ISLAMABAD: Amid legal and administrative hindrances, Prime Minister Imran Khan has given an ambitious deadline of two weeks to a task force set up to recover unlawfully acquired foreign assets by suggesting a way forward for expeditious retrieval of the ill-gotten wealth.
The task force on Monday held its first meeting where different government departments apprised the body about the current status of pending investigations of suspected money laundering and financial fraud cases, said the officials who attended the meeting.
Special Assistant to PM on Accountability Mirza Shahzad Akbar chaired the meeting, which was attended by officials from the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), the Finance Ministry, the State Bank of Pakistan, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Auditor General of Pakistan, the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), the Securities and Exchange Commission of Pakistan (SECP), the Ministry of Law and Justice and the Federal Board of Revenue (FBR).
It was an introductory meeting where no major decision was made. The chairman directed all the departments to initiate the work for bringing back the untaxed and illegal assets. No date has been given for the next meeting.
The prime minister has declared retrieval of the hidden offshore assets as his topmost priority and promised to bring back the wealth stashed in overseas banks. The terms of reference (ToR) of the task force also suggest the urgency, as the PM has asked it to give recommendations within two weeks “for steps to be taken by the task force for expedient return of unlawfully acquired assets from abroad”.
The task force has also been assigned to review all cases of unlawfully acquired assets pending before the government departments and organisations. Its other terms are to review the existing mechanism, international agreements, coordination of government of Pakistan with sovereign governments and to work out modalities to fast track recovery of undeclared offshore assets.
The chairman of the task force asked the Ministry of Finance to share the earlier reports prepared by the committees setup by the Supreme Court of Pakistan to recover the hidden offshore assets.
The SECP has been directed to give the task force access to its beneficial ownership register, which carries details of the individuals and companies having stakes in foreign companies.
The officials said some of the committee members were of the view that the only legal way to get back the offshore assets was to use the Mutual Legal Assistance (MLA) framework.
However, Pakistan has not signed legally binding MLA treaties with key jurisdictions like the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, the United Arab Emirate and Malaysia, according to findings of the SC-constituted committee. This report has been recently submitted to the apex court.
There was also lack of enabling domestic MLA law, which will become an obstacle in retrieval of assets, suggested the report. There is lack of robust interagency coordination, it added.
The sources said another challenge that Pakistan will face is that it will have to establish that these were bona fide cases of recovery of assets and these were not politically motivated cases. They said Pakistan will also have to first lodge criminal cases against such individuals in local courts.
Pakistan has already offered last opportunity to its citizens and offered them offshore and domestic tax amnesty schemes. About 5,300 Pakistanis availed the offshore scheme and declared over $8 billion assets. But the repatriation to Pakistan remained less than $70 million.
NAB apprised the task force that it sent over 450 MLA requests and received information in over 160 cases. It has also initiated close to one-dozen inquiries in Panama Papers case and filed three cases in the accountability court. The FIA said it initiated close to 725 inquires where information was available.
The FBR informed the task force that it traced close to 400 Pakistanis in Panama Papers and Paradise Papers leaks but no further progress was made due to legal and administrative bottlenecks.