Delays in court action on fake degrees arouse concern

Three months after Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency, or FIA, raided Karachi-based IT company Axact in the wake of a New York Times report that the company ran a global business selling fake degrees, concerns are being voiced over the delay in bringing the alleged perpetrators to justice, despite the FIA claim that evidence uncovered during its raids in Axact offices in Karachi and Islamabad, was “irrefutable and enough to incriminate”.

The investigation into the fake degrees scam – thought to be one of the world’s largest in terms of the number of fake universities and certificates issued – was ordered in May by the country’s Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan. Parliament also passed resolutions denouncing Axact’s alleged fake degrees business.

Pakistan’s senate set up a committee to probe the matter and provincial assemblies tabled condemning resolutions but the hue and cry seems to be getting nowhere and there have been no further court hearings on the substance of the fake degree claims or parliamentary debates and no follow-up even by the opposition parties which tabled resolutions on 19 May on Axact’s alleged fake degrees business.

The parliamentary resolutions demanded the government take stern and speedy action against Axact.

“The delay by law enforcing and investigation agencies in presenting the final [court] reference against Axact’s fake degrees business is creating doubts and suspicions,” Rasheed Khalid, a professor of humanities at Islamabad’s Quaid-i-Azam University told University World News. “Enough time has passed to collect the evidence and bring the culprits to court,” he maintained.

Academics in Pakistan are demanding speedy action against those involved in the fake degrees scam, not just linked to the Axact case but against all groups or individuals who allegedly provided fake degrees to Pakistani parliamentarians in 2008, at a time when contesting the election for membership of the national assembly required a degree qualification. Many politicians who did not have a degree resorted to obtaining fake degrees to be eligible to contest the elections.

Many politicians were later ousted from the assemblies and punished with fines, but to date providers of those fake degrees have not been identified, investigated and punished.

Academics fear court hearings of the Axact case could be similarly delayed and shoved aside. They are concerned at the reasons behind the delays in the judicial process, when the FIA had already submitted to the court that it had found 2.2 million fake degrees.

Money laundering

On 13 June, the FIA argued before a court in Karachi that it required more time to frame final charges as the culprits were also involved in money laundering. The court gave the FIA 10 days to present the final charge sheet against the accused. But more time was requested. On 2 July a second deadline was set but it passed without a charge sheet being submitted.

Atta-ur-Rahman, former chair of Pakistan’s Higher Education Commission and a former science minister told University World News: “This case should have been dispensed of in no more than a month as this is a matter of national importance – it has blemished the name of the country.”

The FIA, after its initial probe, registered a case against Axact executives including its CEO Shoaib Shaikh and arrested several company officials, and declared the rest, including Shoaib Shaikh’s wife Ayesha Shaikh, as “absconders”.

The arrested officials were remanded by the Karachi court into the custody of the FIA after the FIA submitted to the court that it had found 2.2 million fake degrees and diplomas at Axact’s offices in Karachi. They remain in custody.

Chairman of the provincial Higher Education Commission of Punjab, Muhammad Nizamuddin said: “Justice should not be delayed when investigation agencies have found credible evidence.”

“Strict and speedy action must be taken against the culprits who defamed the country by making money through selling fake degrees,” Nizamuddin said.

The FIA’s regional director in Sindh province was not available for comment but an official from the directorate told University World News on condition of anonymity: “This is a high-profile case requiring more investigation for substantial and irrefutable evidence that cannot be challenged in court.”

“Every day we are finding more and more new aspects about this case and it has many facets like money laundering etc, so it is taking some time to frame a final court reference.”

The FIA had earlier received court permission to investigate Axact’s foreign bank accounts in 19 countries including the United States, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, Singapore and Greece.

Pakistan’s Geo News TV reported on 7 June that Pakistan agencies were working in collaboration with the United States’ Federal Bureau of Investigation, or FBI, to probe Axact’s offshore accounts and confirm that a number of universities that Axact claimed to be in the US, did not actually exist there.

The FIA submitted details of seized bank accounts in Pakistan of the Axact company and its employees to a Sindh high court in early August and revealed during the court hearing that it had asked the banks concerned to freeze the accounts.

Victims’ testimony

A number of victims and whistle blowers have reported their stories. “The university seemed so legitimate; they even sent me a graduation gown and cap and told me they will be having a graduation ceremony in Atlantis, Dubai! I want to share my story so that other residents from here don’t make the same mistake,” Gulf News reported on 20 June based on an interview of a victim who sought a PhD at Grant Town University and Brooklyn Park University.

He told Gulf News the cost of each degree was around AED16, 515 (US$4,500) but his bill slowly accumulated to AED250, 000 after the universities kept on asking for additional fees for attestation and other services over a period of two years. “They are targeting the UAE specifically by featuring testaments of Arab students and carrying logos of the UAE Ministry of Higher Education and Expo 2020,” the victim was quoted as saying.

Although Axact targeted clients worldwide, it had a large number of clients from the Arabian Gulf region. Arab News reported on 25 June that Axact allegedly sold 1,198 fake degrees to Saudis between 2011 and 2015.

A news report suggests that at least 200,000 fake degrees were sold to people in the Gulf countries.

Another case was reported by Pakistan’s Geo News TV in which audio tapes were played of a conversation between Axact’s agent and a customer from the UAE aspiring to acquire a doctoral degree. The agent wanted more money while the customer repeatedly said he had paid enough. Axact’s agent appeared to intimidate him by saying the client’s previous expenditure would go to waste if he did not pay more money.

ARY News TV reported that a renowned TV anchor, Aamir Liaquat Hussain, had allegedly admitted to Pakistan’s FIA that he had bought a history degree from so-called ‘Ashwood University’ at a cost of US$1,136. He claimed he was not aware he was being defrauded.

So far nearly 345 websites have been uncovered, mainly by the New York Times, of different fake, non-existent colleges and universities and 87 accreditation bodies having been run or having been affiliated with Axact.