cases are presently pending with the Islamabad High Court in the appellate's jurisdiction. 

It mentioned that investigations by NAB are presently underway for “corruption and organised money laundering” in relation to various members of the Sharif family, including Nawaz Sharif, Maryam Nawaz, Hamza Sharif, Shahbaz Sharif, Ishaq Dar, Nusrat Shahbaz, Suleman Sharif and mainly family members of Shahbaz Sharif for “money laundering “through companies owned by Shahbaz’s family members.

This correspondent has seen the full file which the NCA placed before the Westminster Magistrates Court in order to get the freezing orders (AFOs) issued against Shahbaz Sharif and Suleman. The NCA bundle went into detail to describe Shahbaz and his son as being allegedly involved in criminal conduct through misuse of authority and associated money laundering. 

It relied on several newspaper clippings which carried allegations of money laundering, quoting Pakistan government ministers and their press conferences. 

Attached in the bundle was also an article by David Rose for the Daily Mail which had been published on July 13, 2019 in which the paper alleged that Shahbaz had stolen the UK government funds. 

The article carried the same allegations of money laundering that the ARU later on submitted before the NCA, asking the UK to rely on the article for its investigations.

The NCA gained AFOs and probe consent order for violations contrary to sections 327, 328 and 329 of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, involving criminal offending contrary to conspiracy to commit misconduct in a public office and conspiracy to cheat the public revenue; concealing criminal property; acquisition of criminal property; use and possessions of criminal property; and fraud by false representation and fraud by abuse of position. 

No case for 'recoverable property', says NCA

The NCA lawyers, requesting freezing orders for 12 months, added: "This will ultimately allow us to prove or disprove if these funds in whole or part, constitute recoverable property in that they are derived from criminal conduct or intended for use in unlawful conduct."

The NCA application, quoting the allegations made by the ARU, said that it needed 12 months because it will conduct enquiries internationally.

Credible legal sources here shared that the grounds of suspicion on which the NCA filed its application in the Westminster Magistrates Court to secure freezing orders were not proven as the investigations in multiple jurisdictions couldn’t establish evidence to prove money-laundering and criminal conduct.

That is the sole reason, according to sources, why the NCA gave it in writing to the Westminster Magistrates Court that its investigations had established that there was no case for the “recoverable property”, hence the unfreezing of assets and closure of the case file.

Reports of Shahbaz being acquirred incorrect, says Shahzad Akbar

Meanwhile, Adviser to the Prime Minister on Accountability Shahzad Akbar said that reports of Shahbaz Sharif being acquitted by the British court were incorrect, clarifying that neither had the ARU nor NAB requested the UK government to initiate a probe against the PML-N leader.

He said the inquiry had been initiated over a "suspicious transaction" that a bank had reported to the NCA, adding that these consisted of certain funds transferred by Suleman Shahbaz from Pakistan to the UK in 2019.

"[These transactions] were declared as a suspicious transaction by the UK authorities and the NCA secured an asset freezing order(AFO) from the court against these funds," he tweeted. "However, recently the NCA decided to stop investigating these funds and therefore agreed for the release of these funds through the court.

"It is clarified that such a release order is not an acknowledgement that funds are from a legitimate source," he added. The prime minister'a aide said that Shahbaz and Suleman have not been acquitted since they had not been tried to begin with.

"The funds were frozen by the NCA and the NCA has decided to not investigate these funds anymore," he added. "Suleman Shahbaz remains a fugitive in a money laundering case against him and his father before the AC Lahore," he added.

PMLN Secretary Information Marriyum Aurangzeb said the UK court decision has unequivocally exonerated Shehbaz Sharif and his family of all malicious and vexatious claims of corruption and money laundering.

Responding to Shahzad Akbar’s tweet, she said the NCA UK conducted a 21-month global investigation spanning 20 years whilst overcoming unprecedented jurisdictional challenges. 

She said never in the history of Pakistan has a public office holder ever been subjected to global scrutiny and multi-jurisdictional probing as Shahbaz Sharif had been. 

Marriyum said the government's false corruption narrative was exposed, adding that it was telling a hundred more lies to cover up thousands that it had already told. 

She said the government will fall on the weight of its own deceit and lies.

Originally published in The News