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Friday, May 17, 2024

UK’s National Crime Agency & adventures of ‘Proud Pakistanis’

NCA of UK brought forward Malik Riaz's corruption scandal and this Pakistani patriot had to pay dearly for it. But the shroud of secrecy donned by NCA allowed Malik to pose as a "Patriotic Pakistani" who committed no crime.

Opinion |

The National Crime Agency leads the UK’s fight to cut serious and organized crime, protecting the public by targeting and pursuing those criminals who pose the greatest risk to the UK. Founded in 2013 with its Headquarters in London, the NCA is fighting crime; human, weapon and drug trafficking; cybercrime; and economic crime, this includes tax evasion and money-laundering.

Cutting across regional and international borders, it can be tasked to investigate any crime. It works under the authority of UK Home Office Secretary Priti Patel, and is headed currently by a senior police officer Lynne Owens has been Director General Lynne Owens of the NCA since 2016.

The purview of the NCA also covers crimes related to border vulnerabilities, cybercrime, illegal firearms, fraud, illicit financing, modern slavery, and human trafficking, kidnap and extortion, child abuse, bribery, corruption and sanctions evasion. The budget of the agency in 2015-2016 amounted to UK £448 million.

For Pakistan it is necessary to have a stringent and well-organized NAB manned with specialists from many fields and dedicated to the ruthless eradication of corruption

The £190 million settlement reached by the NCA with Malik Riaz Hussain is the result of its investigation into the dealings of one of the biggest private-sector employers in Pakistan. In August 2019 eight account freezing orders were secured at Westminster Magistrates’ Court in connection with funds totaling around £120 million.

These followed an earlier freezing order in December 2018 linked to the same investigation for £20 million. All of the account freezing orders relate to money held in UK bank accounts. The NCA has accepted a settlement offer amounting to £190 million which includes a UK property, 1 Hyde Park Place, London, W2 2LH, valued at approximately £50 million and all of the funds in the frozen accounts.

This address has been a magnet for Pakistanis having illegal wealth to show off as a symbol status of their blatant corruption. The NCA announced that the assets are being returned to the State of Pakistan, hopefully, this drop in the ocean will become a stream and then a flood of illegal money-laundered abroad will come back to the country.

Read more: NCA, UK settlement with Malik Riaz: Implications for Pakistani Politics

This is a tremendous breakthrough in the efforts to repatriate illegal assets of Pakistanis in foreign countries. Efforts under Gen Musharraf to repatriate money remained mostly unsuccessful and the impression was created that this money was lost forever for the Pakistani state. This new option seems to be due to the changes introduced by UK into the Criminal Finances Act 2017 and are in tune with the ‘UN Convention Against Corruption’.

The gist of the change is the introduction of Unexplained Wealth Orders (UWOs) that can be granted by the court of a person holds money exceeding £ 50.000 and his/her known income is insufficient to explain the amount accumulated and thirdly, the person is politically exposed or has been involved in serious crime.

Despite this last condition, a UWO represents an interface between criminal law and civil enforcement but does not automatically include criminal investigation. This strange separation of two sides of the same coin obviously serves to faster recovery of unexplained assets but in consequence, prevents the owner of those assets from being exposed as to who he is or she is.

It works under the authority of UK Home Office Secretary Priti Patel, and is headed currently by a senior police officer Lynne Owens has been Director General Lynne Owens of the NCA since 2016

The details of the settlement with Malik Riaz are shrouded in secrecy especially the fact that no criminal accusation has been attached to Malik Riaz and his activities which allows him to pretend as if it was a normal procedure, rejecting all illegality while pointing at the NCA press release and calling himself in the media ‘a proud Pakistani’! This impertinence has been resented by many, including Transparency International (TI).

Director of Policy of TI Duncan Hames is on record to have said that TI has found out that the secrecy provided under such deals is a magnet for those with crimes and assets to hide. He insists that the British Virgin Islands that were connected to the money laundering of Malik Riaz should follow the example provided by other UK Overseas Territories like the Cayman Islands and Gibraltar and commit to revealing to the true owners of companies on their shores.

TI’s statement was widely reported in Germany and other countries but was blanked out in Pakistan by the free media, which a day or so later widely reported on cricketer Nasir Jamshed’s being provided by the NCA on spot-fixing. That is the power of money over our so-called “free media”, they report on inconsequential issues and are paid handsomely to ignore the shenanigans of the big crooks.

Read more: UK Conservative members don’t want a Muslim Prime Minister

If repatriated to Pakistan the money will be used to pay off Malik Riaz’s liabilities to the Supreme Court (SC) of Pakistan as has been stated by Mr. Shahzad Akbar in a press conference this would amount to giving it back to him! This is unacceptable and against the spirit of the UWO. An inquiry must expose the ways and means as well as the persons involved in the transfer of those funds out of Pakistan.

Moreover, were taxes ever paid on this huge sum. It may be remembered that the Federal Tax Ombudsman Shoaib Suddle had charged Malik Riaz and Arsalan Iftikhar, son of Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, for tax evasion but the then President, Asif Zardari, set it aside. The secrecy involved in the matter runs counter to the intention of greater transparency in financial dealings as intended in the 2017 UWO law.

This secrecy upheld by NCA in the settlement case of Malik Riaz is also contrary to NCA’s multiple other cases where they published details including names of persons under investigation on their homepage or in the social media and gave details of the probe, such as where the money was seized, how long the investigation continued and what explanation the individual in question offered for the accumulation of the assets.

Despite this last condition, an UWO represents an interface between criminal law and civil enforcement but does not automatically include criminal investigation

One can only guess what made NCA act like this. Maybe the secrecy that would save other illegal assets of Malik Riaz and his face in public was the price that NCA paid when they were not able to fully prove the extent of wrongdoing by this prominent (and proud) Pakistani crook. And by the way, the Pakistani government has upheld the secrecy clause of the settlement. Well, it seems even animals when caught in a trap will cut a leg in order to escape.

But whatever the reason for the NCA to award secrecy to the origin of Riaz’s assets and provide an ethically clean sheet to him the larger public would not be misled but the purpose of NCA endeavor got certainly compromised. It is a thin line for the NCA to walk between successes that they have to show and becoming a part of camouflage tactic that at the end of the days helps hiding not fighting corruption.

A relatively young institution (6 Years old) the NCA is a welcome and necessary instrument to fight organized crime. The task they are facing is difficult and runs counter to decades of malpractice that has been officially condoned in UK and worldwide and even has become partly regarded as acceptable. By now it has reached dimensions that are compromising economies and the national security of countries.

Read more: UK student jailed for citing hate against Prince Harry

That is why finally the fight against corruption has been declared a major goal by UN, WEF, TI and others. Crime and corruption in this globalized world are global and do not care for international borders. Financial globalization has been a trailblazer of globalization in other fields of economy and politics. While national organizations as the NCA are a good first step for international outreach and crosslinking is the necessary follow-up.

Unfortunately, until today not all countries have such a well-organized institution dealing with all acts of organized crime. Switzerland is another shelter of illegal Pakistani money, seems to have no such agency yet. For Pakistan, it is necessary to have a stringent and well-organized NAB manned with specialists from many fields and dedicated to the ruthless eradication of corruption. This struggle needs the support of the judiciary without which crime prosecution cannot be efficient.

As in the case of NCA, for Pakistan should also not shelter ‘proud Pakistani’ crooks having properties around Hyde Park bought with money laundered from Pakistan through fake accounts. The greatest shame should be that of the “proud Pakistani” media which goes berserk if a cop takes a traffic bribe but strangely enough tends to ignore mega corruption cases. To quote an anonymous source “In Pakistan the corrupt abuse the corrupt of being corrupt and the corrupt investigate the corrupt and absolve the corrupt of being corrupt”.

I may add “the unfortunate corrupt who get jailed are then the beneficiaries of a corrupt system that allows them to go abroad filled with suitcases of the corrupt money and enjoy the fruits of their corruption living ostensibly around Hyde Park.” “Proud Pakistanis” indeed!

Ikram Sehgal, author of “Escape from Oblivion”, is Pakistani defence analyst and security expert. He is a regular contributor of articles in newspapers that include: The News and the Urdu daily Jang. The article was first published in Daily Times and has been republished with the author’s permission. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.