Wednesday Dec 21 2022

Shehbaz Sharif was cleared by UK's NCA before Daily Mail’s apology

NCA headquarters. — AFP/File
NCA headquarters. — AFP/File

LONDON: Daily Mail’s case against Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif was dealt a heavy blow when Britain’s anti-corruption and anti-crimes organisation gave a clean chit to the PML-N leader and his son Suleman Sharif at the end of September 2021. 

The high-profile money-laundering and public office misuse investigation could have ended the political career of Sharif if the charges were proven correct.

Investigators and lawyers who have studied both cases agree that Shehbaz gained a clear upper hand against Daily Mail and David Rose’s allegations when National Crime Agency (NCA) cleared the PML-N leader. The agency is equivalent to America's Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). 

The NCA investigated Shehbaz for over two years in association with Imran Khan’s government and failed to find any evidence of corruption or wrongdoing either in Britain, Dubai, or offshore jurisdictions.

It emerged after the investigation had ended that the UK agency investigated PM Shehbaz, his son Sulemen and their friend Zulfikar Ahmed in Britain, Switzerland, Italy, St Vincent, US and Dubai. They had probed in all these countries to check whether Sharif and his family had any direct or indirect investments or hidden wealth in these jurisdictions.

Interestingly, when the NCA started its investigation against PM Shehbaz on December 19, 2019, it presented the Daily Mail article as evidence for the seizure of assets. 

The story “Did the family of Pakistani politician who has become the poster boy for British overseas aid STEAL funds meant for earthquake victims” was published around five months before the launch of the probe.

Not just that, the announcement that Pakistan and the UK authorities were working closely on “extradition” and “money laundering” cases was made by Daily Mail’s former reporter David Rose and Shahzad Akbar, former head of Assets Recovery Unit, in the July 14, 2019 article. 

The Daily Mail had accused PM Shehbaz and his family of stealing the UK’s aid money and running a network of money-laundering through the UK, Dubai and Pakistan. 

The article has now been deleted and Daily Mail has apologised for all allegations that were put forward.

The NCA’s investigation was dangerous for PM Shehbaz as any negative finding in the UK could have dealt a death blow to his politics in Pakistan. 

The NCA probe and its public ownership by Pakistan's ARU and Daily Mail showed how closely the entire Pakistani state apparatus worked with the UK agency.

In the first week of December 2019, NAB Lahore Director General Shehzad Saleem met NCA’s operations manager investigations of the International Corruption Unit in London.

In the meeting, the UK official was briefed about PM Shehbaz's cases in Pakistan. On December 11, Pakistan's ARU sent details of all cases related to PM Shehbaz and Suleman to the NCA and on December 19 the formal investigation was launched.

The NCA had told a judge at the Westminster Magistrates’ Court that Sharif and his family were being probed in Pakistan related to Ashiana Housing Scheme, Ramzan Sugar Mills. The NCA’s application also carried the Daily Mail article as proof that there were strong suspicions that Shehbaz and his son-in-law Imran Ali Yousaf had used the UK for laundering.

District Judge Tan Ikram passed an Account Freezing Order (AFO) for 12 months in favour of the NCA after he was convinced that there were reasonable grounds for suspicions money held in four bank accounts was recoverable property and was intended by any person for use in unlawful conduct. 

The entire NCA case was based on thousands of pages obtained from the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) the and National Accountability Bureau (NAB) from its investigations into the Sharif family's investigations.

The NCA investigation focused on two flats PM Shehbaz Sharif bought when he was in exile in London after 2006; £315,000 that PM Shehbaz gave to Suleman in 2019 in a UK bank account; two loans received by PM Shehbaz from PTI leader Aneel Musarrat between 2005 to 2012 to buy two London flats; Zulfikar Ahmed’s payment of £300,000 to PM Shehbaz Sharif’s lawyers at Carter Ruck in Daily Mail case and a loan payment from Zulfikar Ahmed to Suleman Sharif for over £200,000 from April to November 2019. 

The NCA suspected that Musarrat and Zulfikar had made these payments to PM Shehbaz and Suleman as their frontmen and that they were part of the money-laundering network as alleged by the then PTI government.

The NCA investigation and its outcome were revealed by Geo News in September 2021, based on court documents. The NCA had told the court that it was unfreezing the assets of Sharifs as they were unable to find any evidence of corruption.

When Geo News broke the news, PM Imran Khan's adviser on accountability Shahzad Akbar immediately denounced the news as “fake” and “exaggerated”. 

When more facts were published by The News, Akbar announced he would take the reporter to a UK court to counter.

Following this, the ARU applied for the full file of PM Shehbaz Sharif's case at the Westminster Magistrates’ Court. 

The ARU lawyer Barrister Zia Nasim told the UK judge that the Pakistan government needed the full file “in light of serious misreporting/broadcast of important facts by the journalist” as ARU wanted to take legal action against the correspondent in the UK.

This correspondent informed the district judge that The News report was based on facts and around 500 pages but had no objection if over 1,600 pages of the bundle were released.

District Judge Godfrey decided that it was reasonable to release the full NCA file to ARU as The News had already released several parts of the investigation.

Akbar had claimed in the media – and hoped so too when applying for the full file – that the NCA case was not about Shehbaz Sharif but his son and that The News had exaggerated the contents of the report. 

The former prime minister's adviser had also promised to release the full report when obtained from the UK court. However, once the report was received in early 2022 the ARU went completely quiet because the full bundle established beyond any doubt that the entire investigation was focused on Shehbaz Sharif. 

The full bundle revealed much more than what was reported. The case file established that PM Shehbaz, Suleman and Zulfikar were able to fully satisfy NCA investigators about the various transactions and the sale and purchase of assets.

The full bundle showed that the UK government’s total case was based on allegations made by the authorities in Pakistan.

In the Daily Mail article, Akbar thanked the NCA for working with Pakistan. When the NCA shut down its investigation, the ARU protested the closure of the investigation. 

While the investigation was alive, at one stage a powerful retired general threatened to end anti-terrorism cooperation with the UK if action was not taken against the Sharifs'. 

The same general was instrumental in making several requests to the UK authorities to act against Sharifs'. All of them cited Daily Mail’s article as a proof.

In the end, the NCA gave a clean chit to PM Shehbaz by the end of 2021 and a year later Daily Mail apologised to the PML-N leader and deleted the defamatory and false article that had formed the bases of NCA's investigation.