Pakistani cabinet rejects audit report citing irregularities in COVID-19 spending

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan (L) chairs federal cabinet meeting in Islamabad on Nov 30, 2021. (PID)
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Updated 01 December 2021

Pakistani cabinet rejects audit report citing irregularities in COVID-19 spending

  • Audit of COVID-19 spending is one of five conditions of IMF during recent talks for resumption of $6 billion loan program
  • Report points out irregularities in government interventions to ensure availability of five essential items at Utility Stores, “non-transparent” procurement of

KARACHI: The federal cabinet on Tuesday rejected a recently-released audit report pointing to billions of rupees in irregularities in COVID-19 expenditures, the vaccination process and the Ehsaas social safety net relief program launched during the pandemic.
An audit of COVID-19 spending was one of five conditions imposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) during recent talks for the resumption of a stalled $6 billion loan program for Pakistan.
The report, conducted by the Auditor General of Pakistan, was released by the ministry of finance last Friday and pointed out irregularities in government interventions to ensure availability of five essential items — sugar, wheat flour, oil and ghee, pulses and rice — at Utility Stores at subsidised rates. It also found “non-transparent procurement” of equipment from China by the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA).
“The cabinet rejected the audit report on COVID-19 spending and asked three relevant organizations to give their presentations in this regard,” Information Minister Chaudhry Fawad Hussain said at a press conference after a cabinet meeting on Tuesday.
Hussain said the finance ministry had already rejected the audit report and the head of the Ehsaas program, Dr. Sania Nishtar, had clarified the position of her organization.
According to the audit report, the NDMA initiated a procurement process and started emergency procurements directly from China, including for biomedical equipment, testing kits and PPEs. The total disbursements on account of procurements from China as of June, 30, 2020 amounted to $62.2 million, according to the audit report.
“During audit, number of short comings were observed related to planning, initiation and execution of procurements by NDMA in all the three phases”, the report reads.
However, NDMA denied any breach of rules, saying the emergency procurements were made as per the law and after codal formalities were waived. The procurement was conducted through the Embassy of Pakistan in China and the Chinese Government provided a list of shortlisted firms or vendors for emergency procurement, it said.

The report also highlighted the loss to the public exchequer on account of the purchase of ventilators at higher rates from Sinopharm Fortune Way Company.
“The difference in price per ventilator was $7,100,” the report said. “Procurement of same equipment at the same time at a higher rate resulted in loss of $994,000 to the public exchequer.”
The authority held that due to an increased demand of ventilators and their critical requirement, the prices of ventilators with immediate deliveries and delayed deliveries showed a lot of difference in price. Finally after negotiating with the firm, an agreement was signed.
The audit said the firm generated an invoice of $1.977 million instead of $1.277 million and the claimed amount was paid in advance without confirmation of the total price approved, according to the report.
“The overpayment made to the Chinese firm led to excess payment of $700,000,” the report reads.
Accepting the audit observation, the NDMA said it was actively seeking a refund from Sinopharm Fortune International Trading Corp, Beijing.
Out of an allocated COVID-19 budget of Rs50 billion for the Utility Stores Corporation (USC), Rs10 billion was released to provide five essential food items including wheat flour (Atta), sugar, ghee, pulses, and rice at subsidized rates to vulnerable segments of the society.
The audit report pointed to irregularities of more than Rs5 billion in purchases of sugar, ghee and flour by the Utility Stores Corporation as well as the purchase of ghee and edible oil worth Rs1.40 billion which was unfit for human consumption.
The management of USC procured ghee and cooking oils for Rs1,601.964 million without competitive tendering process and without obtaining competitive rates, according to the audit report.
“It transpired that the companies that had provided ghee/oil for Rs 1,406.396 million to the USC had been declared providing unfit ghee/oil to the public by the Punjab Food Authority,” the report added.
After the audit recommended an investigation, USC management insisted no rules were violated for procurement and no product could be placed at any outlet unless its quality was certified and an ISO certificate was received from a concerned manufacturer.
On Saturday, the Pakistani finance ministry said the audit report was discussed in detail by officials of the Auditor General of Pakistan with the IMF in June 2021 as well as during the recently concluded 6th review.
“The IMF was fully satisfied that there was no case of fraud and embezzlement,” the ministry said. “Majority of the Paras and observations included in the report relate to procedural shortcomings due to emergency procurements.”
The IMF was also informed that divisions and organizations had noted the shortcomings in the audit report and taken remedial measures, according to the finance ministry.


Mohammad Rizwan, Imran Tahir steer Multan Sultans to victory in low-scoring PSL opener

Updated 27 January 2022

Mohammad Rizwan, Imran Tahir steer Multan Sultans to victory in low-scoring PSL opener

  • Popstars Atif Aslam and Aima Baig sang the official PSL anthem at the tournament’s opening ceremony
  • Pakistan’s popular T20 cricket series kicked off with music and fireworks at the National Stadium in Karachi on Thursday

KARACHI: A caption’s knock of 52 off 47 balls by Mohammad Rizwan and brilliant bowling by spinner Imran Tahir helped Multan Sultans defeat Karachi Kings in a low-scoring opening match of HBL Pakistan Super League (PSL) at the National Stadium Karachi on Thursday.

Rizwan was still on the crease with yet another half century when his partner Tim David smashed the ball out of the ground to secure a seven-wicket victory with 10 balls remaining.

Karachi Kings could not take too many wickets after the team, led by Babar Azam, put an easy target of 124 runs on the board for a very good batting side.

Kings’ Mohammad Nabi and Mohammad Ilyas took three wickets.

Multan Sultans’ Imran Tahir picked up Sharjeel Khan (43), Muhammad Nabi and Tom Lammonby to stop the rival team from scoring a big total.

Earlier, the seventh edition of the country’s most popular HBL PSL T20 cricket tournament began with an electrifying curtain-raiser ceremony,

At the outset of the event, popstars Atif Aslam and Aima Baig sang the official PSL7 anthem. A special video message by Prime Minister Imran Khan was also played out during the ceremony before the fireworks began.

The combination of photos shows fireworks and popstars Atif Aslam and Aima Baig performing the opening ceremony of Pakistan Super Leagues' seventh edition in Karachi on January 27, 2022. (Photo courtesy: Pakistan Cricket Board)

“I’m opening the seventh PSL and I hope every team fights till the last ball and entertains the public,” said the prime minister.

Karachi on Wednesday reported 1,542 new COVID-19 cases with an infection rate of 40.91 percent. However, the country’s cricket board has already announced strict measures to prevent the virus spread during the tournament.

Going by the directives of the National Command and Operation Center, the PCB has reduced the seating capacity of the National Cricket Stadium to 25 percent for the first 15 matches to be played in Karachi.

It is yet to announce its decision on the number of spectators during the second phase of the tournament which will be held in Lahore.

“We have taken strict security measures to make the tournament a success,” Muqadas Haider, deputy inspector general of police who looks after the city’s eastern zone where the cricket stadium is located, told Arab News.

He said 6,000 police personnel would perform security duty at different routes in and around the tournament venue.

“Paramilitary Rangers have also been asked to perform security duty in the city,” he added.

The first few editions of the tournament attracted large numbers of people in the United Arab Emirates – where PSL was launched – and Pakistan.

Apart from the two teams that are playing the first match on Thursday, Lahore Qalandars are captained by Shaheen Shah Afridi who has witnessed a meteoric rise in international cricket since his debut in 2018.

Islamabad United are led by Shadab Khan while Sarfaraz Ahmed will continue to command Quetta Gladiators.

Peshawar Zalmi will be led by Shoaib Malik in the first match as skipper Wahab Riaz is in isolation after testing positive for COVID-19.

PSL has established itself as one of the top T20 leagues around the world and has featured some of the best international cricketers.

Given the competitiveness of the tournament, the league has witnessed five out of six sides getting crowned as champions since its inception in 2016.

The inaugural champions, Islamabad United, are the only ones who have bagged the title twice.

Peshawar Zalmi won the tournament in 2017 after beating Quetta Gladiators in the final match in Lahore. This was also the first HBL PSL contest that took place on Pakistan’s soil.

According to PCB, Pakistani cricket fans will be able to watch all the matches on A Sports and PTV Sports.

HBL PSL 7 will also be broadcast around the world by Fox Sports (Australia), Etisalat (Middle-East and North Africa), Flow Sports (Caribbean), Sky NZ (New Zealand), Sky Sports (United Kingdom), Sony (South Asia outside Pakistan), Super Sports (Sub-Saharan Africa) and Willow TV (North America).

Daraz App will live-stream the action in Pakistan, while OTT platforms ICC TV and Tapmad will also telecast the tournament.


Pakistan’s interior minister suspects more militant attacks in coming months

Updated 27 January 2022

Pakistan’s interior minister suspects more militant attacks in coming months

  • Sheikh Rashid Ahmed maintains Pakistan has better intelligence gathering mechanism against militants after two decades of war with them
  • The interior minister says even the Afghan Taliban find it difficult to control TTP militants occasionally

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s interior minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed told an international media outlet on Thursday the country could witness a surge in terrorist attacks in the coming months, though he maintained the government was trying to deal with armed groups involved in such violent activities.

The country’s eastern city of Lahore witnessed a bomb blast in a crowded market last week that killed three people and injured 33 others.

Prior to that, militant also targeted police personnel in the federal capital that made the interior minister speculate that Pakistan was witnessing the reemergence of terrorism.

Speaking to BBC Urdu in an exclusive interview, he said sleeper cells of terrorist organizations in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan provinces had become active once again.

“There is a fear that terrorist incidents can increase in the next two months,” he said, “but we will be able to deal with this fresh wave of violence.”

Ahmed said Pakistan had developed a better intelligence gathering mechanism against militant groups after fighting with them for two decades, adding that law enforcement agencies were doing their best to deal with the outfits posing the threat of violence.

“Action is taken [against militant groups] as soon as information about them is received,” he continued.

In response to a question about the resurgence of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the minister said the new administration in Kabul was playing a constructive role. He added the Afghan Taliban had acted as mediators during Pakistan’s negotiations with the TTP leadership.

“The Afghan Taliban were acting like a bridge [between the two sides],” he said. “They were advising the TTP not to launch attacks [against Pakistan]. They [the Afghan Taliban] have a commitment with us that Afghanistan’s soil will not be used for terrorist attacks against Pakistan.”

“However, the TTP militants cross the border and carry out attacks,” he added. “We keep informing the Afghan government about these attacks and action is also taken against the terrorists involved in these attacks.”

The minister said it seemed that even the administration in Kabul could not control the TTP while clarifying that Pakistani government was no longer negotiating with the militant network.

“After the violation of the ceasefire, the door for talks has almost closed,” he maintained. “The agreement was violated by the TTP itself. We talked to them a few times after that, but it did not yield any results.”

He informed that TTP leadership objected to border fencing between Pakistan and Afghanistan while demanding the release of prisoners convicted by local courts.

“It was not possible to release such dangerous prisoners,” he added. “Hence, we could not accept the TTP demands.”

Ahmed said Pakistan had offered a chance to TTP militants to surrender and accept the country’s constitution, but they chose to violate the ceasefire agreement instead.


'Defining moment' as government unveils proposed changes to Pakistan’s criminal justice system

Updated 27 January 2022

'Defining moment' as government unveils proposed changes to Pakistan’s criminal justice system

  • Prime Minister Imran Khan urges legal fraternity to support amendments to the legal framework of the country
  • Pakistan’s law minister says the government has proposed nearly 700 amendments, calling each one a ‘game changer’

ISLAMABAD: Prime Minister Imran Khan on Thursday described the introduction of the government’s proposed amendments to the country’s criminal law as a “defining moment” for Pakistan, saying it would transform the justice system and redress the grievances of the common man.

The prime minister issued the statement while addressing a gathering in the federal capital that focused on criminal law and justice reforms in Pakistan.

Prior to his speech, the country’s law minister Barrister Farogh Naseem said the government had proposed about 700 changes to the criminal justice system to remove impediments faced by ordinary citizens seeking relief from courts.

“This a defining moment for Pakistan,” the prime minister told the gathering. “We will continue to improve these legal reforms since it is a dynamic process. But you [the law minister] have laid down its foundations and made it a defining moment for the country.”

He regretted that previous Pakistani administrations had not made an effort to amend laws enacted during the colonial era.

“International legal systems have improved with the help of technology, but Pakistan’s system has only deteriorated,” he maintained.

The prime minister said the justice system in the country treated the weak and the powerful differently.

“There are many horrifying stories concerning ordinary people languishing in prisons,” he continued. “Their only fault is that they were born in poor families.”

Khan said he knew many foreign investors who were not willing to bring their wealth to Pakistan since they did not have faith in the local justice system.

He noted that even the overseas Pakistanis were not willing to invest in their own country for the same reason.

“I know the problems the overseas Pakistanis face,” he added. “The only reason they do not invest in Pakistan is absence of rule of law.”

The prime minister appealed to the country’s legal fraternity and judiciary to uphold the proposed amendments to the criminal justice system.

Earlier, the Pakistani law minister shared some proposed amendments while addressing the ceremony, saying the government was trying to “completely overhaul the criminal justice system” of the country.

“We have made 700 amendments and every single one of them is a game changer,” he said.

Naseem maintained the suggested amendments would help ensure that police budget was distributed among relevant police stations.

“The police will not be allowed to use the excuse that they do not have enough funds [to solve the cases],” he said.

Naseem further revealed the proposed amendments would require trial court judges to complete a trial within nine months, adding they would otherwise be held accountable by members of the higher judiciary.


As glaciers melt, ice hockey in Gligit-Baltistan raises awareness on climate change

Updated 27 January 2022

As glaciers melt, ice hockey in Gligit-Baltistan raises awareness on climate change

  • Baltistan Ice Hockey Championship 2022 was held in Skardu on Jan. 25-26, with teams named after glaciers
  • Pakistan is home to 7,253 glaciers, with more glacial ice than any other country on earth outside the polar regions

ISLAMABAD: With its first ice hockey tournament, Skardu Valley, the main gateway to Pakistan's highest peaks and glaciers, is trying to promote awareness on climate change, which is increasingly affecting the region's ecosystem.

Pakistan is home to 7,253 glaciers, with more glacial ice than any other country on earth outside the polar regions. But studies show that climate change is “eating" them away at a dramatic rate. Pakistan's northern region of Gilgit-Baltistan is home to most of the country's glaciers.

The Baltistan Ice Hockey Championship 2022 was held in Skardu on Tuesday and Wednesday, featuring four teams, each named after a glacier.

“First time in the history of Baltistan, we organized a mega event Baltistan Ice-Hockey Championship 2022,” Waqas Johar, assistant commissioner Skardu told Arab News on Wednesday. "We organized this two-day event to create awareness about climate change."

He said climate change is indeed a significant challenge for the region

"Climate change is real. It is a global challenge that threatens the very existence of the earth in the coming years. Gilgit-Baltistan, home to the largest glaciers outside the polar regions, is highly vulnerable to the adverse impacts of climate change. The fragile ecosystem of Gilgit-Baltistan needs urgent attention."

Besides its awareness raising goal, the championship also aimed at promoting winter tourism.

“Such events play a very important role for the promotion of winter tourism and awareness about climate change,” Gilgit-Baltistan Tourism Minister Raja Nasir Ali Khan told Arab News. “We have been celebrating winter festivals like ice-hockey, ice climbing, skiing etc. in Hunza and other districts of Gilgit region. Now, the first time we are organizing ice hockey in Skardu.”

Known for its picturesque landscapes, Gilgit-Baltistan, a mountainous area bordering Afghanistan and China is Pakistan’s favorite tourism destination and was listed by Forbes among the ten “coolest places” to visit in 2018.

"Gilgit-Baltistan is blessed and filled with natural beauties," Khan said. "Here is also lots of opportunities in the tourism sector not only in the summer."

The Baltistan Ice Hockey Championship has also attracted foreign visitors.

“I am visiting the Gilgit-Baltistan region to support communities coming outside in winter, learning about activities and sports they can do in winter,” Canadian High Commissioner in Pakistan Wendy Gilmour told reporters in Skardu, as she came for the competition on Tuesday. 

Canadian High Commissioner Wendy Gilmour and Gilgit-Baltistan Tourism Minister Raja Nasir Ali Khan watch a match during the Baltistan Ice Hockey Championship 2022 in Skardu district, Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan, on January 25, 2022. (Photo courtesy: Pamir Times)

“Ice-hockey is Canadian passion we are so pleased to see happen here in Gilgit-Baltistan. It’s such an amazing beautiful area. It’s very wonderful to see girls, boys and the youth of this region come outside, learn about their environment, learn about types of things that we can do in winter."

Muhammad Shareef Sadpara, ice hockey trainer, said there were plenty of opportunities for winter sports in the region, where future athletes could be groomed.

“If the governments’ support continues, residents of Baltistan region make the country proud through their talent," he said. "There is no dearth of talents among the people.”


Pakistan imposes restrictions on real estate sector to meet FATF conditions

Updated 27 January 2022

Pakistan imposes restrictions on real estate sector to meet FATF conditions

  • The country’s real estate sector largely remains undocumented, raising concerns it can be used for money laundering, terrorism financing
  • Real estate agents say the government’s directives only target registered dealers which is ‘extremely unfair’

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s Federal Board of Revenue (FBR) has stopped real estate businesses from making any deals or transactions with convicted individuals to meet Financial Action Task Force (FATF) conditions, officials said on Thursday.

The country’s real estate sector remains largely undocumented, raising international concerns it can be used for money laundering and terrorism financing.

Pakistan has been on the increased monitoring list of the global dirty money watchdog since June 2018 due to multiple strategic deficiencies in its financial system. The country is required to successfully implement an action plan to get itself removed from what is more popularly described as the FATF “grey list” of countries.

“We have been taking all necessary actions, including streamlining real estate businesses, to ensure compliance with the FATF conditions,” Asad Tahir Jappa, an FBR spokesperson, told Arab News.

He said his organization was actively liaising with law enforcement agencies to prevent any criminal from pouring dirty money into the real estate sector.

“Implementation of the new directives and policies may take some time, but we have to ensure compliance and we are doing it,” he added.

Under the new regulations, a convicted person cannot be given a position at Designated Non-Financial Business and Professions (DNFBP) that include real estate agents, dealers in precious metals and stones, law firms, accounting businesses, and services that help set up companies on papers.

A convicted person cannot become a beneficial owner or hold a senior position in DNFBPs. Property businesses and other DNFBPs would also be required to inform the government if there was a change of beneficial owners or senior executives at these companies.

The FATF has identified these “non-financial” businesses as being susceptible to money laundering and terrorist financing due to the nature of their business and the transactions they may conduct. Real estate developers and agents top the list of “non-financial” businesses which explains why the government has made it compulsory for them to register with the FBR.

Muhammad Ahsan Malik, general secretary of Real Estate Consultants Association, said all real estate developers and dealers were cooperating with the government to regulate the sector, but it was not their job to ascertain if a person was convicted before making any deal.

“The government should take the initiatives that are implementable and doable,” he told Arab News.

Malik said there were about 30,000 real estate agents and developers registered as tax filers with the government while the number of unregistered businesses and professionals in the field ran somewhere into a million.

“All the government’s instructions and directives are meant for the registered dealers which is extremely unfair,” he said.