Now Pandora Papers

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AFTER the Panama Papers, which badly shook Pakistani politics in 2016, the International Consortium of Inves tigative Journalists (ICIJ), has published about 12 million documents, revealing hidden wealth, tax avoidance and, in some cases, money laundering by some of the world’s rich and powerful people.

More than 600 journalists from 117 countries trawled through the files from 14 sources for months to produce what is being called as Pandora Papers.

The latest leaks also include names of about 700 Pakistanis including Finance Minister Shaukat Tarin, PPP leader Sharjeel Memon, PML-N Senator Ishaq Dar’s son Ali Dar, Punjab Provincial Minister Aleem Khan, PTI Senator Faisal Vawda, PML-Q Leader and Federal Minister for Water Resources Monis Elahi besides many businessmen and retired bureaucrats.

The ICIJ deserves appreciation for highlighting the issue of corrupt practices, which is assuming the status of a number one issue in many countries, being done in the garb of offshore companies.

However, it is also regrettable to observe that nothing changed since the problem was first spotlighted in April 2016 and influential people in many countries persist with their malpractices siphoning off national wealth through different tactics.

The Pandora Papers reveal complex networks of companies that are set up across borders, often resulting in hidden ownership of money and assets.

It is also a reality that owning an offshore company is not illegal anywhere in the world including Pakistan if such entities are duly registered with the tax authorities or other relevant regulatory institutions.

People tend to keep their money and assets in so-called tax havens for several legitimate reasons to make easy gains, guard against instabilities of different sorts and criminal attacks. Therefore, there are reasons to believe that all those mentioned in the leaks have not necessarily committed any illegality.

For instance, reacting to the leaks, Finance Minister Shaukat Tarin said the offshore companies of his and his family named in the Pandora Papers were opened with the approval of the State Bank of Pakistan at a time when he was trying to attract the investment of a foreign group for his bank.

He said that the central bank had given principled approval and four offshore companies were created “for fundraising” for the Silk Bank but no accounts were opened and there were no transactions.

Similarly, a spokesperson of the Chaudhry Brothers said their family assets are duly declared as per law and that they are being made target of propaganda, off and on, as part of the political designs. Some businessmen and others mentioned in the investigation also claimed that they committed no wrong and carry out business as per law.

However, things can become clear if there are comprehensive neutral inquiries in each and every case to find out the truth. This would not only expose the wrong doers and make them accountable but also clear all those who have genuine business interests.

PTI is naturally satisfied as its top leadership is not mentioned in the list but it is to be seen what action is taken in the case of those who figure prominently in the investigations.

Prime Minister Imran Khan has vowed to investigate ‘all citizens’ named in the Pandora Papers leaks, adding that appropriate action would be taken if any wrongdoing is established.

This is a welcome statement but much depends on how the commitment is translated into reality as in the case of Panama Papers we witnessed selective probe and as a result almost all those mentioned there went scot free.

There are two distinct aspects of the issue – whether the money transferred abroad was earned through malpractices and why it was not invested in Pakistan if it was earned through legal means.

Pakistani businessmen justify offshore companies saying Pakistan’s economy is mostly undocumented, red-tape is pervasive, making things difficult for businesses to function smoothly.

There is an incentive in evading taxes instead of paying them and things are made difficult for those who want to comply with the laws.

Apart from holding the wrong-doers accountable, it is the responsibility of the Government to streamline the system and offer necessary incentives to prospective entrepreneurs for investment in Pakistan.

There is also no progress on the oft-repeated pledge of Prime Minister Imran Khan to bring back the looted money and one expects the new revelations would serve as basis to move towards that end.

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