UK tabloid accuses PML-N President of embezzling earthquake funds

By Shakeel Ahmed

ISLAMABAD: A story has been published in a British newspaper, the Daily Mail, accusing Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) President Shehbaz Sharif and his family of embezzling millions of pounds out of £500 million aid lent by the Department for International Development (DFID) for earthquake victims.

As soon as the report surfaced, the PML-N termed it a conspiracy against the opposition leader hatched by the government.

The leader of the opposition in the National Assembly took to Twitter in a fit of rage.

“[I] have decided to [a] file law suit against [the] Daily Mail,” Shehbaz tweeted.

He accused Prime Minister Imran Khan and his Special Assistant Shahzad Akbar of having a hand in the story’s publication. “The fabricated and misleading story was published on the behest of Imran Khan and Shahzad Akbar,” tweeted Shehbaz.

During a press conference, PML-N spokesperson Marriyum Aurangzeb also showed to the media a picture showing British journalist David Rose sitting with PM Imran and Akbar.

The British journalist hit back at the PML-N leaders for terming his news story on the alleged embezzlement and money laundering by their party chairman as “baseless” and “propaganda campaign”.

“The PML-N trolls in Pakistan are posting a photo of me with Imran Khan, claiming this shows my article about Shehbaz was ‘planted’. The photo was taken last year, when I interviewed him before the election. Here’s the proof,” he said while sharing the web link of the interview published on July 21, 2018 in the same paper.

In his report published in British newspaper Mail on Sunday, the journalist had alleged that Shehbaz and his family had embezzled and laundered millions of pounds out of £500 million aid coming from UK during his tenure as the chief minister of Punjab.

The UK government-owned agency DFID refuted claims made by the Daily Mail on Sunday.

Rejecting the assumption that UK taxpayers’ cash meant for earthquake victims was stolen by Shehbaz, the DFID maintained that “our robust systems protected UK taxpayers from fraud”.

In a statement, a DFID spokesperson said: “The UK’s financial support to ERRA [Earthquake Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Authority] 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.”

The aid agency said The Mail “provides little substantial evidence to support its headline” and that Shehbaz “denies any wrongdoing”.

“It [The Mail article] 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,” said the DFID spokesperson.

“The piece goes on to quote Shahzad Akbar, Imran Khan’s Asset Recovery Unit chief, saying it ‘appears’ some money ‘may’ have been stolen from aid and development projects, again without offering any substantial evidence this was the case with ERRA,” the statement added.

“DFID also gave The Mail on Sunday some background on its work in Pakistan. We told the paper how DFID’s work is lifting millions of the poorest people out of poverty whilst improving stability and security in both the UK and Pakistan, which ultimately benefits the UK as well.”

“Over 10 million children in primary schools – including 4.7 million girls – have benefited from UK education programmes since 2011. Over 5.8 million children in secondary schools, including 2.7 million girls, have also benefited from our work,” the spokesperson added.

“In addition, the UK has supported over 8 million people in Pakistan following natural disasters and conflict since 2011.”

DFID’s denial came in the wake of a report published by The Mail on Sunday accusing former Punjab chief minister Shehbaz and his family of allegedly embezzling money from aid given by the DFID and laundering it in the UK.

In his reaction to the rebuttal issued by the DFID, the journalist termed it “nothing of the kind”.

“It merely repeats their statement quoted in the article, and claims the piece contains no evidence about the earthquake fund. Read it. It does. Poor show. More wasted cash!” David Rose

In July 2017, Shehbaz, the then Punjab chief minister, filed an application under defamation law in the Lahore High Court against PTI chairman Imran over his claim that he was offered Rs10 billion bribe to stay mum on the Panama Leaks.

In 2017, an article was published in The Guardian, which read, “Wikipedia editors have voted to ban the Daily Mail as a source for the website in all but exceptional circumstances after deeming the news group ‘generally unreliable’.”

In January 2019, another story published in The Guardian read, “Microsoft’s internet browser is warning users not to trust the Daily Mail’s journalism as part of a feature designed to fight fake news.”

Shahzad Akbar’s response

Reacting to the tweet, the PM’s aide challenged Shehbaz, saying he will “personally bring each TT” (telegraphic transfer) that was “fraudulently sent in the name of poor labourers”.