ISLAMABAD: The state institutions that were supposed to initiate an investigation into Panamagate on Tuesday refused to shoulder the responsibility as the government challenged the authority of a parliamentary anti-graft watchdog to inquire into the massive scandal.
The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) was scheduled to take up the Panama Papers issue on September 8, but the discussion was deferred till September 20 as the heads of key state institutions, including SBP, SECP and FIA, and the foreign secretary were not available.
According to a circular issued by the PAC, Tuesday’s meeting was called under Sub-Rule 4 of Rule 225 of Procedure and Conduct of Business in the National Assembly, 2007, which empowers the chairman to convene a PAC meeting.
However, the opening statement of Law Secretary Karamat Hussain Niazi created commotion. He said that as per Rule 203, the matter to probe Panama leaks did not fall under the purview of PAC. “If the PAC cannot look into such matters, then which body can do that,” Shah asked the secretary.
“The National Assembly committee on finance is the right forum,” Niazi said, inviting the ire of Awami Muslim League leader Sheikh Rashid Ahmad. “The government has pre-planned this statement,” he said. “The ruling party lawmakers have come to the meeting with a plan to block any debate on the issue.”
Subsequently, Rashid walked out of the meeting while asking participants to return the travel allowance that they had received for the meeting. “Nothing will come out of this meeting,” he said before walking out of the meeting room.
The interesting part of the meeting was individual replies from the heads of FBR, SECP, SBP, NAB and FIA who, according to PTI’s Arif Alvi, expressed “their helplessness to investigate the matter as has been done in other parts of world, especially India”.
FBR Chairperson Nisar Mohammad told the participants that some 221 named in the Panama Papers had been sent notices since September 1. “We are following the issue. It will take us time to get replies from all the accused and then countercheck/verify their accounts, though a 15-day deadline has already ended,” he said, adding that the UAE had not replied to about 15 reminders seeking details of Pakistanis having property in that region.
“There are flaws in laws to probe cases like Panama leaks which need to be rectified,” he said.
Alvi asked him: “Why could the government not hold a probe as was done by the Indian government?”
The FBR chief responded that they could not conduct such a high-profile probe. “We can assist any other government body in probe, but we cannot do it alone because it requires coordinated efforts,” he said.
SECP chief Zafar Hijazi told the PAC that so far about 70,000 companies had been scrutinised in the country and about 600 people probed by a special team.
“Of them, the names of 444 individuals were related to the companies revealed in the Panama Papers, about 150 people were officers at different companies while about 155 were found to be directors.”
He also said that about 36 persons were in public limited companies and after carrying out scrutiny of those companies, none was found to have invested money in offshore companies and all were found to be transparent.
PPP’s Dr Azra Fazal asked the SECP chief that after giving a clean-chit to some 36 companies, had the SECP looked into their accounts thoroughly? The SECP chief said they could look into the accounts of public limited companies, but not private ones because only the former were registered with the SECP.
During the meeting, PML-N lawmakers Rohail Asghar and Mian Abdul Manan attempted to interrupt counter-questioning by PPP and PTI members and kept asking about the probe into the accounts of Imran Khan without naming him, besides asking who would probe model Ayyan Ali’s transfer of money abroad.
SBP Governor Ashraf Mahmood Wathra said there were no rules about imitation of criminal or investigating scandals like the Panama Papers. He said about 250 offshore companies have invested in Pakistan with an amount of $2.37 billion, and between 2013 and 2015 about $60 million was invested in the country by 25 companies in manufacturing, oil and gas, etc., sectors.
Wathra stated that they could not investigate money being transferred through hawala/hundi or other illegal means as it did not fall under the SBP’s purview.
“The helplessness of the heads of state bodies shows how our laws are being implemented to probe such scandals,” Alvi remarked. The FIA director-general also said that they did not receive anything to investigate the Panama leaks, adding that it was beyond their jurisdiction to probe any public-office holder and lawmakers. NAB chief Qamar Zaman was of the view that since evidence was based on leaked reports “so we have to wait because the Panama leaks issue is of civil nature and after getting substantive proofs we can initiate criminal proceedings against an accused”.
After three hours of unending debate, the PAC chairperson asked the FBR how much time it would take to probe all those whose names were appeared in the Panama leaks but he failed to give a cut-off date. However, Shah gave a one-month deadline to submit complete details with the PAC in this regard.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 21st, 2016.