The Pandora Papers have opened a new Pandora’s Box of corrupt financial practices that reach across nations and encompass the globe. The formation of offshore companies in remote islands is a game the rich play, especially the corrupt rich and powerful who loot national wealth and stash it abroad.
Setting up an offshore company is not illegal per se. But the offshore financial system offers strict privacy, which provides an opportunity to wrongdoers to hide assets from authorities and creditors as well as from public scrutiny. Offshore providers are established according to the laws of the country where they are located. But some clients use offshore services to hide dirty money.
The Pandora documents contain the names of both current and former leaders of various countries. A large number of Pakistanis, including politicians, former military generals, bureaucrats and businessmen, have been named in the papers. These Pakistanis own assets worth hundreds of millions of dollars in various countries.
This is not the first time that such a disclosure about offshore wealth held by corrupt politicians, officials and businessmen has been made. Five years ago, the Panama Papers shook the world with their leakages of corruption by influential individuals around the world. The data for the Panama Papers was drawn from a single law firm, but the new material has been gleaned from the records of 14 separate financial-services entities operating in Switzerland, Singapore, Cyprus, Belize, the British Virgin Islands, etc.
The Pandora Papers reveal more than 29,000 offshore accounts, double the number identified in the Panama Papers. Among the account owners are more than 130 billionaires in the Forbes magazine list and more than 330 public officials in more than 90 countries and territories, twice the number contained in the Panama leaks. The Pandora Papers revelations include millions of dollars in property and cash secretly owned by the leaders of the Czech Republic, Kenya, Ecuador, Russia and other countries.
According to the leaked data, Pakistanis are the fifth largest investors in property in London’s most expensive neighbourhoods. More than 700 Pakistanis have been named in the offshore affair, including sitting federal ministers and some other powerful people connected to the PTI government.
It is good that PM Imran Khan has set up a high-powered committee to investigate the matter. However, there is no indication yet that the federal ministers named in the Pandora Papers will be asked to step down to allow an independent inquiry to take place.
Critics say that there is little hope of an impartial investigation against the powerful sitting federal ministers and others closely associated with the government. The general public has little faith in the country’s investigative agencies and the judicial system which in most cases has failed to bring the blatantly corrupt politicians and bureaucrats to justice.
It is interesting to note that some of the 300 Pakistanis whose names appeared in the Panama Papers have reappeared in the Pandora Papers. No action was taken against them previously nor is there any likelihood of their being brought to book now.
The leaked data in the Pandora Papers relate to offshore companies owned by some federal ministers, retired military generals and public officials. A prominent name is that of Moonis Elahi, a PML-Q leader who was included in the federal cabinet as a minister a few months ago. According to a report published in the Guardian, and based on the Pandora Papers, he and his family own prime properties in London worth millions of pounds. Two other federal ministers, Shaukat Tarin and Khusro Bakhtiyar, and Faisal Vawda, a former cabinet minister, also figure in the leaks.
Other significant revelations in the Pandora Papers relate to retired military generals and their family members who acquired properties in London through offshore companies. One of them is retired Lt-Gen Shafaat Ullah Shah, who once served as military secretary to the former military ruler Gen Pervez Musharraf.
Money laundering is a serious crime and western governments hold Third World countries to account on this issue. But no action is taken against the banks in London and Switzerland in which the looted money is parked. This is a double standard which the western media never highlights. Billions of dollars, siphoned off by corrupt public officials in developing countries, are parked in shadowy shell companies which are never investigated.
No doubt, corruption has seeped through all sectors of Pakistani society, but the properties owned by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and other political leaders in London and Dubai prove beyond a shadow of doubt that the political class is more corrupt than others. In Pakistan the electoral system itself breeds corruption. Those who reach parliament spending millions use their political positions and privileges to get back their investment with profits.
For Pakistan to move forward, we need to wage a long and courageous struggle against corruption. Before Prime Minister Imran Khan, no political leader took up corruption as a major national issue. But Imran Khan has made it centre-stage and that in itself is an achievement. We need to totally eliminate this cancer from our society. Otherwise, Panama and Pandora Papers will continue to happen and the characters adorning their pages will continue to drain the national exchequer dry.