PTI govt fails to step up drive against Benami assets

Investigations severely hampered due to lack of human and financial resources

Shahbaz Rana September 24, 2019
FBR Chairman Shabbar Zaidi. PHOTO: FILE

ISLAMABAD: The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government’s drive against Benami asset holders has been severely hampered due to a lack of human and financial resources as authorities can submit just one reference within the two-month statutory deadline in two politically high-profile cases.

The Ministry of Finance is reluctant to issue Rs250 million worth of supplementary budget to strengthen the Benami zones which are incapacitated due to the absence of funds and logistics support. The Federal Board of Revenue (FBR) took months to provide skeleton and support staff to these Benami zones. The support staff was provided last Thursday.

The FBR had provisionally attached 14 Benami properties worth billions of rupees that it suspected were owned by people close to the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) but were held in names of others, according to provisional attachment orders.

These properties had been seized on July 2 by the FBR’s Benami Zones of Karachi and Islamabad. Section 22(5) of the Benami Transactions Prohibition Act of 2017 states the “Initiating Officer shall, within 60 days from the date of attachment, draw up a statement of the case and refer it to the adjudicating authority.” The law required these zones to submit their references to the adjudicating authority by September 1. However, so far only one reference has been filed with the adjudicating authority and that too by the Lahore Benami Zone.

The Islamabad Zone has targeted six properties, allegedly owned by a PML-N lawmaker. The Karachi Zone has provisionally attached eight properties that it suspects belong to the Omni Group, show official documents of the FBR.

Section 22(3) of the Benami law states the initiating officer can provisionally attach the property for three months from the date the show cause notice is issued and only one week is left in the expiry of this deadline. Sources in the FBR told The Express Tribune that the government half-heartedly started the drive against the Benami asset holders. The human and financial resources offered to three Benami zones did not match the political fanfare, they added.

The FBR had set up three Benami zones. The Lahore zone is responsible for the entire Punjab except the Civil Rawalpindi Division. The Karachi zone is responsible for Sindh and Balochistan and the Islamabad zone has been given the responsibilities of Islamabad, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) and Civil Division of Rawalpindi.

These zones are bound to file references in the adjudicating authority within two months. After giving an opportunity to a Benamidar and beneficiary of a Benami property to present his point of view, the adjudicating authority can order confiscation of the property if it is unsatisfied with replies of the accused.

If the crime of holding a Benami property is proved, the government will have the right to confiscate the property. Courts can give up to seven-year rigorous imprisonment to such people and can impose a fine equal to 25% of the fair market value of the property.

State of affairs

In the Islamabad zone, there is only one grade-18 initiating officer - the person that starts investigation, and one grade-20 approving officer, who is responsible for approving investigation and provisionally confiscating properties.

Inspectors were provided to the zone about five weeks ago while the support staff was given just last Thursday. Officers do not have designated places to sit, there is no permanent office and they do not have vehicles for operational purposes.

With these little resources, the Islamabad zone is probing the Benami properties of a PML-N’s sitting senator and is also responsible for the whole of K-P.

The Karachi zone has been assigned two grade-18 officers and one of them has gone on mandatory promotion training course. The approving authority officer had also gone on leave for one month and the person who has been assigned the additional charge does not take any interest. The Karachi zone also lacks funds and logistical support.

However, the Lahore zone is relatively in a better position and has managed to submit one reference with the adjudicating authority. The government has assigned two grade-18 officers to the Lahore zone and they have better logistical facilities.

Apart from issues of human and financial resources, there was also the issue of gestation period as it was for the first time in Pakistan that the authorities were investigating the Benami cases, said FBR Chairman Shabbar Zaidi while talking to The Express Tribune.

The chairman said the officers would gradually develop expertise and after that the drive would get a big momentum in completing these investigations.

Sources said the FBR had sent a summary to the finance ministry thrice, seeking approval of budgets for the three zones and the adjudicating authority. The Ministry of Finance twice returned the file, recommending that the FBR should provide budget from its own resources.

The FBR is awaiting response to the third summary. It has sought funds of Rs250 million.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 24th, 2019.

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