An investigative report published by the British tabloid Daily Mail on Sunday alleged that the Shehbaz Sharif and his family embezzled millions of pounds from £500 million given in aid to his government in Punjab during his tenure as the chief minister of the province.
Denied by the Shehbaz and his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), the report concerning the massive money-laundering and the corruption was also refused by the United Kingdom’s (UK) Department for International Development (DIFD).
In a statement, it rebutted that their “robust system” had protected the British taxpayers’ money from fraud and embezzlement.
The Mail’s David Rose, in the report, alleged that DFID had poured in £500 million of UK taxpayers’ money in the form of aid to Punjab during Shehbaz Sharif’s tenure as chief minister.
“Yet, say investigators, all the time that DFID was heaping him and his government with praise and taxpayers’ cash, Shehbaz and his family were embezzling tens of millions of pounds of public money and laundering it in Britain. They are convinced that some of the allegedly stolen money came from DFID-funded aid projects,” the report said.
The British tabloid claimed to have based its report on the interview of key witnesses held on remand in jail, including a UK citizen Aftab Mehmood, consequent to a high-level probe ordered by Prime Minister Imran Khan.
The paper had access to the results of the high-level probe.
In his interview, Aftab Mehmood claimed that he had laundered millions on behalf of Shehbaz’s family from a nondescript office in Birmingham – without attracting suspicion from Britain’s financial regulators, who inspected his books regularly.
The legal documents alleged that Shahbaz’s son-in-law received about £1 million from a fund established to rebuild the lives of earthquake victims – to which DFID gave £54 million from UK taxpayers.
Moreover, the investigators have also launched inquiries into alleged thefts from DFID-funded schemes to give poor women cash to lift them out of poverty and to provide healthcare for rural families.
It is worth noting that same British daily had also disclosed last year the case against former premier Nawaz Sharif who had built a London property empire worth £32 million.
“Ironically, for years, Shehbaz was feted as a third world poster boy by DFID and last year, the head of DFID’s Pakistan office Joanna Rowley and her colleague Richard Montgomery had lauded his ‘dedication’ without knowing where their taxpayers’ money was really going,” the report added.
The report claimed that the investigators were convinced that some of the allegedly stolen money came from DFID-funded aid projects. Since 2014, DFID had given more aid to Pakistan than any other country – up to £463 million a year.
The British daily claimed that the stolen millions were laundered in Birmingham and then allegedly transferred to Sharif family’s accounts by the UK branches of banks, including Barclays and HSBC.
It said that the self-confessed Birmingham money-launderer Aftab Mehmood said that he had his accounts audited every three months by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs – who failed to notice anything was amiss.
The paper also quoted former international development secretary Priti Patel demanding an inquiry and saying, “As someone who has served as secretary of state at DFID, I find it shocking that British funds may have been abused, especially given the background of poverty in Pakistan which aid is meant to alleviate. We spend millions on anti-corruption initiatives and yet it seems clear that Britain is still a money-launderers’ paradise.”
According to Transparency International Policy Director Duncan Hames, corruption first comes to light through evidence of money- laundering. “First you identify suspicious transactions in the banking system and then you follow the money trail back to discover where they came from,” he said.
A “confidential” investigation report, seen by the newspaper, stated the family was “worth just £150,000 in 2003 but by 2018 their total assets had grown to about £200 million”. Among other properties, Shehbaz owns a 53,000 sq ft palace in Lahore.
According to the report, the family’s legitimate income sources could not account for their riches.
The money, the report stated, was channelled from abroad – via several elaborate money-laundering schemes, in which Britain played a central role. The laundered payments were made to Shehbaz’s children, his wife and his son-in-law Ali Imran.
The report added that Shahbaz “was the principal beneficiary of this money-laundering enterprise, by way of spending, acquisition of properties and their expansion into palatial houses where he lived”.
One of the most audacious schemes was said to be focused on Birmingham. The report listed 202 ‘personal remittances’ from the UK and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) into the bank accounts of Shehbaz’s wife, two sons and two daughters.
Under Pakistani law, before the recipients could accept these payments into their accounts, they had to sign ‘due diligence’ forms saying they had been sent as ‘investments’ by people they knew personally. Samples – signed by Shehbaz’s family – have been seen by the newspaper. But investigators claimed that the reality was different.
“We noticed that someone called Manzoor Ahmed had sent a series of 13 payments from Birmingham worth £1.2 million to Shahbaz’s wife Nusrat and his sons Hamza and Suleman,” said one investigator, who asked not to be named. “But who was he?”
He was traced through his identity card, whose number was on the forms. The report stated that he turned out to be ‘a small home-based tuck shop owner’ in a remote village, who scraped a living selling poppadoms. Needless to say, he had never had £1.2 million, nor travelled to England.
Another man who was said to have sent about £850,000 to Shahbaz’s family from Birmingham via HSBC was Mehboob Ali, a Lahore ‘street hawker’, who lived from taking tiny commissions from collecting old banknotes and changing them into new ones.
Sending the money to Shehbaz’s family apparently from these and other poverty-stricken ‘investors’ was Briton Aftab Mehmood, the proprietor of Usman International, a money-changing firm in the Sparkbrook area of Birmingham.
Arrested during a visit to Pakistan in April, he agreed to meet me in a hot, airless room at Lahore’s city jail.
“I would just receive a fax from Pakistan with the names of the people I was to wire money to. I knew who they were: they were famous. It was not my business to ask where the money came from. I simply transferred it, and I did it through the proper channel,” he said.
So where had this money come from? In fact, investigators said, it had been taken as kickbacks and ‘commissions’ from government-run projects and delivered by ‘cash boys’ in bulging sacks to the office of Mehmood’s Lahore contact, Shahed Rafiq.
DFID on Sunday discredited a report published by the British daily, saying, “The UK’s financial support to ERRA over this period was for payment by results – which means we only gave money once the agreed work, which was primarily focused on building schools, was completed, and the work audited and verified.”
“The UK taxpayer got exactly what it paid for and helped the vulnerable victims of a devastating earthquake. We are confident our robust systems protected UK taxpayers from fraud,” it added.
DFID further said the Mail on Sunday provided little substantial evidence. “The report says investigators in Pakistan ‘are convinced that some of the allegedly stolen money came from DFID-funded aid projects’ without providing any substantial evidence this was the case with the earthquake fund,” DFID added.