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Crime & Justice

Pakistan's money laundering affects poor bank users

Millions of dollars have mysteriously departed the country after launderers flooded poor residents' bank accounts with cash and then emptied them.

AFP


Local rickshaw drivers in Peshawar wait for passengers October 29. [Javed Khan]

Local rickshaw drivers in Peshawar wait for passengers October 29. [Javed Khan]

ISLAMABAD -- It took a local rickshaw driver Mohammad Rasheed a year to save Rs. 300 ($2.25) to buy his daughter a bike, so when he found Rs. 3 billion ($22.5 million) had passed through an unused bank account in his name, he was stunned... and frightened.

"I started sweating and shivering," said the 43-year-old latest victim of a money laundering scheme that Pakistan's new prime minister, Imran Khan, has vowed to crush.

When he got a call from the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), Rasheed's first inclination was to go into hiding, but friends and family members finally persuaded him to co-operate with officials.

His case mirrors dozens of similar stories in recent weeks that have filled newspapers in Pakistan and riled a populace long accustomed to extravagant tales of corruption and theft.

The incidents follow a similar arc: criminals flood bank accounts held by poor residents and then suddenly empty them in a laundering scheme that has likely seen hundreds of millions of dollars disappear from the country.

Authorities eventually cleared Rasheed's name, but his anxiety remained.

"I stopped driving my rented rickshaw on the roads because of the fear that some other investigating agencies might pick me up," he said.

"My wife fell sick because of the tension."

Only weeks before the fiasco, he had finally been able to buy a bike with worn tyres for his daughter, the fruit of his year-long careful saving.

'Stolen money'

The revelation of the laundering frenzy comes as Khan has vowed to squash rampant corruption and recover billions siphoned from the country as his government scrambles to shore up Pakistan's deteriorating finances.

"This is your stolen money," said Khan in late October.

"It was stolen on public contracts... and transferred into these accounts, then laundered abroad."

"I will spare no corrupt man in this country," he promised.

But for victims like Mohammad Qadir, the damage has already been done.

"I have never even seen a bank from the inside," said the 52-year-old ice cream vendor.

Someone nonetheless made transactions in his name for Rs 2.3 billion ($17.3 million).

Since the news of the incident spread, Qadir says he suffers regular mockery by his neighbours and fears kidnapping by criminal elements who believe he has billions of rupees.

"He is a penniless billionaire," one of Qadir's acquaintances laughed while driving past his ice cream cart in the Karachi slum of Orangi Town.

"Others make fun of me, but I ended up with nothing at all from this situation," said Qadir. "It is such a tragedy."

Sarwat Zehra, a 56-year-old official, said she has suffered from high blood pressure after facing a bill for Rs. 13 million ($98,000) in back taxes.

"I was told that a company had illegally passed Rs. 14 or 15 billion (about $105.1 million to $112.7 million) through my account," she said.

Members of Pakistan's elite have long used the poor as fronts for dodging taxes and hiding assets.

But the scale of the bank account scheme is unprecedented, with authorities pointing the finger at some of Karachi's wealthiest power brokers, including figures with links to Asif Ali Zardari, the former president.

'Blacklist'

In September, the Supreme Court established a commission to investigate the scourge, finding that at least $400 million (Rs. 53.3 billion) had passed through "thousands of false accounts", using the names of impoverished Pakistanis.

Some 600 companies and individuals "are associated with the scandal", the commission concluded.

It is all the more embarrassing for Khan as his administration scrambles to secure billions of dollars in foreign financial assistance, while entering talks with the International Monetary Fund for a potential bailout amid a widening balance of payment crisis.

The brazen laundering schemes come as Pakistan was again placed on a watchlist this year by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) -- a Paris-based anti-money-laundering monitoring body -- for failing to do enough to combat terror financing.

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