In Pakistan's Anti-Corruption War, A Lonely Warrior

Jun 21, 2012
Originally published on June 21, 2012 10:35 pm

Pakistan's National Assembly has been summoned to elect a new prime minister for the fragile coalition of President Asif Ali Zardari. A consensus candidate, current Textile Industry Minister Makhdoom Shahabuddin, emerged soon after the Supreme Court's dramatic firing of outgoing Premier Yusuf Reza Gilani.

The court disqualified Gilani from office this week for defying court orders to pursue dormant corruption charges against President Zardari.

Meanwhile, sordid tales involving the scions of the rich and powerful highlight the prevalence of corruption in the country. The son of the Supreme Court chief justice and the son of the ousted prime minister are both embroiled in separate allegations of bribery and financial wrongdoing.

The difficulty of battling Pakistan's culture of corruption is personified in one retired senior Pakistani police investigator whose dogged detective work won him the respect of his fellow citizens but cost him dearly.

Zafar Ahmed Qureshi has recovered billions of rupees for Pakistan's treasury, made major drug busts and even unearthed a stash of gold worth millions. The retired senior investigator says he had been looking for contraband weapons hidden along the Indian border when he struck gold — literally.

"We went for two Kalashnikov weapons — illicit — and I found the gold," he recalls, laughing.

But senior ministers of the government of then-Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto were not amused. They warned Qureshi he'd be banished to Baluchistan — in far southwest Pakistan, along the border with Afghanistan — for arresting a member of the National Assembly whose cache of weapons and precious metal Qureshi says he had uncovered.

"I received a threat call, from the interior minister — 'How dare you [arrest him]?' And I said, 'I've done a good thing — 100 kilos of gold I have seized and deposited in the State Bank of Pakistan,' " Qureshi says. "But, you know, I was in hot soup."

Complex Web Of Corruption

Qureshi's four-decade-long career was one episode of "hot soup" after the next. He says senior officials in both the federal government and in Punjab province interfered with investigations that he directed.

The case of Sonia Naz — who says two senior Punjab police officers sexually assaulted her — illustrates the complex web of corruption.

The Supreme Court assigned Qureshi to investigate her story in 2005, and he found that there was a "strong presumption" to support Naz's allegation: that a police superintendent and his subordinate had attacked her after she told a Lahore court that they had extorted some $14,000 from her to win the release of her husband, who was in police custody.

"She was beaten up, she was tortured, she was raped, and she was running for her life," Qureshi says.

His report said Naz's husband was "an important member ... of [a] 'racket' " that prepared fake registrations for stolen cars in the Excise and Taxation Office — the same office from which Qureshi said the two accused policemen had been embezzling.

"There is a lot of corruption taking place in Pakistan. It is at low level, it's at middle level, then it is at a very high-echelon level. And, you know, people of Pakistan are fed up," he says.

In this scandal, powerful interests intervened once again, and Qureshi was out of a job — he says for accusing two politically connected policemen.

"And the chief minister of Punjab got annoyed. And I was punished, and I was posted at OSD," he says, referring to "officer on special duty" — which meant, effectively, that he had no job at all. Qureshi says he sat at home for six months or so.

Both police officers in the Naz case were disciplined, but a lower court acquitted them in 2007. Now, the Supreme Court wants to know why Naz's appeal against that acquittal has not been taken up and why she was harassed for seeking justice. One of the officers is reported to still be serving in the force, while the other quietly retired and, as Qureshi notes, is probably drawing a pension: "It's Pakistan," he says.

Misconduct At The National Level

In 2010, Qureshi got himself transferred from the provincial government to the Federal Investigation Agency. But things soon came to a head with the national powers-that-be, when Qureshi was assigned to investigate massive land fraud against National Insurance Co. Ltd. Qureshi found that assets of the government-owned insurer, or NICL, had been plundered to purchase land at inflated prices to enrich an influential few.

During the course of the NICL case, Qureshi was suspended four times. Each time, he says, Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry intervened and had him reinstated.

"The federal government was again and again trying to throw me out from this job. From the very first day, the government started interfering in this case," Qureshi says.

Undaunted, Qureshi recovered approximately 2 billion rupees — $21 million — for the state. His investigation led to the arrest of two prominent personalities — an ex-defense minister and the son of the former Punjab chief minister, who Qureshi said had him fired over the Sonia Naz rape case.

In the course of the investigation, Qureshi says, Rehman Malik — then the federal interior minister and a confidante of the president — pressured him to stop investigating the swindle because he was endangering political alliances. Qureshi says he was given four options: take a long leave, leave the country and return only after retirement, request that he be excused from investigating the case for personal reasons, or free the jailed defendants.

Qureshi refused all four options. "The very next day, I was suspended by the prime minister of Pakistan," Qureshi says.

When contacted by NPR, presidential aide Malik declined to comment for this story, hanging up twice. Nor did he respond to text messages asking for his version of events. A Supreme Court report in late May vindicated Qureshi's contention that he had been subject to pressure.

Khawaja Haris, formerly the principal law officer in Punjab, calls Qureshi "courageous," if not always successful. One of the main accused in the NICL fraud case was acquitted. Millions of rupees alleged to be in foreign accounts have yet to be recovered. The Supreme Court suspects political manipulation, and when hearings resume this week, responsible government officials are expected to face a grilling. Haris says the government should be taken to task.

"When there is a scam, a fraud, an offense, instead of having a fair investigation, they try to manipulate it. This is when the judiciary has to step in. So this government, in the way it has acted, indicates that it has much to hide," Haris says.

Supreme Court No Longer Invincible

But political commentator Najam Sethi says the Supreme Court has tarnished its own reputation by singling out corruption among some politicians to the exclusion of others.

"There is no attempt to tackle corruption among judges, generals, bureaucrats and businessmen unless they are linked in some way with the ruling People's Party. That's the track record of this court," Sethi says.

Explosive allegations have also diminished the aura of invincibility around Chaudhry, the Supreme Court chief justice. The man who has sat in judgment of corruption in high places now faces accusations that his own son, Arsalan Iftikhar, took posh vacations in London and Monte Carlo as kickbacks from a billionaire property developer.

For retired investigator Qureshi, the lonely battle is not over: He says he fears for his safety and that of his family in Lahore, where their home is now guarded around the clock.

For the past six months, Qureshi says, he has rarely ventured out.

"They are very cruel people. They can do anything," he says. "I'm a very small fly. They can do anything they like."

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Rarely has the problem of corruption in Pakistan been so vividly on display as it is right now. The country's prime minister lost his job this week. Pakistan's supreme court had convicted him of failing to pursue a corruption case.

MONTAGNE: The ousted prime minister's son also faces questions about his involvement in a government scandal.

INSKEEP: Not only that, the son of the supreme court's chief justice faces claims of accepting money and gifts from wealthy businessmen.

MONTAGNE: Now Pakistan is close to confirming a new prime minister, but he faces last minute questions about his own involvement in a corruption probe.

INSKEEP: Amid all of this, NPR's Julie McCarthy has the story of a former Pakistani police official. He fought the culture of corruption and paid a price.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Zafar Qureshi has recovered billions of rupees for Pakistan's treasury, made major drug busts, and even unearthed a stash of gold worth millions. The retired senior investigator said he had been looking for contraband hidden along the Indian border when he struck gold.

ZAFAR QURESHI: Actually, we went for two Kalashnikov weapons, illicit, and I found the gold.

(LAUGHTER)

MCCARTHY: But senior ministers of the government of then-Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto weren't laughing. They warned Qureshi he'd be banished to Baluchistan for arresting a member of the National Assembly, whose cache of weapons and precious metal Qureshi says he had uncovered.

QURESHI: I received a threat call from the interior minister: How dare you arrest our MNA? And I said, I have done a good thing - 100 kilograms of gold I have seized and I have deposited it in the State Bank of Pakistan. But, you know, I was in hot soup.

MCCARTHY: Qureshi's four-decade-long career was one episode of hot soup after the next. He says senior officials in both the federal government and in Punjab Province interfered with investigations that he directed. The case of Sonia Naz, who says she was sexually assaulted by two senior Punjab police officers, illustrates a complex web of corruption.

The supreme court assigned Qureshi to investigate her story in 2005, and he found that there was a strong presumption to support Naz's allegation - that a police superintendent and his subordinate had attacked her after she told a Lahore court that they had extorted some $14,000 from her to win the release of her husband, who was in police custody.

QURESHI: She was beaten up. She was tortured. She was raped, and she was running for her life.

MCCARTHY: Qureshi's report said Sonia's husband was an important member of a racket that prepared fake registrations for stolen cars in the Excise and Taxation Office, the same office that Qureshi said the two accused policemen had been looting.

QURESHI: There is a lot of corruption taking place in Pakistan. It is at low level, it's at middle level, then it is at a very high-echelon level. And you know, people of Pakistan are fed up.

MCCARTHY: In this scandal, once again powerful interests intervened and Qureshi was out of a job, he says, for fingering two politically connected policemen.

QURESHI: And the chief minister of Punjab got annoyed. And I was punished, and I was posted at OSD.

MCCARTHY: Officer on special duty, effectively no job at all.

QURESHI: I was sitting at home and I was OSD from six to eight months.

MCCARTHY: Both police officers were disciplined, but in 2007 a lower court acquitted them. Now the supreme court wants to know why Sonia Naz's appeal against that acquittal has not been taken up and why she was harassed for seeking justice. While one officer is reportedly still serving, the other quietly retired.

QURESHI: One is retired(ph).

MCCARTHY: Probably drawing a pension.

QURESHI: Yes, he's drawing a pension also.

(LAUGHTER)

QURESHI: It's Pakistan.

MCCARTHY: In 2010, Qureshi got himself transferred from the provincial government to the Federal Investigation Agency. But things soon came to a head with the national powers-that-be when Qureshi was assigned to investigate a massive land fraud against the National Insurance Company Limited. Qureshi found that the assets of the government-owned insurer, or NICL, had been plundered to purchase land at inflated prices to enrich an influential few.

You were suspended over the course of the NICL case about four times, weren't you? How'd you get your job back that time?

QURESHI: It was only the chief justice of Pakistan who interfered in it and tell him to send him back, because he knew he was conducting a fair investigation. And the federal government again and again tried to throw me out from this job. From the very first day the government started interfering in this case.

MCCARTHY: Undaunted, Qureshi recovered approximately two billion rupees, or $21 million, for the state. His investigation led to the arrest of two prominent personalities, an ex-Minister for Defense and the son of the former Punjab chief minister.

In the course of the investigation, Qureshi says Rehman Malik - then the federal Interior Minister and confidante of the president - pressured him to stop investigating the swindle because he was endangering political alliances. He was given four options.

QURESHI: First option was to proceed on long leave. Number Two was to leave the country and don't come back till you retire. And Number Three was, make a request to the Honorable Chief Justice that you don't want to investigate this case for personal reasons.

MCCARTHY: And Number Four, free the jailed defendants.

QURESHI: Which I refused, all the four options. And on the very next day, I was suspended by the prime minister of Pakistan.

MCCARTHY: Presidential aide Rehman Malik declined to comment, hanging up twice. Nor did he respond to text messages asking for his version of events. A Supreme Court report in late May vindicated Qureshi's contention that he had been subject to pressure.

Khawaja Haris, formerly the principal law officer of the Punjab, calls Qureshi courageous, if not always successful. One of the main accused in the National Insurance Company scam was acquitted. Millions of rupees alleged to be in foreign accounts have yet to be recovered. The Supreme Court suspects political manipulation. And when hearings resume this week, responsible government officials face a grilling.

Khwaja Haris says the government should be taken to task.

KWAJA HARIS: When there's a scam, and there's a fraud, when there's an offense, instead of having a fair investigation, they try to manipulate it. This is when the judiciary has to step in. So this government, in the way it has acted, indicates that it has much to hide.

MCCARTHY: But political commentator Najam Sethi says the Supreme Court has damaged itself by singling out corruption among politicians to the exclusion of others.

NAJAM SETHI: There is no attempt to tackle corruption amongst judges, generals, bureaucrats and businessmen, unless there is a link in some way with the ruling People's Party. That's the track record of this Court.

MCCARTHY: New allegations have also diminished the aura of invincibility around Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudrey. The man who has sat in judgment against corruption in high places, now faces accusations that his own son took posh vacations in London and Monte Carlo, as kickbacks from a billionaire property developer.

For retired investigator Zafar Qureshi, the lonely battle is not over. He says he fears for his safety and that of his family in Lahore where their home is now guarded around the clock.

QURESHI: Normally I don't go out for the last six months. I stay at my home.

MCCARTHY: So, you're imprisoned in your own home, really.

QURESHI: You know, they are very cruel people. They can do anything. I'm a very small fly in front of them. I am a very small fly. They can do anything they like.

MCCARTHY: Julie McCarthy NPR News, Islamabad.

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.