The death of a minister
July 24, 2002
The death of Omar Asghar, a former Pakistan Federal Minister, in Karachi last month raises clouds of suspicion.
Omar was found dead by family members after they broke open the door to his room. Police said he committed suicide leaving a suicide note in his handwriting. Close associates denied Omar was depressed. The regime condoled without ordering an inquiry.
Some tie Omar’s death to disappearing pension funds and improperly audited NGO funds used in local elections last year.
His death comes at a time when Washington is spending billions of dollars to discover means that funded Al Qaeda and the methods used to launder the money. Even as Al Qaeda is vanquished from Afghanistan, the hunt for them continues in the mountain passes of Pakistan.
Elements of the media speculate that Al Qaeda leader Bin Laden is in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Islamabad’s military dictator denies this. Clearly the focus on eliminating Al Qaeda has shifted largely to Pakistan.
Omar’s grieving family has not blamed the state apparatus. Yet, Omar’s death takes place against a global security environment.
Omar’s ministry oversaw vast NGO funds in the lead up to the local elections held last August. NGOs are controversial these days. Some suspected as front organisations for militant groups were banned following the attacks of September 11. US President also banned some Trusts established ostensibly for charitable purposes.
Omar’s ministry also oversaw large amounts of state controlled pension funds. Omar resigned from the Musharraf cabinet shortly after the pension embezzlement of over one hundred million dollars was discovered.
Omar is not blamed for the embezzlement. However, many believe he knew too much.
Omar’s is the second “suicide” in six months tied to the missing Old Age Benefits Investment (EOBI) funds. The accountant handling the transfer of funds from the EOBI to a Bank account from where they disappeared also died in a “suicide”.
The embezzlement was accidentally discovered by an honest officer investigating the collapse of the Prudential Bank. To his horror, the investigating officer, expecting reward, was persecuted. He wrote the National Accountability Chairman (NAB) on August 3, 2001 complaining of the persecution. No action was taken on his letter or his 114 page report.
Thereafter, the NAB Chairman was removed from his post and silenced with an appointment as Governor of the country’s largest province. Earlier he was found to have handled counterfeit American dollars while posted in Washington.
It is too early to say whether the missing money is linked to the security agencies, Al Qaeda, the military hardliners or to corrupt criminal gangs operating in the country. Some published reports indicated that the money hijacker Atta received was routed through Islamabad.
In 1993, the collapse of Mehran Bank led to the discovery that the security agencies were illegally helping themselves to state funds. Omar’s father filed a petition before the Supreme Court demanding action. Of those involved in the illegality one is currently Islamabad’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia. Another oversees law and order in Punjab. He achieved notoriety when Danny Pearl’s suspected killer turned himself over to him.
Meanwhile in Paris an officer of yet another Pakistani bank was arrested by French authorities and charged with money laundering.
Other Pakistani banks also collapsed, including Bankers Equity. The audits were done quietly and little is known of the facts publicly.
There are reports that the military regime plans establishing a “Trust” overseas with enormous amounts of funds to “keep it safe from corrupt politicians”. A person approached for help with the Trust was told that the money would be from privatisation proceeds and be routed through the State Bank of Pakistan. Further that the money would be used for social security payments.
This offer is suspicious. Privatisation proceeds cannot be hidden from the World Bank or the Finance Ministry. Social Security is paid through the relevant Ministry rather than secret overseas organisations. Therefore it is probable that the source and purpose of the money is other than being stated. This begs the question: whose funds are these, from where are they being raised and transferred.
There is much talk, too, over the two hundred and forty billion rupees reportedly printed by Islamabad to bolster foreign exchange reserves. Officers were reportedly sent with suitcases to buy dollars from the market and take their commissions on it. The money translated into four and half billion dollars.
But no one knows where the two hundred and forty billion rupees went. It still has to show up in the liquidity available in the country itself.
Pakistan’s Parliament was terminated when General Musharraf seized power in October 1999. Issues of financial impropriety cannot therefore be raised before Parliament. Military dictator Musharraf promises to revive Parliament following General Elections scheduled for this October. In the absence of reforms to ensure transparent elections, scepticism remains. Cynics say General Musharraf will handpick representatives to ensure a dummy Parliament too weak to raise controversial issues.
For years Pakistan’s military establishment blamed Pakistani politicians for corruption. The politicians counterclaimed that the charges are politically motivated by militants and their sympathisers determined to maintain their stranglehold on the state apparatus.
According to the press, the honest investigator who discovered the missing pension funds was also investigating another bank called the Muslim Commercial Bank.
Its owner now is attempting to buy the United Bank of Pakistan. There is concern that Gulf investors bringing capital into Pakistan are being disfavoured as the regime tilts towards monopoly creation in the banking sector.
Omar was a key witness in the case of the missing EOBI funds as was the accountant who died. Omar knew who gave the order for him to transfer the pension funds to the account from where they disappeared.
Omar took those secrets with him to the grave.