‘Fake degrees mill’ FIA raids Axact offices

35 employees detained, computers, phones seized while the CEO has been asked to appear before FIA

Fawad Ali/sameer Mandhro May 20, 2015
People gather around FIA vehicles during a raid on the Axact Karachi office. PHOTO: AFP

A day after the publication of an explosive exposé by The New York Times (NYT) on a ‘global fake degree empire’ run by Pakistani software company Axact, the scandal deepened as the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) raided the firm’s offices, confiscating computers and holding employees for questioning.

Axact was accused by the NYT of running a network of hundreds of websites for phony universities complete with paid actors for promotional videos, as part of an elaborate scheme that generated tens of millions of dollars annually.

Investigators from FIA’s cybercrime wing swooped on the Axact headquarters in Karachi and offices in the twin-cities after Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar ordered the FIA to investigate into the NYT report.

According to a statement issued by the interior ministry, the FIA was directed to ascertain if the company was involved in illegal businesses that could tarnish the country’s image globally.

FIA investigators raided the Axact headquarters in Karachi’s upscale Defence neighbourhood on Tuesday. During the raid that lasted four-plus hours, the investigators grilled some top officials of the company and confiscated records, including hard disks.

A source said Axact CEO Shoaib Sheikh did not present himself before the FIA investigators and subsequently Sheikh was issued a notice to appear before the agency within the next three days.

FIA Sindh Director Shahid Hayat has been tasked to lead the investigation on the interior minister’s orders. The investigation team includes Corporate Crime Circle Additional Director Kamran Attaullah and Cybercrime Circle Deputy Director Muhammad Ahmed Zaheem among other senior officials.

One of the FIA teams confiscated material evidence, while the other recorded statements of senior officials of the company.

An inquiry complaint number 14/15 has been lodged against Axact at the Crime Circle and Assistant Director Saeed Memon has been appointed as the inquiry officer, said a source.

“We are in the initial stages right now,” Attaullah told journalists outside Axact’s head office. “Our investigations are still under way.”

Confirming the confiscation of the company’s records, the FIA official said his team had not detained anyone. The employees were seen panicking when they found out that several officers had been detained from its regional office in Islamabad. “Everyone is scared,” an employee told The Express Tribune. “Most of the top officials fear of being detained.”

National and international journalists had rushed to the Axact headquarters when the news of the FIA raid spread, but security arrangements prevented everyone from approaching the building. Around a dozen DSNGs of Axact’s Bol TV blocked the main route to the office gate.

Meanwhile, a seven-member FIA team, led by Deputy Director Tahir Tanvir, raided Axact’s offices in Rawalpindi and Islamabad. The team detained 71 employees, including Axact Regional Director for Rawalpindi and Islamabad Colonel (retd) Jamil.

However, 36 of them – mostly low-cadre employees like drivers and security guards – were later released. Thirty-five employees have been shifted to the FIA office in Iqbal Town for questioning.

Both the offices of Axact have been sealed and, according to sources, they would remain sealed until the investigation is completed.

The investigators have seized files, the main server, computers and other electronic equipment from the Rawalpindi office. Mobile phones of the employees have also been confiscated.

“The equipment, documents and mobile phones would be checked thoroughly to ascertain whether they have been used for illegal activities,” said a senior official of the Cybercrime wing at the Iqbal Town office.

He said the computers have been shifted to the IT section, which would try to find out if the websites offering education had been accessed from any of the computers seized from the Axact offices.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 20th, 2015.


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