‘She threw us into hell’: Pakistani victims of $1.9 million Ponzi scheme narrate their ordeal

In the file picture taken on May 13, 2019, a currency exchange vendor adjusts Pakistani currency notes as he waits for customers on a street in Karachi. (Photo courtesy: AFP/File)
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Updated 10 December 2022

‘She threw us into hell’: Pakistani victims of $1.9 million Ponzi scheme narrate their ordeal

  • Victims, mostly women, say they deposited money as part of over 100 ballot committees run by Sidra Humaid
  • Humaid, the treasurer, has requested Karachi court to provide her security after declaring herself bankrupt

KARACHI: Anila Khan, a 33-year working woman living in the southern Pakistani city of Karachi, is scheduled to undergo surgery in March but her plans to go under the knife were shattered, when she came to know that she has been a victim of a multimillion ballot committee (BC) scam and has lost her deposit of Rs150,000 ($672), instead of receiving Rs600,000 ($2,688) for her surgery. 

Khan is one of hundreds of victims of the Ponzi scheme, which has so far not been officially reported to the authorities. 

The BC is an ages-old traditional method of saving outside of banking systems in which individuals pool money, often without any written record. Under the mechanism based on mutual trust, an individual receives the amount on their turn every month and it goes on until all the people involved are paid off their due sums. 

Khan, who had been a regular depositor since September, didn’t know that her plans would fall apart until she came across a “public apology” on the Facebook account of Sidra Humaid, the woman behind the now-famous Ponzi scheme, which has swindled hundreds of people, mostly women, of approximately Rs430 million ($1.93 million) as per the victims’ estimations. 

“She deceived me. She threw us into hell,” Khan told Arab News this week. “I am distraught and feel like being backstabbed.” 

She said she was not even sure of getting back the amount she had deposited in the last three months, let alone a sum of Rs600,000 she was supposed to get on her turn. 

In the Facebook post on November 27, Humaid informed her depositors she had “messed up” her committees and was now “practically bankrupt” with no means to pay the amount owed to them. 

“To solve the monthly payments issue I had to start more committees and that eventually resulted in a rolling loop that had no end,” she wrote. 

“Now I have to pay so much money that I cannot even calculate.” 

Her post dropped like a bombshell on members of over 120 committees she was running, with each member pitching in from Rs5,000 to Rs400,000. 

Humaid said if she was supported in her handcraft and home-cooked food businesses, she would be able to earn and pay off the amount. 

“If my Croise and Daily Bites are allowed to continue and my customers, friends and loved ones still support my businesses, then I would be able to earn and pay off my loans,” she stated in the post. 

But the treasurer did not have a plan or offer a timeframe to pay back people she had taken the huge sums of money from. 

Humaid also said she or her family had no properties, and they wouldn’t run away, but the victims said they came to know of her travel history, including a few trips abroad, and later found out she had vacated her home in Karachi as well. 

Humaid first began inviting people to join her BCs via Facebook some four years ago, according to victims. Members would deposit their amount into her bank account every month and each one of them would monthly receive a consolidated sum of BCs from the rest in their respective accounts on their turn. 

Humaid would also create a WhatsApp account of members for coordination after the launch of a BC. All this continued without any complaints from members until August this year, when Humaid started failing to keep her commitments. 

On December 6, she again took to Facebook and informed depositors she had requested a Karachi court to provide her security against what she called “continuous threatening calls, continuous visit of gunda (goon) sort of people” at her place. 

Humaid’s counsel, Kamran Alam, told the court that his client was being accused of doing an online financial fraud even though she neither sold any product nor used any advertisement on online platforms. 

To pursue their case, the victims said they created a WhatsApp group where people shared their distressing stories. 

The WhatsApp group has now turned into a “mourning meetup” group, with voice notes of women crying and desperately asking for help. 

“Sidra deceived us only after building trust for many years,” said Saima Gul, another victim of the Ponzi scheme. 

“I had several successful BCs over the last three years, which prompted me to start a committee of Rs30,000 ($133) for myself and another wherein my brother would deposit Rs300,000 ($1,335).” 

Gul said she was saving up money to perform Umrah, while her brother joined the BC to pay off the loan he had obtained for the construction of his home. 

“Not only do our problems remain unsolved, but we also practically lost Rs1.1 million ($4,896) of our hard-earned money,” she said. 

Another victim, Sonia Rashid, who contributed to a committee her share of Rs15,000 for two months, said when she listens to the stories of other victims, it makes her forget her own ordeal. 

“There is a woman being kicked out by her husband. Another lady said she was contemplating suicide,” Rashid told Arab News. 

“A working lady started BC of Rs50,000 ($222) per month for her marriage next November, she cries at night after disclosing it to her brother. You can’t imagine our pain. This lady has robbed us of our dreams.” 

Arab News tried reaching Humaid on her mobile phone, but it remained switched off on Thursday and Friday. 

Victims say Humaid occasionally comes online on WhatsApp groups to assure them of returning their money. Many of them are not even sure if they will get back their money in the absence of a written agreement. 

But Omar Memon, a noted lawyer in Karachi, said a formal agreement was not necessary for every financial matter. 

“As per the law, there can be a verbal agreement. All one needs is circumstantial evidence of the financial relationship,” he told Arab News. 

Memon suggested that the victims should immediately approach the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), whose cybercrime and financial crimes wings deal with such issues. 

“The victims should also approach the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP), which may check the bank accounts [of Humaid] and freeze them,” he said. 

“The central bank will see if she has laundered any amount abroad and will also check the possibility of funding any proscribed organization.” 

When contacted, Shehzad Haider, a deputy director at the FIA cybercrime wing, said the agency had not received any complaint regarding the matter. 

Abid Qamar, an SBP spokesman, said such saving schemes prevail outside of the banking systems only due to a lack of knowledge on people’s part. 

“People should utilize the presence of the banking sector which offers various instruments for saving purposes,” he said. 

Editor’s note: The names of the victims have been changed on their request.


Karachi factory owner arrested for manslaughter, negligence after 15 dead from suspected gas leak

Updated 30 January 2023

Karachi factory owner arrested for manslaughter, negligence after 15 dead from suspected gas leak

  • At least 15 people died between January 10-26 in Karachi's Ali Muhammad Goth neighborhood in district Keamari
  • Sindh health department investigation report says both measles and gas emissions could be the reasons for the deaths

KARACHI: Police have filed a case against three factory owners for manslaughter and negligence and arrest one of them in the southern port city of Karachi, a police official said on Monday, on a complaint that poisonous gas from their factories had leaked and caused multiple deaths in recent weeks.

At least 15 people were reported dead between January 10-26 in the city's Ali Muhammad Goth neighborhood in district Keamari, according to an investigation report by the Sindh health department that was released last week. The report said 34 others who fell ill in the area had survived and were treated at hospital.

Authorities sealed three factories in the Keamari neighborhood on Friday after health teams observed a "very foul smell" in the affected area. All infected cases and deaths were reported among residents who were living an estimated 10-20 feet away from factories that produce rubber, plastic, stone, and oil.

“One [factory] owner, Khair Mohammed alias Sher Mohammed, has been arrested while two others have also been nominated in the case registered by a resident whose four family members have died,” Chaudhry Shahid, station house officer (SHO) Moachko, told Arab News.

The case was registered under Sections 322 (punishment for an unintentional, unlawful act that causes death), 284 (negligent conduct with respect to poisonous substance) and 34 (common intention) of the Pakistan Penal Code against factory owners Mohammed, Shahid Husain and Saeed Khan.

Complainant Khadim Husain stated in the FIR that toxic fumes emitted by factories in the neighborhood had killed his wife Razia, 32, sons Shoaib and Shahid, 18 and 4 respectively, as well as his one-year-old daughter, Haleema.

“These deaths occurred owing to the negligence of the factory owners,” a copy of the first information report by police, seen by Arab News, stated.

However, the health department said both measles and gas emissions could be the reasons for the deaths, adding in its investigation report 40 out of 49 total victims were younger than 11 years of age and not vaccinated against measles.

“During an active search in the community, the team observed cases of suspected measles," the report said. "We cannot exclude the measles virus as a risk factor of the outbreak until the confirmation of blood samples.”

Senior Sindh health official Dr. Abdul Hameed Jumani said nothing conclusive could be said about the cause of death yet, adding: “But since there are no deaths [after the closure of factories], it can be assumed that toxic chemical emitted by the factory was the cause.”

Dr. Seemin Jamali, a health expert and former executive director of Karachi's Jinnah hospital, also said toxic pollution may not be the only cause of the deaths, adding that in Pakistan, common causes were often overlooked by authorities in their search for unusual explanations in such incidents.

"Common causes include diseases which could be measles or diphtheria or something of the kind," Jamali said. "Because the immunization of the population here [in Ali Muhammad Goth] is almost 0%."

In February 2020, at least fourteen people died in a case of the emission of toxic gas in the same port side Keamari district. Authorities also suspected soybean dust from shipping containers could have led to the deaths.

Incidents of gas leakages and mishaps are common in Karachi, where many factories are built inside residential areas, or operate illegally and without proper safety measures.


Pakistani actress Sajal Aly to play lead role in series adaptation of classical Urdu novel

Updated 30 January 2023

Pakistani actress Sajal Aly to play lead role in series adaptation of classical Urdu novel

  • 'Umrao Jaan Ada' is an 1899 Urdu novel that follows a courtesan's life
  • Producer hopes eight-part series will 'develop different characters' from novel

KARACHI: Pakistani actress Sajal Aly has been roped in to play the lead role in an upcoming series based on the classical Urdu novel from 1899, 'Umrao Jaan Ada', the producer of the show confirmed on Monday, saying that the series would spotlight more original characters from the novel.   

Penned by renowned author Mirza Hadi Ruswa, Umrao Jaan Ada has been hailed as one of the most renowned Urdu-language novels of all time. The novel chronicles the life of a courtesan named Umrao Jaan and has garnered critical acclaim for its portrayal of culture in the 19th-century century subcontinent. 

The hit novel has been adapted numerous times over the decades. Pakistani director Hasan Tariq turned the novel into a film in 1972 while private news channel Geo Entertainment aired a TV adaptation of the same novel in 2003. 

The most renowned adaptation of the novel came in 1981 when Indian director Muzaffar Ali helmed a movie on the famous character, starring popular Bollywood actress Rekha. Indian writer, director and producer Jyoti Prakash Dutta also directed an Umrao Jaan movie in 2006 starring Aishwarya Rai Bachchan. 

The upcoming Pakistani series will be packaged and produced by Abu Dhabi-based South Asian celebrity management agency, Action Consultancy. 

“The makers of this project feel that Sajal [Aly] will do justice to the complex character of Umrao [Jan]," Hamid Hussain, producer and chief executive officer of Action Consultancy, told Arab News. "Our project has two primary female characters, one of which is Umrao Jaan.”

Hussain acknowledged that Ali's 1981 Umrao Jaan adaptation was the most "remembered" one. However, he said film adaptations always have always been "rushed" versions of original works of art. 

"Unfortunately, film adaptations have to narrate the entire story in a short time and thus have always been rushed," Hussain said. “As an eight-part series, we have time to develop the different characters from the original novel.”

Aly, who has starred in a string of hit Pakistani drama serials and movie projects, confirmed she would play Umrao Jaan in the series adaptation.

“Can’t say anything about it right now but the news is right,” Aly confirmed to Arab News on Sunday.  

Hussain said the names of other cast members would be announced at the "right time."

“The series adaptation relies heavily on the original Urdu version of the novel, unlike the film adaptations that had taken creative liberties to fit the story into a film narrative," he said.  

"There is a lot in the novel that has never been shown in an audiovisual project.”

Pakistan's Dawn reported that the series was going to stream on a major online service but the producer declined to confirm which one, when asked by Arab News.


Islamabad district judge sends ex-PM Khan aide on 14-day judicial remand

Updated 30 January 2023

Islamabad district judge sends ex-PM Khan aide on 14-day judicial remand

  • Chaudhry Fawad Hussain was arrested in Lahore last Wednesday on a complaint filed by the Election Commission
  • ECP says Hussain threatened members of regulator and families in a TV interview, incited violence against them

ISLAMABAD: A district judge in Islamabad has ordered that ex-premier Imran Khan’s close aide, Chaudhry Fawad Hussain, be jailed on judicial remand for 14 days in a case involving charges of sedition, among others, filed by the country's election regulator.

The former information minister was arrested in Lahore last Wednesday after the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) lodged a complaint with Islamabad police saying the leader of Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party had threatened members of the regulator as well as their families and made remarks in a TV interview that were tantamount to inciting violence against them. 

“He [Fawad Hussain] is remanded to judicial custody,” Magistrate Waqas Ahmad Raja said in a short order, rejecting the prosecution’s plea for an extension in Hussain's physical remand.  

Police were granted two-day physical remand of the PTI leader on Saturday to carry out a photogrammetry test and recover his laptop and mobile phone for forensic analysis.

On Sunday, Hussain was taken to Lahore for the test which the prosecution said was mandatory to complete the investigation.

The magistrate on Monday asked what the need was for the photogrammetry test in such a case and the prosecution failed to provide an answer that satisfied the judge.

Photogrammetry can be a very powerful tool in forensic analysis and is often useful to get an accurate 3D reconstruction of an accident or crime scene, especially in cases where position, distance and perspective are important.

“I have been on the road for the last 48 hours,” Hussain told the judge.  “I haven’t gotten enough sleep,” he added, referring to his journey to Lahore and back for the photogrammetry test.

“The police were under special instructions to take me [to Lahore] in the police van. I have slept only two and a half hours in the last six days," he added.

Hussain's counsel, advocate Babar Awan, said the accused had already acknowledged his statement during the TV appearance.

“Fawad Chaudhry says he stands by his statement,” Awan told the court. “He has categorically announced that he would not surrender. He is the first accused who is accepting his statement.”

The judge rejected the prosecution's plea for an extension in Hussain's physical remand and sent him to a judicial lockup for 14 days. The judge also allowed Hussain’s family to meet him in the lockup at the Islamabad district court’s premises.

The PTI leader’s legal team is pursuing a bail petition in the district court for his release.  

During the hearing on Monday, which took place in a packed courtroom amid heavy deployment of police, the magistrate ordered police officials to remove Hussain's handcuffs.

PTI supporters and leaders chanted slogans outside the court's premises, demanding Hussain's release in what they described as a "shady case."


Russia says at 'advanced stage' of negotiations to build long-delayed gas pipeline in Pakistan

Updated 30 January 2023

Russia says at 'advanced stage' of negotiations to build long-delayed gas pipeline in Pakistan

  • Moscow and Islamabad agreed in 2015 to build a 1,100-kilometer pipeline to deliver LNG inside Pakistan
  • Both countries have "conceptually agreed" that Russia would provide cheap crude oil to Pakistan from March

ISLAMABAD: Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Viktorovich Lavrov said on Monday Islamabad and Moscow were in the "advanced stage" of negotiations to build the long-delayed Pakistan Stream Gas Pipeline (PSGP), which is to be set up in Pakistan in collaboration with Russian companies.

The two sides agreed in 2015 to build the 1,100-kilometer pipeline to deliver imported liquefied natural gas (LNG) from Karachi on the Arabian Sea coast to power plants in the northeastern province of Punjab.

“We are currently in the advance stages of work on the agreement on PSGP and I am sure that in the near future, we will see more progress,” Lavrov told reporters at a joint media briefing with Pakistani foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, who is in Moscow for delegation-level talks.

Bhutto Zardari's visit comes weeks after Pakistan and Russia announced they would try to finalize by March a deal for Moscow to sell discounted oil products to the cash-strapped South Asian nation.

A Russian delegation was in Pakistan earlier this month to attend the 8th Pakistan-Russia Inter-Governmental Commission (IGC) meetings, during which multiple memoranda of understanding were signed and it was "conceptually agreed" that Russia would provide cheap crude oil to Pakistan as it struggles to meet its energy needs amid a severe foreign exchange crisis. Russia also said this month it would allow Pakistan to pay for the energy imports in currencies of friendly countries.

Historically Pakistan has had no major commercial relations with Moscow, unlike neighbouring India, and as a traditional US ally, it had also been hesitant to do trade or any business with Moscow in the past.

It currently depends on oil from Gulf countries, which often extend facilities such as deferred payments and can supply with lower transport costs, given Pakistan's relative proximity.

The G7 economies, the European Union and Australia agreed to a $60-per-barrel price cap on Russian seaborne crude oil effective from Dec. 5 over Moscow's "special military operation" in Ukraine. And last week, the US State Department said the cap would allow "energy markets to continue to be resourced while depriving Moscow of the revenue it would need to continue to propagate and fuel its brutal war against Ukraine.”

“The United States and its allies will make obstacles but our friends from Pakistan have mentioned that they are first of all guided by their legitimate national interest of developing their economy and helping their people by providing all the necessities including the energy,” Lavrov told media, appreciating Pakistan for its "impartial and balanced position" on the Ukrainian conflict.

“I have shared my views [with Bhutto Zardari] on the situation related to the consequences of the western activities to use Ukraine to launch a hybrid war against the Russian Federation,” he added.

Bhutto Zardari said the Pakistan government was committed to fulfilling the energy and other needs of its people at all costs.

“We had detained discussions on this [energy cooperation] and are expecting positive progress on our discussion on energy cooperation,” the Pakistani FM said. “As far as other countries are concerned, I expect them not to interfere in the bilateral relations between Pakistan and Russia.”
 
On the issue of the war in Ukraine, Bhutto Zardari hoped "dialogue and diplomacy" would prevail over "polarization and conflict."

“We have a firm belief that all conflicts can be resolved peacefully and there are no obstacles which diplomacy cannot surmount, and the Ukraine conflict is no exception,” he said, adding that developing countries like Pakistan were facing the negative consequences, especially economic, of the conflict.

“Pakistan sees itself as a bridge builder and we want to see cooperation regionally and internationally even between the great powers,” he said. “We value our relationship with Russia and equally value our relationship with the United States and Europe.”

“We intend to intensify cooperation with Russia in the areas of trade, economy, security counter-terrorism, defense," Bhutto Zardari said, "as well as cultural, educational, and people-to-people ties."


IMF mission due in Pakistan tonight to discuss resumption of stalled loan program

Updated 30 January 2023

IMF mission due in Pakistan tonight to discuss resumption of stalled loan program

  • A successful IMF visit is critical for Pakistan, which is facing an increasingly acute balance of payments crisis
  • Pakistan is desperate for external financing, with only enough forex reserves to cover three weeks of impotts

ISLAMABAD: An International Monetary Fund (IMF) mission will land in Pakistan tonight, Monday, to discuss a stalled ninth review of the country's current funding program, Pakistani media widely reported.

A successful IMF visit is critical for Pakistan, which is facing an increasingly acute balance of payments crisis and is desperate to secure external financing, with less than three weeks' worth of import cover in its foreign exchange reserves.

“The [IMF] delegation will stay in Pakistan for 10 days,” Samaa Digital, a leading Pakistani news portal, reported. “During the visit, the delegation will be briefed about the country’s economic performance during the second half of 2022 … The situation arising from $30 billion losses incurred by the recent floods will also be conveyed to IMF.”

The government will also brief the IMF delegation on actions it has taken to improve tax revenue and exchange rate conditions, as well as reforms in the energy sector and steps taken to squeeze the current account deficit.

Last week, Pakistan's ministry of finance announced petrol and diesel prices would rise by 35 rupees ($0.1400) a litre. Last week, the Pakistani rupee lost close to 12% of its value after the removal of price caps that were imposed by the government but which were opposed by the IMF.