Nabeel Zafar takes account of the Assets Recovery Unit
There was plenty of bad-mouthing about the Assets Recovery Unit (ARU) constituted under the PTI government to recover the allegedly looted money and bring it back to Pakistan. ARU was roundly disparaged by the opposition of the time that accused it to be just the pretext of witch-hinting and nothing more. It was not only the opposition that attacked the ARU but a cross-section of media also left no chance to blast it. It may be recollected that ARU was a big part of the PTI’s manifesto and one of the first election promises to be fulfilled by former PM Imran Khan. Just taking over the office of PM, Imran Khan took no time in setting up this unit and placed it under Shahzad Akbar, a character who came out of the blue to be made PM’s special adviser on accountability.
Throughout the PTI’s tenure, the then-opposition, which has now formed a coalition government after ousting Imran through a no-confidence vote in April, had criticised the ARU and its chief, Akbar, demanding an audit of the organisation and the SAPM Shahzad Akbar’s resignation for miserably failing to recover the looted national wealth. The opposition legislators alleged that the ARU was formed only for arm-twisting of the opposition and it had failed to make significant recoveries since its inception in 2018. They also stated that Shahzad Akbar and his wingmen should be booked by NAB for obliterating exchequer’s money on foreign trips without recovering a dime. Badly mired in controversy Shahzad Akbar was made to unceremoniously resign from his position reportedly when the PM was reputedly unhappy with his performance.
As often happens with public matters in Pakistan it is now known that the ARU did help to recover Rs.426.4 billion over a period of three years when it was in operation. This fact was brought to fore by the documents presented by the Cabinet Division of the government through their yearbook for 2020-21 just a month after Shehbaz Sharif took over as prime minister. This report has raised many questions about its timing as well as its veracity that could only be determined once independent audit of such papers are undertaken. However it is reported that out of the total amount recovered amounting to Rs.426.4 billion over Rs.334 billion was recovered in the last fiscal year alone.
It is pertinent to mention that the ARU was set up in September 2018 to provide a forum for law enforcement agencies, National Accountability Bureau (NAB), Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), Financial Monitoring Unit (FMU) and provincial anti-corruption establishments (ACEs) to trace new cases and track all existing cases targeting eventual repatriation of unlawfully acquired offshore assets. It was added that the institutions and agencies would eventually recover the amount either through taxation or plea bargain or direct recovery/repatriation to the government exchequer. This mandate was considered a big ask even by the standards of bragging leadership of the PTI but the recent report provides a contrary view of the issue.
The report points out that over the last three years, NAB, under the supervision and assistance of ARU recovered Rs.389.5 billion. It was reported as a drastic increase from the total Rs.295.6 billion recovered in the 17-year period before then spanning the period from 2000 to 2017. Meanwhile, the FIA recovered Rs.6.4 billion in the last three years, of which Rs.3.6 billion was recovered in 2020. The documents added that in light of various inquiry commissions set up by the federal government, the Federal Board of Revenue (FBR) established liabilities and made recoveries that were off the charts. The revenue body had identified taxes of Rs.22.8 billion on offshore assets, including properties in the United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom, and assets identified in the Panama Papers and Paradise Papers, recovering Rs.5.6 billion in 2021.
It was also mentioned that recoveries of Rs.30 billion were also directly attributed to the ARU and it was added that the Financial Monitoring Unit was also reinvigorated to ensure that it reported suspicious transactions to law enforcement agencies in a timely manner so they could combat money laundering in accordance with their respective laws. In this respect it was mentioned that ARU liaised with the National Crime Agency of UK and other foreign governments to enter into legal instruments and MoUs to get the unlawfully acquired offshore assets repatriated to Pakistan. At the end of the report the yearbook of the Cabinet Division inserted a caveat by clarifying that the ARU does not directly recover the assets but it assisted LEAs in the recovery. Anyway, the report of the Cabinet Division is required to be carefully evaluated so that matters are judiciously examined and due is given where it is required. TW