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Former President Zardari Barred from Leaving Pakistan

Arrests said to be imminent in ongoing money-laundering probe

[ISLAMABAD] – The former president of Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari, has been barred from leaving the country in the wake of allegations of money laundering in an ongoing and far-reaching investigation into corruption, which has ignited conflict between the government and the opposition parties.

This clash threatens to destabilize the Pakistani government just as Washington has turned to Pakistan to help diffuse tensions in the region and to be a key player in helping the U.S.-led international coalition withdraw from Afghanistan.

According to official documents obtained by The Media Line, authorities placed the names of as many as 172 individuals on the Exit Control List (ECL), which means they are forbidden to travel abroad. In addition to Zardari, his son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, and some of their close aides are on the list, as well as Murad Ali Shat, the chief minister of Pakistan’s Sindh province, and key ministers of his provincial government. Federal Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry confirmed in a statement to journalists last week that Zardari and others had been placed on the ECL. Sources said that the government was planning to arrest Zardari and his son as part of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s aggressive drive to fight corruption among the country’s elite. The authorities did not confirm nor deny this.

In September, Pakistan’s Apex Court formed a six-member Joint Investigation Team (JIT), tasking it with the investigation of a money-laundering and fake-accounts case allegedly involving Zardari and his sister Faryal Talpur. Headed by the Additional Director General of the Economic Crime Wing at the Federal Investigation Agency Headquarters in Islamabad, the JIT alleged that Zardari was the main beneficiary and organizer of the fraud.

Investigations revealed how fake accounts were opened by employees of Pakistan’s Omni Group and how these accounts were used to engage in direct transactions with a company owned by the Zardari Group, one of the companies allegedly involved in the money-laundering scam, which is owned and operated by the Zardari family. The report compiled by the JIT revealed that Zardari, along with his accomplices, laundered 4.2 billion rupees ($30 million).

Zardari, who served as president between 2008 and 2013, has denied any criminal activity and called the probe politically motivated. He has faced several graft cases over the years and was imprisoned for eight years on corruption cases in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Chaudhry said that the JIT had found irrefutable evidence against those who are under investigation and that the government was ready to take action against the accused.

“Well, [the] JIT report has exposed them all, including ex-President Asif Zardari. Preparations have been finalized to arrest high-profile personalities. We are just waiting for the green signal from prime minister’s office,” a police officer told The Media Line in a telephone interview.

Central leaders of Bhutto’s political party warned the government of the consequences of arresting Zardari or his son.

“[The] arrest [of] Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the co-chairman of Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), could plunge the country into chaos,” Khursheed Shah, a former leader of the opposition and a leader of Bhutto’s PPP, told The Media Line on Sunday.

In a tit-for-tat move, Zardari’s political party demanded concerned authorities place the name of Prime Minister Khan and some ministers of his cabinet on the ECL, alleging that Khan and his ministers had committed similar offenses.

“If names have to be placed on the Exit Control List merely on the basis of JIT reports then the same principle will have to be applied uniformly and without discrimination,” Dr. Farhatullah Babar, a senator affiliated with Zardari’s party and Zardari’s former spokesperson, said in a telephone interview.

Raza Rumi, a noted political analyst and commentator, said placing the former president on the ECL List could lead to political trouble.

“Placement of Asif Zardari on [the] ECL is going to polarize [the] country’s politics further and is not a good omen for the democratic transition which is on the way,” Mr. Raza Rumi told The Media Line.

Analysts believe the current struggle between the government and opposition parties will only foster instability at a point when Pakistan is emerging as a regional player willing to take a role in helping the United States cope with the new political reality in Afghanistan in the aftermath of the upcoming pullout of international forces there.

“Prime Minister Khan is playing with fire. His tussle with the opposition may lessen his grip on the government. In this situation, he will not be able to help Americans in Afghanistan,” Sohail Rana, an Islamabad-based defense and political analyst, told The Media Line.

Earlier this month, Pakistan’s foreign ministry confirmed that President Trump had written a letter to Prime Minister Khan seeking Islamabad’s support in securing a “negotiated settlement” to the war in Afghanistan.

Following the request, Pakistan facilitated talks between the Taliban and the United States in the United Arab Emirates this December.

While Prime Minister Khan is preoccupied with the country’s internal matters, some fear the political instability may compromise Pakistan’s international role, especially in Afghanistan, and could be another blow to the already strained Pakistani-American relationship.

Chairman of Pakistan Peoples Party Bilawal Bhutto Zardari arrives at the national assembly to attend the first session of the parliament after the general election, in Islamabad on August 13, 2018. (Photo: FAROOQ NAEEM/AFP/Getty Images)