July issue 2016
Amid the hue and cry over investigating Panama Leaks and bringing the corrupt to justice, the special judge of the Central Court Islamabad, Malik Nazir Ahmad, sentenced a former minister of religious affairs in the PPP government, Hamid Saeed Kazmi, to 16 years imprisonment in the famous 2010 Hajj corruption case. Additionally, he was fined Rs 147.396 million; failure to deposit the stated amount would lead to confiscation of his properties.
Along with Kazmi, Raja Aftabul Islam, a former joint secretary in the ministry of religious affairs, was also sentenced to 16 years in jail and fined the same amount. Rao Shakeel, a former director-general, Hajj, was awarded the maximum punishment: 40 years in prison and a fine of Rs 150.396 million.
The charge sheet framed against them carried accusations of fraud, cheating, abuse of authority and causing losses to the national exchequer, as well as the common people. More specifically, the three were accused of renting substandard buildings to house Pakistani Hajj pilgrims in Mecca in 2010, and charging them exorbitant amounts for the same.
The pilgrims faced the worst conditions that year, as they were lodged in quarters that were located 5 kilometres away from the haram. This is contrary to the law, which stipulates that all residences for Hajis should be located within a radius of 2 kilometres. What’s worse, reportedly many of the pilgrims were even forced to sleep on footpaths, due to the negligence of the Hajj administration.
According to some reports, the rent allegedly paid for the buildings lodging Pakistani pilgrims was 3,600 Saudi Riyals when, in actuality, it was not more than 2,500 Saudi Riyals. In fact, Hajj pilgrims from India, Iran and Indonesia were lodged in cheaper and better accommodation within the vicinity of the city by their respective governments.
In a letter written by Saudi prince Khalid Bin Bandar Bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud to the Supreme Court, Pakistan’s Ministry of Religious Affairs was accused of embezzling government funds, and it was recommended that the court take notice of it. The letter stated that the Hajj pilgrims were overcharged for their stay in Mecca and Medina. Prince Khalid further wrote that the ministry was offered a lower quotation for renting buildings, but it was rejected. “There was concrete evidence of financial bungling and departmental corruption as far as the Hajj affairs of the Pakistani ministry are concerned,” the prince wrote in the letter.
Justice Iftikhar Chaudhary, who was then Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, took suo moto notice of the complaint and the FIA was assigned the task of probing the allegations and bringing the guilty to justice.
Subsequently, the then DG Hajj, Rao Shakeel was called back to Pakistan for investigations over his suspected involvement in minting millions of rupees on the lodgings rented for the Hajj pilgrims. He was suspended from duty and the then prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gillani, promised action against him on the floor of the National Assembly. Shakeel was subsequently arrested.
Interestingly, the then Minister for Religious Affairs, Hamid Saeed Kazmi denied having any knowledge about the letter. Kazmi’s name in the Hajj scandal first surfaced when the then Minister for Science and Technology, Azam Swati (of the JUI-F) accused Kazmi of being involved in corruption at the time of Hajj. Subsequently, a case was registered against Kazmi, and he was stripped of his ministry and arrested on March 15, 2011.
Interestingly, the name of Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani’s son, Abdul Qadir Gillani, who was also an MNA, cropped up in the scandal when a PML-N parliamentarian, Syed Imran Ahmed Shah, testified before the court that Gillani had received a bullet-proof Land Cruiser as a gift from Rao Shakeel Ahmed. In the statement, Shah alleged that Zain Sukhera, a friend of Gillani, flew down to Saudi Arabia where the car was personally handed to him by Rao Shakeel, from where it was later smuggled into Pakistan through the Karachi port.
However, Shah later backtracked from his statement and Gillani was acquitted.
After serving a year and five months in jail, Hamid Saeed Kazmi, along with both Rao Shakeel and Raja Aftabul Islam, were able to secure bail in August, 2012, on grounds of “weak evidence.” However, in December 2013, the Supreme Court instructed the FIA to prosecute the accused in a trial court and take strict action against those manipulating the investigations in the Hajj corruption case. The Supreme Court also ordered that Rs. 5,000 rupees be returned by the government to each of the 85,000 pilgrims, who were charged that extra amount to perform Hajj under the government scheme.
The FIA contacted Prince Khalid to arrange a meeting with him to discuss the contents of his letter. A five-member parliamentary committee formed to investigate the scam travelled to Saudi Arabia for the purpose.
Testifying before the court in March this year, a former MNA, Bilal Yasin, who was on the committee, said that Pakistani pilgrims were forced to live in under-construction buildings, and a front man, Ahmed Faiz, was paid 2.7 million riyals in kickbacks to rent these buildings.
Further investigations by FIA revealed that Kazmi stopped 7,000 pilgrims from going for Hajj, leaving the rented buildings for them unoccupied. It was further alleged that he rented separate quarters for government officials. The officials did not stay in the accommodation that was originally rented for them in Saudi Arabia which caused an additional loss of Rs 200 million to the national exchequer.
Kazmi has challenged the verdict against him in the Islamabad High Court, claiming he was implicated in the case for political reasons.