ISLAMABAD: The government on Wednesday decided to activate diplomatic channels to accelerate the ratification of a bilateral treaty for exchanging information with Switzerland, removing a major bottleneck in accessing crucial information about hidden assets abroad.

The federal cabinet, presided over by Prime Minister Imran Khan, approved sending a delegation to Switzerland soon in this regard and announced initiating a probe into the previous government’s ‘criminal act’ of deliberately delaying the ratification of the treaty.

The federal cabinet, which met for the fourth time, also discussed an eight-point agenda.

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Later, Special Assistant to the prime minister on Accountability Barrister Shahzad Akbar briefed the media, confirming that an Assets Recovery Unit had been set up for retrieving assets stashed abroad.

Officials of the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), Federal Board of Revenue (FBR), the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) and intelligence agencies were among members of the new unit.

“In the past, there was no inter-agency cooperation. This was one of the reasons why Pakistan never succeeded in bringing back the looted money,” Akbar said.

Referring to new unit, Akbar said that in simple terms, one could say that the government had formed a Joint Investigation Team that would be assisted by all departments.

The unit, he said, would submit a progress report on a fortnightly basis.

“Initially, the government will target 100 top corrupt individuals who have piled up foreign assets by looting public money. These cases will be pursued with a focused approach for identifying where they have stashed the looted money and assets and how to bring it back,” he said.

Answering a question about the government’s estimates about the value of such foreign assets, he said that it would be premature to comment at this stage.

“So far, Pakistan has requested retrieval of $2 billion from foreign jurisdictions by way of mutual legal assistance. These requests are still pending. We also need to obtain restraining orders in connection with the Sharif’s Avenfield properties,” he said.

Whistle-blower law

The cabinet also approved the enforcement of a whistle-blower law via an ordinance, offering informants identifying and recovering such foreign assets a reward of 20 per cent of the recovered money.

The advisor on accountability said that names of informants would be kept confidential.

The cabinet also approved the issuance of another ordinance on mutual legal assistance which will help remove bottlenecks in the way of seeking information from foreign countries on illegal wealth.

Shahzad Akbar said that the government would also hire international firms to help detect and recover illegal money.

“Now every Pakistani can become rich by identifying corrupt elements and their assets abroad,” Information minister Fawad Chaudhry said on a lighter note.

Govt to defend minorities

“The state of Pakistan is bound to protect minorities … at all cost,” the information minister stated while responding on a question on the controversy over the inclusion of a renowned economist in the Economic Advisory Council.

He said that people without mandate had no right to dictate the government about policy matters.

Protecting minorities was also an integral part of Islamic teachings, he said.

“We secured independence for protecting our rights. How can we deny rights to minorities in an Islamic state?” he asked.

Protecting minorities was not solely the responsibility of the government, but of all Pakistani citizens.

“We are making a mockery of ourselves in the world by propagating hatred against our minorities. We have to decide whether we want to remain backward or chose to move forward,” he said.

“The state of Pakistan will decide how to run the country’s affairs. To our understanding, the country’s constitution binds us to protect minorities. This will be done at all costs,” he said.

Health/Education

The information minister said that the government was planning to institute a uniform basic education across the country, removing the disparity in education standards.

“A uniform school education and certification system will be enforced throughout the country. It has been decided to consult with provinces regarding the increase in school fees by private schools, which is uneven,” Chaudhry said.

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He said another task force on education had been set up which would be led by Minister for Education Shafqat Mehmood.

Prominent educationalists and representatives of Madaris would be among its members, he said. The task force’s first priority would be to bring 25 million out of school children into the education network.

Fawad Chaudhry said by imposing a ban on all discretionary funds at the disposal of the Prime Minister, the government had saved at least Rs80 billion.

He said that all schemes, initiated by the previous governments that used discretionary funds, including the PM’s laptop scheme, had been discontinued.

The PM’s Inspection Team had been ordered to investigate media reports about the premature inauguration of Tarbela Dam extension project that allegedly resulted in a loss of Rs25 billion.

He said in the light of a report compiled by the Human Rights Ministry, orphanages would be built for street children and destitute women. The first orphanage, he said, would be built in Islamabad at a cost of Rs64 million.

Elaborating upon other steps approved by the cabinet, he said that abuse of children, child trafficking and child labour would be curbed. He said that the cabinet had approved a complete ban on corporeal punishment in educational institutions across Pakistan.

He said that the government had also approved recommendations for protecting the rights of domestic workers.

All government and private buildings would now have to make their respective premises friendlier for persons with disabilities.