The Curious Case of Dr Asim
Former PPP petroleum minister and close Zardari crony, Dr Asim Hussain has spent almost a year behind bars. Also the owner of Karachi’s Ziauddin Hospital, Hussain is accused of providing terrorists with medical treatment at his facility and committing financial irregularities while in office as minister. Hussain served as advisor to the prime minister in the Petroleum and Natural resources Ministry, until he was appointed minister with that portfolio. He also served as chairman of the Sindh Higher Education Commission and retains that post to date.
The once brash, seemingly invincible Zardari BFF, has spent the last 12 months under detention, investigation, and trial. Deliberate leaks of his alleged “confessional” video statements, the report of a Joint Investigation Team (JIT) conducting the probe against him, and his presence at the weekly or bi-weekly proceedings of the Accountability Court (AC) and the Anti-Terrorism Court (ATC) have been the subject of headlines and prime time talk shows on 24×7 news channels.
The case has also been a matter of heated exchange between the members of the PPP and the federal government, especially Federal Interior Minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan. In a recent press conference Nisar alleged that PPP leaders had approached him to negotiate a deal in respect of the cases of Dr Asim Hussain, and model and also alleged close Zardari pal, Ayyan Ali. PPP leaders responded by demanding the names of the Pipliyas who had approached Nisar in this matter, and PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari has stated he will serve Nisar with a legal notice for his allegations.
On August 26 last year, when Asim Hussain was convening a meeting to discuss the appointment of a new vice-chancellor for Dow University of Health Sciences at the office of the Sindh Higher Education Commission in Clifton, proceedings were unceremoniously interrupted by Rangers who surrounded the office. At the helm of the possÃ© was a man accompanied by a dozen others in plainclothes, who introduced himself as a member of a federal agency. He asked Hussain to go with them.
Initially, since the arrest was not confirmed by the police or any other government agency, it was believed the doctor was being held by the intelligence agencies for questioning on some matter. In a petition filed at the Sindh High Court on September 5, however, Hussain’s wife alleged that he was taken forcibly by the Rangers to their headquarters for questioning. And the next day he was produced in the Anti-Terrorism Court. Rangers officials contended that Dr Asim Hussain had been placed under 90-day preventive detention in Rangers custody under Section 11-EEEE of the Anti-Terrorism Act, 1997. They claimed to be in possession of credible information proving his involvement in financing terrorism and the embezzlement of funds.
The PPP leadership and the provincial government reacted strongly to the arrest. The central leadership aimed its ire at the PML-N federal government, while Qaim Ali Shah, the then chief minister, expressed his displeasure over the way the arrest was made by the paramilitary forces. “The concerned agencies are legally bound to take me into confidence before taking a person of such a calibre into custody… I was not informed,” said Shah, adding that Dr Asim Hussain was the chairman of the Sindh HEC and enjoys the status of a provincial minister. “[Legal] procedure has not been followed in this case. This is not fair and it has invited the wrath of my party,” he said.
Shah’s entreaties went unheeded. The day after the 90-day preventive detention began, a JIT was constituted to probe the charges against Hussain. It comprised representatives of the police, Rangers, Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) and National Accountability Bureau (NAB). Later, on November 10, a news report suggested the formation of another JIT for the same purpose. The newly formed JIT was headed by the SSP South, Dr Farooq, and for the first time included two gazetted officers of the Rangers intelligence service, with no officials of the FIA, NAB or the anti-corruption unit included in it.
After the expiration of his 90-day detention, an FIR was lodged against Hussain by the Rangers superintendent, sub-inspector Muhammed Inayatullah Durrani. Subsequently, several media outlets got hold of the reports of both the JITs and proceeded to publish sections of them in the media with exhaustive details of Hussain’s alleged financial irregularities, including money-laundering, the questionable establishment of companies in different countries, the unlawful acquisition of lands and amenity plots for commercial use, illegal appointments, and the provision of treatment to political militants from the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), the Lyari gangsters backed by elements within the Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) and militants associated with jihadi outfits. The reports also implicated the leadership of the PPP and MQM members in the listed crimes.
A hand-written confessional statement of Dr Asim Hussain’s associate, Dr Yousuf Sattar Memon, was also circulated on the media and shown by TV channels. Dr Memon, deputy managing director at Ziauddin Hospital, North Nazimabad, was arrested on August 29, 2015 from the premises of the hospital. He allegedly described the way medical facilities and discounts were provided to political militants and stated that this was done on the instructions of Dr Asim Hussain.
The police then took custody of Dr Asim Hussain, and after conducting an investigation, cleared him of the charges of financing terrorism. The court did not, however, concur with the police in regard to their findings. It ordered a trial against the doctor in an ATC and allowed the NAB to arrest him on charges of corruption.
On July 19, the ATC refused to grant interim bail to MQM leaders, Wasim Akhtar and Rauf Siddiqi, PPP leader Qadir Patel, and Pak Sarzameen Party president Anis Qaimkhani, who were also charged for providing medical treatment and shelter to political and religious militants. Usman Moazzam, the secretary-general of Pasban-e-Pakistan, has been imprisoned under the same charges since January.
Currently, the Accountability Court is hearing prosecution witnesses in the trial of Dr. Asim Hussain which began on May 6. Hussain and five accomplices have been indicted by NAB for corruption to the tune of Rs. 462 billion. The other five accused are: former petroleum secretary, Mohammad Ejaz Chaudhry; group finance adviser and now administrator at Ziauddin Medical Centre, Dubai, Abdul Hameed Husain; a former chief executive officer of the Karachi Dock Labour Board (KDLB), Safdar Husain; and former directors of the Karachi Development Authority (KDA), Syed Athar Hussain and Masood Haider Jaffri.
Since his arrest, Dr Asim Hussain’s family has expressed serious apprehensions regarding his deteriorating health. His wife approached the Sindh High Court (SHC) requesting that her husband be shifted from jail to the National Institute of Cardio Vascular Diseases (NICVD). In another petition Dr Zareen Hussain termed the terrorism charges framed against her husband as “unlawful” and “malafide.”
The doctor’s family has also engendered some international and local support for their pleas for his release. Concerns have been expressed about his year-long detention, most of it before his trial began, and the reports of alleged torture against him that have been doing the rounds.
US Congresswoman Maxine Waters, for example, wrote a letter to Pakistan Ambassador to the United States, Jalil Abbas Jilani, expressing concern about the reports of maltreatment against Dr Asim Hussain. The ambassador had to assure her that the doctor would be provided a fair trial and forwarded her letter to the concerned authorities in Islamabad with the recommendation that allegations of maltreatment against Hussain be thoroughly investigated.
In a letter to the prime minister in April this year, Amnesty International, South Asia and South East Asia Director, Champa Patel, had also expressed concerns similar to those voiced by Ms. Waters. It was noted that despite being in custody for many months, the PPP leader had not been brought to trial.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) meanwhile, termed the high-profile case as being politically motivated. While speaking to an international publication, Saroop Ijaz, a senior lawyer associated with HRW said, “The lack of transparency and the denial of due process (are) a matter of concern to Human Rights Watch.” Ijaz also expressed concerns about Hussain’s psychological well-being. And in a statement in April, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) also expressed concerns over the doctor’s deteriorating mental health.
The fallout of Dr. Hussain’s ongoing ordeal is certainly visible: Overnight it seems he has aged and appears wan and thin. Some doctors attribute this to his state of mind.
In a report submitted in court in March, a psychiatrist treating Dr Asim Hussain at the Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Centre (JPMC), Karachi, stated, “…Seeing or remembering a person wearing a Rangers uniform results in panic attacks, which consist of symptoms like extreme anxiety, fear of death, and cold clammy extremities… etc.” In a recent court hearing, a medical board formed on the court’s orders endorsed this prognosis, saying Hussain had “severe phobia of the Rangers uniform.” So far, however, the Accountability Court is not convinced. It has asked the head of the medical board to appear in court at the next hearing.
The recent arrests of MQM, PSP, and PPP leaders in connection with the Asim Hussain case have sparked outrage, especially the arrest of Waseem Akhtar who has been nominated by the MQM as their candidate for city mayor.
Last month, there were reports of Waseem Akhtar’s alleged “confessional statements” regarding his role in the violence in Karachi on May 12, 2007, but the confessions have been denied by him.
An interesting aspect of the Asim Hussain case is the arrest of Usman Moazzam, the secretary general of the Pasban-e-Pakistan and a former candidate in the NA-246 by-elections in Karachi in April 2015. Moazzam is a petitioner in the case of his missing son, whose whereabouts have been unknown since May 2015. In June last year his house in Samanabad was raided, and he, along with another son, was detained by the Rangers. He was under their custody for months, and in January this year he was rearrested, this time by the police. This time round he is charged with getting jihadis treated at Ziauddin Hospital. Pasban’s Karachi secretariat was not available for comment.
The ongoing Dr. Asim Hussain case has engendered a mixed reaction from the public. While the general consensus is that he should be absolved of the charges of involvement in treating terrorists and terror-financing, people believe his involvement in financial misdemeanours — with reports of such murky deals continuing to surface — cannot be shrugged off that easily. And many ask, does the PPP’s visible desperation to have him released owe to Zardari’s genuine affection for him; outrage over the charges levelled against him; or to the fact that Dr. Asim Hussain is — according to a myriad credible reports — now singing like a canary and too many in the PPP ranks, from Zardari down, have too much to lose?
Ali Arqam main domain is Karachi: Its politics, security and law and order