PMLN celebrates ‘exoneration’, as government maintains ruling is not an acquittal of corruption charges against opposition leader
A British court has ordered the unfreezing of bank accounts belonging to Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) President Shahbaz Sharif and his son Suleman Shahbaz following the U.K.’s National Crime Agency (NCA) declaring that it has found no evidence of “suspicious bank transactions.”
In December 2019, the NCA had initiated a probe into the assets of Shahbaz and Suleman at the request of Pakistan’s Asset Recovery Unit, which is led by Adviser to the P.M. on Accountability Shahzad Akbar. As part of this inquiry, their bank accounts had been frozen on court orders.
In its letter, Pakistan’s ARU had said that Shahbaz was being investigated in Pakistan over alleged misuse of authority during his tenure as chief minister of Punjab. Referring to Suleman, it had alleged he had been the “principal accused and beneficiary of the fake international remittances and money laundering through front and paper companies.” Both men were alleged to have utilized informal money transfer through hawala to shift and conceal their money abroad.
The NCA investigation, which spanned 17 months and examined financial transactions of the past 20 years, reportedly found no evidence of money laundering or criminal activities against the opposition leader or his family, as had been alleged by the Government of Pakistan. In its investigation report, which the NCA submitted to a Westminster court, it said that there was no evidence of money laundering practices in Pakistan, Dubai, or the U.K.
Acquittal or no acquittal
While the PMLN hailed the decision, describing it as validation of its stance of political victimization at the hands of the incumbent PTI-led regime, adviser Akbar maintained that the ruling only unfroze Shahbaz and Suleman’s bank accounts, and was not tantamount to a full acquittal.
“Certain funds transferred by Suleman Shahbaz from Pakistan to the U.K. in 2019 were declared suspicious transactions by the U.K. authorities and NCA secured an asset freezing order (AFO) from court against these funds. However, recently NCA decided to stop investigating these funds and therefore agreed for release of these funds through court,” he said on Twitter. “The news about the alleged acquittal of Shahbaz Sharif or his son Suleman run by one news channel is incorrect and misreporting. It was a result of a suspicious transaction reported by a bank to NCA. The investigation by the NCA against Suleman Shahbaz and some of his family members was not initiated at the request of Asset Recovery Unit or National Accountability Bureau,” he said, adding that “Suleman Shahbaz remains a fugitive in a money laundering case against him and his father before AC LHR.”
In response, PMLN leader Ataullah Tarar posted a letter addressed to the NCA by the ARU, dated Dec. 11, 2019 and accused Akbar of “levelling false allegations for 3 years.” In it, the ARU alleges that both Shahbaz and his son were involved in multiple cases in Pakistan related to money laundering and corruption.
In a statement, PMLN spokesperson Marriyum Aurangzeb maintained that the U.K. court’s decision had “unequivocally exonerated” Shahbaz and his family. “The NCA conducted a 21-month global investigation spanning across a 20 year timeframe whilst overcoming unprecedented jurisdictional challenges. Never in the history of Pakistan has such a public office-holder been subjected to global scrutiny and multi-jurisdictional probing,” she said and lashed out at Prime Minister Imran Khan for maligning “honest public office-holders.”
Explaining the timeline of the case, she added that in December 2019, the NAB Lahore director general had met NCA officials in London and filed an application against the Sharifs. “The application triggered an investigation of Shahbaz Sharif and family’s assets. Later, an email was sent to the NCA by the ARU officials to assist it with the aforementioned investigation. Furthermore, the Government of Pakistan invited NCA to visit the country in 2020. These are undisputed facts, corroborated through evidence filed in the U.K. court. This government will fall on the weight of its own deceit and lies,” she added.