Court orders speedy hearing in Axact fake degrees case

On 9 February Pakistan's Supreme Court ordered the high courts to decide the long-pending cases against employees of the Karachi-based firm Axact – several of whom are charged with massive global fake degree fraud – within three weeks after hearing that fake degrees are still being sold. The cases have been pending for two years and eight months.

Pakistan’s Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar on 9 February complained that the prosecution process had been slow and was causing the country reputational damage, and he demanded that the courts now reach a conclusion on the case.

Justice Nisar headed a two-member bench of the Supreme Court to hear the case after he took suo moto notice on 19 January following a broadcast by BBC Radio on 16 January which investigated the massive degree fraud.

The BBC report revealed that the business of selling bogus degrees was still continuing contrary to the general notion in Pakistan that the fake degree mill was closed down in 2015 following raids on Axact’s offices, which also oversee the company’s substantial media and software businesses.

Bashir Memon, director general of Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), told the Supreme Court that "only 30% of Axact's income comes from other sources whereas 70% of its income is from accreditation and the business of online universities", Pakistan’s Geo News reported on Friday.

The BBC report itself was not discussed during the Supreme Court hearing.

Memon told the apex court that 330 websites of non-existent universities are still in operation but their connection with Axact has still not been established, a stance maintained by Axact.

Suggesting that the racket still continues, Memon told the court that anyone could get a degree for just INR500,000 (US$7,800) and it would be delivered within an hour. Degrees are issued based on ‘experience’ rather than courses or examinations.

The chief justice asked, "Can I also get a degree?”, to which Memon responded, "Yes you can get a degree of law based on your experience."

FIA appeal

The FIA maintains it has pursued the case efficiently, but the Sindh High Court and Islamabad High Court had acquitted the accused persons. These acquittals have been challenged by the FIA, with the registrar of the Islamabad High Court confirming that the FIA appeal is set to be heard on 22 February.

On Friday, Justice Nisar first passed orders for Axact’s CEO, Shoaib Ahmed Shaikh, and other defendants to be put on the Exit Control List maintained by the ministry of interior and executed by the civil aviation authority to stop the listed people from leaving Pakistan, but a few minutes later he withdrew the order after assurance by journalists associated with BOL TV, a sister concern of Axact, that Shaikh would not travel outside Pakistan.

The court ordered Shaikh to provide a written undertaking not to leave the country until the case has been decided and to deposit his passport with the Sindh High Court.

In wider repercussions relating to the money laundering charges originally filed by the FIA against Shaikh and other Axact employees, representatives of the Pakistan Broadcasters Association (PBA) filed an application to become a party in the case on the grounds that two news television channels, including BOL TV, are allegedly operated by Axact with "ill-gotten money" from fake degree sales.

“Axact has used its criminal money to launch its media channels BOL and Pak News. Considering [the] media is the fourth pillar of the state and is tasked with safeguarding public interest, no criminal elements can be allowed to enter the media industry with their black money,” the PBA said in a press release.

Echoing a general scepticism in Pakistan about the likely outcome of the case, Islamabad-based journalist Umar Cheema told University World News he did not expect anything concrete to emerge from the case. “The court has relied on information provided by the FIA and it is the same FIA that has weakened the case despite previously claiming to have ‘incriminating evidence’," which Cheema said the FIA should have presented to the courts.