Fallen marriage, Interpol, and red notices: How businessman Umar Farooq Zahoor became entangled with FIA over ex-wife’s complaint?

In her application of over two pages as “lawful citizen of Pakistan”, actress did not reveal anywhere that she was Zahoor’s ex-wife

Murtaza Ali Shah
(L to R) Former special assistant to the prime minister on accountability Shahzad Akbar,  Dubai-based Pakistani-Norwegian businessman Umar Farooq Zahoor, and actor and model Khushbakht Mirza. — Photos provided by the author
(L to R) Former special assistant to the prime minister on accountability Shahzad Akbar,  Dubai-based Pakistani-Norwegian businessman Umar Farooq Zahoor, and actor and model Khushbakht Mirza. — Photos provided by the author

LONDON/DUBAI: In early June 2020, the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) Lahore’s Corporate Circle received a complaint from a concerned citizen, Khushbakht Mirza, about alleged fraud and money-laundering of around Rs16 billion by Dubai-based Pakistani-Norwegian businessman Umar Farooq Zahoor.

The complaint, filed by actor and model Khushbakht Mirza (known as Sophia Mirza in the showbiz and media industry), carried a long charge sheet of allegations, urging the FIA to take action against Zahoor “for the sake of Pakistan’s name and to prevent financial crimes against Pakistan”.

The complaint made its way to the PTI government’s federal cabinet agenda via the interior ministry, being run then by Assets Recovery Unit (ARU) Chairman Mirza Shehzad Akbar, and the federal government gave a go-ahead to the FIA to probe the alleged fraud of over Rs16 billion by Zahoor and his relative Saleem Ahmad.

The cabinet was told by the interior ministry that two separate cases have been registered against Zahoor by FIA’s Corporate Crime Circle after completing inquiries. 

During the inquiries, it came to light that Zahoor and Ahmad had allegedly committed bank fraud of $89.2m in Oslo, Norway, in 2010 and another fraud involving an amount of $12m in Bern, Switzerland, in 2004.

This correspondent has obtained a copy of the original complaint by actress Sophia made to the FIA in June 2020 which triggered action against Zahoor. In her application of over two pages as a “lawful citizen of Pakistan”, the actress did not reveal anywhere that she was Zahoor’s former wife.

She alleged that Zahoor and his family were involved in money-laundering; crimes and fraud in different countries including Norway; defrauding a bank to the tune of $20 million; that Zahoor was convicted and wanted in Norway; committed fraud of $120 million in Switzerland; was involved in smuggling of minors; committed fraud of 9.37 million Turkish Lira; executed shady deal of $510 million in Ghana; owns millions of dollars in cash in the shape of black money; and owns many houses and properties in Dubai and Pakistan worth hundreds of millions of dollars, including in Dubai’s upper-class districts, Sialkot, Gwadar, and Islamabad.

Mirza further alleged the businessman was involved in gold smuggling, owned expensive watches, kept millions of rupees and gold at home and in bank lockers in Dubai, owned Rolls Royce, Mercedes and BMW cars, and illegally acquired billions of rupees in fraud from various countries, defamed Pakistan, and was defrauding businesses in Pakistan. She asked the FIA to “please initiate inquiry against this hardened criminal for the sake of the country’s name and fraud worth billions of rupees”.

The cabinet did not ask any questions before approving the summary but what the interior ministry hid from the cabinet was that Khushbakht was actually the former wife of Zahoor with whom she had a long-running dispute over the custody of their two daughters. 

Twin sisters Zainab and Zunerah have been living with their father in Dubai since 2008 after the couple’s marriage ended in a bitter divorce.

The cabinet was also not informed that the Supreme Court of Pakistan and a Shariah Court of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) had already settled the matter of custody of the couple’s daughters. It was told that the FIA knew well about the whereabouts of Zahoor. 

Before two corruption cases were registered against Zahoor, Mirza had also managed to get a case registered against him for allegedly kidnapping his own daughters.

According to the country’s laws, a case cannot be filed against a parent kidnapping their own children. The FIA, however, proceeded to register a case against Zahoor under the instructions of Akbar, who was at the time Special Assistant to Prime Minister Imran Khan.

Immediately after the federal cabinet approved the summary, FIA Lahore Chief Dr Rizwan started action against Zahoor: his name was placed on the Exit Control List (ECL) and non-bailable warrants in one of the first information reports (FIRs) were obtained from court without fulfilling the legal requirements, and on the basis of said non-bailable warrants, his passport and CNIC were blacklisted and red notices were issued through the Interpol by National Crime Bureau (NCB) Pakistan for arresting Zahoor.

Zahoor, who is Liberia’s Ambassador at Large, initiated a legal case against the FIA and the matter reached the court where key facts came to light. It was established that the FIA's action was "vindictive" and the agency was "used for personal purposes".

Additional Sessions Judge Lahore Rafaqat Ali Gondal vide his order dated March 29, 2021, set aside the non-bailable warrants issued earlier as they were obtained without following the mandatory legal procedure provided under the Criminal Code. 

The Court observed that Sections 87 and 88 of CrPC 1898 provide a procedure which has to be followed, including proper notices issued to the person before issuing perpetual warrants against him or declaring him a proclaimed offender, but in this case “no such notice has ever been issued to the applicant”.

Zahoor also approached the Lahore High Court for the removal of red warrants issued against him. Justice Shujaat Ali Khan, after hearing the case at length, directed the FIA on June 9 2021, to "immediately withdraw the red warrants issued against Zahoor".

The court observed that any criminal proceedings against Zahoor enjoy immunity under Article 29 and Article 31 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations which provides immunity to the ambassadors and diplomats against all kinds of criminal prosecution, arrest, and detention.

The FIA challenged the said order before the SC where it was upheld and the FIA has so far failed to withdraw the illegal red warrants. It is worth noting that Zahoor has also filed a contempt petition against the secretary of the interior and others for not implementing the Order of the Honorable Lahore High Court.

A recent court order has again exposed how the FIA officials acted outside of the law to go after Zahoor while Akbar and FIA’s Lahore Chief Dr Rizwan monitored the case and dedicated their efforts to hunt down Zahoor at any cost. 

Despite the clear orders of the LHC that Zahoor enjoys diplomatic immunity, the FIA again issued a diffusion notice against him and Saleem Ahmad on the pretext of active non-bailable warrants against them in cases of corruption.

To save himself from the illegal FIA action, Zahoor approached Judicial Magistrate Lahore in the court of Ghulam Murtaza Virk who heard the case. The court’s order reveals that FIA effectively lied to Interpol that it had permission from the same court for action against the businessman and issued a diffusion notice in pursuance of the said permission. 

Judge Virk noted that “from the bare perusal of reports it reveals that in both the cases FIR 36 of 2020 and 40 of 2020 neither any non-bailable warrants of arrest have been issued from this court nor any report has been submitted by FIA. 

Therefore, the stance taken by the FIA authorities in the diffusion letter written to the Interpol that challan in both the cases has been submitted before this court is against the record”.

Zahoor's name was mentioned in breaking news headlines when the PTI government had a fallout with Bashir Memon, the former DG FIA, who publicly alleged that he was asked by former PM Khan to "cook up cases against Maryam Nawaz, Khawaja Asif, and others and that he was sidelined for refusing to abide by any illegality."

When the tussle between Memon and the PTI leadership grew, Zahoor became a casualty as he was painted as a fugitive from the law.

In March 2022, it was reported in the charge sheet against Memon that he had facilitated illegal Pakistan visits of Zahoor, against whom there was a pending red arrest warrant and a request to Interpol for his arrest.

Media at the time linked Zahoor with Memon and raised the issue of alleged corruption but none had any idea that at the heart of the whole controversy was a broken marriage and custody battle of two daughters, both 15. 

During the hearing of the same case of Memon before the SC, the FIA presented a report before Justice  Baqir that there was a non-bailable arrest warrant for Zahoor – in reality, there was no such warrant in place at all.

Documents show that the FIA Lahore started both corruption cases against Zahoor in the month of October 2020. It was not just a coincidence that the Pakistan FIA started cases against Zahoor when authorities in Norway had already closed the case and Switzerland authorities were about to drop the case, delete the arrest warrant and end the investigation. 

It’s understood that the FIA was well aware of the status of both cases when it opened cases in urgency in Pakistan.

Court records show that authorities in Switzerland had started a case against Zahoor and New Zealand national Shaun Morgan for running an illegal bank called “Bank International” from December 2003 to February 2004 for allegedly misleading clients into investment transactions.

Swiss authorities confirmed to this reporter that on December 7, 2020, the case against Zahoor was dropped without any further action due to lack of evidence and the time-bar issue.

The Public Prosecutor of Kenton Zurich Mr Jean-Richard-dit-Bresssel confirmed it was decided “the criminal case against Zahoor for fraud is discontinued” on October 5, 2020. Official papers of the Switzerland government confirm that arrest warrants issued by Interpol against Zahoor were deleted in March 2021 after the closure of the investigation.

About the same case in Switzerland, a Turkish citizen Erhan Kanionglulari had made a complaint in 2005 to Pakistan authorities and at the request of the Turkish embassy, a probe was started against Zahoor. The Turkish national had alleged he was the victim of alleged fraud in Switzerland to the tune of 9.73 million euros.

The National Accountability Bureau (NAB) started an inquiry into Zahoor and the Turkish national visited Pakistan to assist the inquiry.

In a report submitted by NAB to the Karachi Accountability Court, the court was told that the Turkish national failed to provide any documentary or oral evidence to support his allegations regarding the investment made by him to Zahoor.

He left Pakistan with a promise that he will return with original documents but never returned. The NAB inquiry recommended that the case against Zahoor should end in a report in October 2005 but the Executive Board of the NAB recommended tracing illegal assets and sought assistance from the Turkish embassy. 

For seven years, the Turkish embassy didn’t cooperate with NAB and DG NAB Sindh finally wrote to the Accountability Court Karachi in August 2013 to end the case and on February 25, 2014, the case against Zahoor was closed.

A case was registered against Zahoor in Norway in 2010 on the allegation that some bank officials of Nordea bank of Norway colluded with some private persons to fraudulently deprive Randi Nilsen of 89.2 million Norwegian kroner and transferred the same to UAE banks.

Official papers of the Oslo police confirm that the case against Zahoor was dismissed on May 12 2020. “The case is dismissed since it is assumed there are no reasonable grounds for investigating whether a crime has been committed, cf. the Criminal Procedure Act 224 1st Paragraph,” said the Oslo Police District.

Zahoor’s lawyer said: “It is apparent from the orders of the Court that the FIA has a personal axe to grind against Zahoor and a malicious campaign against him was run by the Interior Ministry on Akbar’s instructions in connivance with Sophia Mirza. The FIA was used to attack Zahoor in cases which were already closed and in which Zahoor had been vindicated.”

Shahzad Akbar was sent questions about his role in taking the complaint to the cabinet but he didn’t reply for four days. 

On the other hand, when Sophia Mirza was asked why she didn’t declare in her complaint that she was making a complaint of allegations against her former husband, including in cases where the inquiries had been closed, she didn’t respond either. However, she said: “I can provide all documents and orders regarding the case … in a couple of days.”

A source at the FIA, who was involved in the investigation, refused to speak on the record but said the investigations were carried out on the instructions of Akbar and Dr Rizwan, who passed away last month.