On Wednesday (January 18), an Islamabad sessions court granted bail to Bol News journalist Shahid Aslam, who was arrested last week for his alleged role in leaking former Pakistan army chief General Qamar Bajwa’s personal tax data. The bail was granted against surety bonds worth PKR 50,000.
Accused of obtaining leaked wealth statements and tax records of the general, his family and close friends, Shahid Aslam was arrested under Section 216 (harbouring offender who has escaped from custody or whose apprehension has been ordered) of the Pakistan Penal Code, reported Dawn.
Last year, a report by Pakistani online news portal, FactFocus, alleged that the former army chief and his family amassed assets of at least PKR 12.7 billion (roughly $ 55 million in today’s exchange rate) over the past six years.
What did the FactFocus report say?
FactFocus’s reportage revealed that within six years of Javed Bajwa becoming Lt General, his family “started an international business, purchased multiple foreign properties, started transferring capital abroad, become owners of commercial plazas, commercial plots, huge farmhouses in Islamabad and Karachi, an immense real estate portfolio in Lahore.”
At the time, the combined value of General Bajwa’s known assets “amounted to PKR 12.7 billion.”
The report alleged that only weeks prior to Bajwa’s appointment as army chief, his wife Ayesha Amjad registered as a tax filer in 2016. What followed was an exponential growth of her declared assets, “from zero in 2016 to PKR 2.2 billion (declared and known) in simply six years.”
Similarly, assets of Mahnoor Sabir, the general’s daughter in-law, rose from zero in October 2018 to over PKR 1 billion by November, a week before her marriage. In 2019, Sabir also became the ‘manager’ of Taxx Petroleum Pakistan, a Dubai-based oil company which started its operations across the whole of Pakistan within days following its incorporation.
Along with Mahnoor, even her sisters, mother, father and uncle showed sudden accumulation of wealth. While not saying it explicitly, the FactFocus report implied that the general misused public office for personal enrichment.
Why was Shahid Aslam arrested?
Crucially, FactFocus’s report contained scanned PDFs of tax records and wealth statements of the Bajwa family to corroborate its claims.
In November 2022, Pakistan Finance Minister Ishaq Dar told Geo News that the leakers of these confidential records have been identified, emphasising that Pakistani law does not give anyone the permission to release tax records without a court order. “This is a violation of our system and the law … the system’s accuracy and strength have been challenged,” said Dar.
Shahid Aslam was arrested in connection with this leak on Friday (January 14), with a local Islamabad court approving a two-day physical remand the next day. The prosecution has alleged that Aslam went to the office of the Federal Board of Revenue and illegally obtained General Bajwa’s records to supply them to FactFocus’s Ahmad Noorani, who then published the report.
“Why was Shahid Aslam visiting the FBR? It was because he had to acquire information,” the prosecutor said, adding that if found guilty, Aslam could face a 10-year jail sentence, reported Dawn.
How did Shahid Aslam respond to the charges against him?
Maintaining his innocence in the matter, Aslam’s counsel argued that the detention of his client was illegal, saying that there was no proof that Aslam “received any [leaked] information and had then passed it on to someone else,” reported Dawn.
— Roohan Ahmed (@Roohan_Ahmed) January 14, 2023
However, he has refused to share the passwords to his devices (a mobile phone and a laptop) with the authorities, to protect his various sources. In a video of the journalist being escorted out of the court, Aslam can be heard saying: “They are asking me for passwords. I won’t give the passwords.”
This has led to the prosecution claiming that Shahid Aslam is “not cooperating” with the investigation.
How have people reacted to Aslam’s arrest?
There has been widespread criticism of Shahid Aslam’s arrest in Pakistani civil society. The Lahore Press Club issued a strong statement of condemnation, asking for Aslam’s immediate release.
Former senator Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar also criticised the arrest, pointing at the government’s “misplaced priorities” amidst rising terrorism and a precariously placed economy. He also asked what was wrong with making public tax records of people in public office.
FactFocus has doubled down on its reporting, releasing a story that challenges General Bajwa to point out any factual inaccuracies in its original report. “Fact Focus stands by each and every point of its story and asks General Bajwa to specifically point out any misstatement in the story and present evidence” to that effect, wrote FactFocus.