The Missing Panama Files

(Photo by PW)
(Photo by PW)

With around 215000 confidential documents about offshore entities and their secretive off-shore accounts becoming public, the “Panama Papers” became history’s biggest leak ever. Revealing financial and attorney-client information about scores of outright criminals, drug smugglers, etc current and former world leaders along with their close relatives and/or friends, were linked to tax evasion, money-laundering, etc.

Having offshore companies to avoid inheritance or other taxes in the country of investment is not really illegal unless there is tax avoidance in the country of origin and money-laundering. The bigger crime is giving false statements, magnified many times over if holding a public office or being related/associated with someone who does.

“John Doe” as the anonymous source came to be known, passed 11.5 million documents, a whopping 2.6 terabytes (2600 GB) data from Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca in batches to investigative reporters Frederik Obermaier and Bastian Obermayer at the German newspaper Süeddeustche Zeitung (SDZ). The leaked data including millions of emails, photographs, maps, PDF documents, spreadsheets and entries from the company database forced SDZ to request the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) for help. ICIJ organized a very exhaustive global examining collaboration by distributing the data among its partner agencies in nearly 80 countries comprising more than 350 journalists.  Sifting through the data and analysis thereof by country- specific journalists took almost a full year.

In Sparks Fly Chapter 10 of the international bestseller “The Panama Papers” by the award-winning investigative journalists at SDZ, Frederik Obermaier and Bastian Obermayer (not brothers),  the PM and his family are “mentioned in dispatches”. “There is also a trail leading to Nawaz Sharif, the current Prime Minister of Pakistan. Sharif had also been Prime Minister on two separate occasions in the 1990s. In a critical report, the World Bank names two companies in the British Virgin Islands that Sharif is said to have used for questionable business deals: Nescoll and Nielson. Sharif is believed to have bought luxury homes through these companies, including in London. State funds transformed into a private villa in the blink of any eye. We find both companies in the data. The documents reveal that the owner, at least until 2012, was Mariam Safdar, nee Sharif: Nawaz Sharif’s daughter.”  Part of the team that revealed the “Offshore Leaks”, “Luxembourg Leaks” and “Swiss Leaks”, the authors said in their footnotes that “at the time of going to press neither the PM nor his daughter had responded to a request for comment”.  Why did the Sharifs not sue Frederik Obermaier and Bastian Obermayer and such defamatory black and white revelations?

During Nawaz Sharif’s previous stints as PM he was outrightly hostile to the Group to whom the data was sent to in Pakistan, this included registering a sedition case in 1999. After the failed assassination attempt on senior TV anchor Hamid Mir in early 2014, the government suddenly did a U-turn, going out of its way to support the Group in loggerheads with the military establishment over allegations that the ISI was involved in the shooting. The owners of the media group were also listed in the Panama Papers along with the Sharifs.  With “conflict of interest” inherent the credibility of the findings was jeopardized, potentially subverting the course of justice. The timing of this sudden “love-fest” is suggestive because it coincides with the raw data sent by ICIJ. The Chanakhya concept holds that when the interests are common, “an enemy of an enemy is a friend”.

Material deemed to be “damaging” for those named in the leaks could have been “’deleted”, particularly off-shore accounts details. To give the local enquiry authenticity some material was included. While in other countries details of off-shore accounts were given, why not in Pakistan?  The ‘cleaned’ version was released by ICIJ in April 2016 with wholesale omissions from the original data sent originally. Another revealing feature, why are those media persons who were part of the ICIJ collaboration blatantly defending the Sharifs in public?  Or are they hiding their deception by bluffing it out?

An excellent forensic IT software produced by an Australian company called Nuix Pty Limited has the capacity to sort through all manner of jumbled data, even logging unsearchable PDFs, pictures and scanned documents.  Nuix’s processing and investigation technology enabled ICIJ’s network of journalists to sift through the millions of leaked documents and cross-reference Mossack Fonseca’s clients.  Angela Bunting, VP of Nuix told reporters, “What we’ve done is enabled the ICIJ to do what they couldn’t do in probably months or years.”   Attending a World Economic Forum (WEF) “Partnership Against Corruption Initiative” (PACI) in Geneva on Nov 15, one became aware of how technology is crucial to preventing/deterring corruption.

Nuix now sells its wares in 65 countries to an elite list of clientele that includes the United Nations, the United States Secret Service and many law enforcement agencies in the world. An extremely reliable tool in the fight against corruption, organized crime and their nexus with terrorism, etc in Pakistan, Nuix is worth every bit its price considering the vast illegal sums involved. With a valid license for Nuix, the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP), FIA, SECP, Customs, NAB, intelligence services, etc can easily target fraud, crime, money-laundering, evading taxes.  If our agencies have it, what prevents them from targeting tax dodgers and money-launderers?

The magical sudden appearance of the Nov 5 Qatari Prince letter (a la Saifur Rahman?) is a blatant attempt at evading facts, it reinforces the widespread suspicion in Pakistan that those involved in the leaks will go scot-free. The SC can order the concerned media group to produce the original material sent to Pakistan for sifting and analysis or even request ICIJ for all this data?  This is public property, not a State secret. Justice will only be served if the Nuix program examines the original data.

With the fate of many politicians, businessmen, public servants, etc, as well as those who participated in criminally sanitizing the original data, hanging in the balance, Pakistan’s fragile political system faces a number of internal and external challenges. Prima-facie there is reasonable doubt, if he remains in power the PM, desperate to avoid being prosecuted, can use the state machinery at will for cover-up, obfuscating evidence, etc. PanamaGate requires deft but firm handling by the SC.

Pakistan must come first for PML (N) workers, the party leader second.  When the meaning of “democracy” becomes uninhibited, unbridled and blatant corruption, any move against the corrupt is condemned by our politicians and the vested in the media as a “threat” to “democracy”.

The writer is a defense and security analyst.

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