Sunday Oct 03, 2021
The Pandora Papers, an investigation uncovering financial secrets held by high-profile individuals across the world, includes the names of more than 700 Pakistanis, it emerged on Sunday.
Most prominently these include Minister for Finance Shaukat Tarin; Minister for Water Resources Moonis Elahi; Senator Faisal Vawda; PML-N leader Ishaq Dar’s son, Ali Dar; PPP’s Sharjeel Memon; the family of Minister for Industries and Production Khusro Bakhtiar; and PTI leader Abdul Aleem Khan among others, with alleged links to offshore companies.
Some retired army officials, businessmen — including Axact’s CEO Shoaib Sheikh — and media company owners, have also been named in the leaks.
It must be noted that establishing and declaring an offshore company, which is not involved in any illegal practices, is permissible by law.
The News' investigative reporter Umar Cheema, who was part of the probe, along with Fakhar Durrani, spoke to Geo News regarding the findings.
He said that it was overall a very time-consuming process which tested everyone's patience. In this time, they pored over every word contained in the documents, checked the background of the people listed, their dealings in Pakistan and abroad. "We tried our best for there to be no injustice [...] no case of mistaken identity."
Detailing the difficulties encountered in contacting the people named in the investigation Cheema said that written questions were first sent. Some were contacted by phone, who would hang up when told what the probe is about, some refused to give their email addresses, others were also contacted through WhatsApp.
Speaking of Prime Minister Imran Khan's Lahore residence, 2 Zaman Park, he said that International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), the non-profit newsroom and journalist network based in Washington DC which organised the investigation, sent questions to the PM's spokesperson.
"And our thought was that it must not be so that it is his address. There must be two or three addresses. But the way they wanted to preempt the news, and then run statements of clarification, I do not understand what the need for this was. Such behaviour arouses suspicion," Cheema said.
The investigative journalist, for the ease of viewers, also spoke of the matter of declaring offshore companies. He said that whether it is a public office holder, or an ordinary citizen, offshore companies do need to be declared while filing tax returns and must also be declared to the Securities and Exchange Commission of Pakistan.
"An added responsibility on politicians is that they have to declare their assets to the Election Commission of Pakistan, so they must declare it there as well."
Cheema said it is not enough for politicians to declare offshore company holdings. The Federal Board of Revenue or the SECP may ask for details if they find something amiss. "But that process can only take place when they have this information. So those who do not, are doing something very unlawful."
Cheema said that the most number of such companies can be found in the British Virgin Islands.
He added that something new that emerged in the Pandora Papers investigation was that the US is also a major offshore jurisdiction.
The journalist said that laws differ across states, but generally, if someone wishes to incorporate an offshore company in the US and transfer money to it, "it is not that difficult".
When asked whether things will unfold in a fashion similar to the Panama Papers, which in the beginning sent shockwaves across the country, but the matter later fizzling out, Cheema said: "It is unfortunate that in Pakistan accountability is very selective, and people are targeted. The aim is not to hold people accountable, but to remove opponents from one's path."
He said that at the time the investigation came to the fore, it was learnt that it includes the names of the children of the then prime minister, and it was argued that all action must begin with them.
Cheema regretted that later the buzz died down and it was "business as usual", with the Supreme Court also noting that the FBR is "asleep".
He said that they "only woke up for a brief period when the SC gave some remarks, and sent some notices to some people".
"The FBR, the SECP or even NAB have remained silent," he added.
Cheema noted that NAB began looking into the assets of family members of Khusro Bakhtiar but not much has come of it, with only low-level arrests being made.
On Faisal Vawda owning an offshore company, he said whatever details of his past came to the fore, especially the matter of dual nationality, saw little in the way of any legal action.
He said the prime minister's "focus is on the Opposition", while people in his inner circle "continue to act with impunity".
Cheema said that his colleague Fakhar Durrani sent questions to Vawda regarding the company his owns abroad, and the disparaging manner in which he responded, "cannot be repeated here".
"So he knows full well, that no action will be taken against him."
Speaking of findings pertaining to Moonis Elahi, he said that the minister established a trust abroad and a fund, and the source of funding mentioned was the proceeds from the sale of land in Pakistan.
Cheema said that the people who put a client in touch with the offshore company jurisdiction is a service provider. "They too were under the radar over whether they facilitated the opening of offshore companies without a proper background check of the party interested."
He said that in some cases, some people were found to be drug smugglers.
Speaking of Shoaib Sheikh, he said that his company "issued fake degrees" and had opened a bank account abroad. "The company continued to operate after revelations came to the fore against it in 2015. So there is no due diligence. There is no concern as to the source of funds, so long as they get business."
Cheema said that UAE businessman Tariq Fawad Malik's involvement stems from the fact that the offshore companies created by Shaukat Tarin during the time Malik sought to invest in Silk Bank, had Malik's Dubai address for either his work or residence cited instead of Tarin's office address in Karachi.
The journalist said that responding to the questions sent to him, Malik said that he and Tarin's family were acquaintances owing to their fathers having served in the military, and so he had wished to invest in his bank.
Malik described the companies as having gone "dormant" after the investment deal did not go through.
Cheema said that neither Tarin, nor his media person, responded to questions sent by email.
Speaking of Sharjeel Memon, Cheema said that the PPP leader has three offshore companies registered in the British Virgin Islands. He said the purpose for creating these was to investment in real estate abroad.
Cheema said Ishaq Dar's son, Ali Dar, has two offshore companies over which he was inquired.
Ali Dar, responding to the queries sent to him, said that he studied from London and then came to Dubai, where he has been living for 20 years. He said he is not a tax resident of Pakistan, since people who do not live in the country for more than 90 days are not required to file taxes. So it was not necessary for him to declare the companies in Pakistan.
Ali said that the companies are "now shut and no business was done using them".
ICIJ received more than 11.9 million documents containing 2.94 terabytes worth of confidential information from service providers who helped set up and manage offshore companies and trusts in tax havens around the world.
The ICIJ shared the data with 150 media organisations and has led the broadest collaboration in journalism history. It took the ICIJ almost two years to organise the investigation that involved more than 600 journalists in 117 countries, making it the biggest-ever journalism partnership.
By comparison, for the Panama Papers, almost 400 journalists from 80 countries participated in the investigation.
The News was the only ICIJ partner from Pakistan on both occasions. In addition, The News partnered with the ICIJ in the Bahamas leak and the Paradise Papers.
The Pandora Papers leak uncovers financial secrets of more leaders and public officials than the Panama Papers did and provide more than twice as much information about the ownership of offshore companies.
The Panama Papers were based on the data of a Panama-based law firm called Mossack Fonseca that revealed offshore holdings of 140 politicians, public offshore and sports stars. Those documents were obtained by the German newspaper, Süddeutsche Zeitung, which contained records dating back 40 years.
By comparison, the Pandora Papers investigation is bigger in size and revelations about politicians and public officials are also far more than what previously came to public attention.
From Pakistan, there were more than 400 individuals who surfaced in the Panama Papers.