ISLAMABAD   -  Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz President Shehbaz Sharif yesterday announced he would file a law suit against British newspaper Daily Mail for accusing him of massive embezzlement.

An article, written by British author and investigative journalist David Rose, alleges that former Punjab chief minister “stole” foreign aid money, given for the 2005 earthquake victims, and laundered it to Britain.

Quoting Pakistani investigators, a “confidential” investigation report, and two arrested accused persons, it claims that part of the money embezzled by Shehbaz and his family came from the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID)-funded aid projects.

Shehbaz Sharif, who is now PML-N president and also the Opposition Leader in the National Assembly, rejected the allegations on twitter.

“Have decided to file law suit against Daily Mail. The fabricated and misleading story was published at the behest of (Prime Minister) Imran Khan and (Special Assistant to PM) Shahzad Akbar. We will also launch legal proceedings against them. Btw (by the way) IK (Imran Khan) has yet to respond to three such cases I filed against him for defamation,” he tweeted.

Earlier in the day, his party also slammed the British newspaper’s claims. PML-N spokesperson Marriyum Aurangzeb said the British government conducted an independent audit of the funds and the Punjab government supported it. The government of Punjab worked with honesty and diligence and used the funds for the people, she added. The party spokesperson linked the Daily Mail report to the controversial video clip of Judge Arshad Malik, and termed it a “propaganda” aimed at hiding the truth. She said it was an attempt at  discrediting the video revealed by PML-N leader Maryam Nawaz.

Miss Aurangzeb said Shehbaz Sharif was not even in Pakistan in 2005, when the devastating earthquake hit the country in Pervez Musharraf’s era. Shehbaz assumed power in 2008 as chief minister of Punjab, she contended.

Part of the Daily Mail report featured an interview with a British citizen of Pakistani origin, Aftab Mehmood, whom the newspaper called a key witness. He was arrested during a trip to Pakistan in April and is being held at a Lahore jail, according to the report.

“He claims he laundered millions on behalf of Shehbaz Sharif’s family from a nondescript office in Birmingham – without attracting suspicion from Britain’s financial regulators, who inspected his books regularly,” read the report.

Legal documents alleged that Shehbaz Sharif’s son-in-law received about £1 million from a fund established to rebuild the lives of earthquake victims – to which Department for International Development gave £54 million from UK taxpayers, it said, adding that stolen millions were laundered in Birmingham and then allegedly transferred to Shehbaz Sharif family’s accounts by UK branches of banks including Barclays and HSBC.

The report also alleged that Britain’s National Crime Agency was working closely with Pakistani investigators and Home Secretary Sajid Javid was discussing the possible extradition of members of Shehbaz Sharif’s family who have taken refuge in London.

The report claims laundered payments were made to Shehbaz Sharif’s children, his wife and his son-in-law Ali Imran. But it adds that Shehbaz ‘was the principal beneficiary of this money-laundering enterprise, by way of spending, acquisition of properties and their expansion into palatial houses where he lived.’ It also cited investigations against Ali Imran.

 DFID rebuttal

Yesterday, however, the DFID rebutted the Daily Mail’s claims in a statement, which said, “The UK’s financial support to ERRA 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.”

It further said, “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.”

 UK Journalist hits back

The reporter of the story reacted to the DFID rebuttal by terming it “nothing of the kind.”

“It [rebuttal] 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 commented on Twitter.

The British journalist also hit back at PML-N leaders and fans for terming his news story ‘baseless’ and a ‘propaganda campaign’.

“The PMLN trolls in Pakistan are posting a photo of me with Imran Khan, claiming this shows my article about Shahbaz Sharif 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.

David Rose also witticized the PML-N trolls and questioned his Twitter followers whether any of the PML-N trolls yet claimed that the story involved the “hand of India”?

 Govt backs money laundering claims

The government’s Asset Recovery Unit chief Shahzad Akbar said on Saturday, “Our investigations have already uncovered evidence of money-laundering on a vast scale, much of it conducted via the UK.

‘The international community needs to get much more serious about this: despite concern expressed by world leaders, money can still be plundered from developing countries such as Pakistan and washed in the global banking system with only minimal checks. Our investigations into the sources of the money which was laundered are ongoing, but it already appears that some of it – perhaps very large sums – may have been stolen from aid and development projects financed by British taxpayers.

He said there had been claims that the current government was doing all this for political reasons, but nothing could be further from the truth.

He said the people of Pakistan had suffered from organised criminal activity on a colossal scale and this had damaged the country’s economy. If we did not pursue these investigations, we would be negligent in our duty, he added.

“We are working closely with the National Crime Agency and the Home Office [of UK]. We are grateful for this assistance and we hope it will ensure that theft and money-laundering of this magnitude will never happen again,” Shahzad Akbar said.