Appeal hearing in fake degrees case resumes after hiatus

After a delay of over four years, Islamabad High Court on 16 November resumed the hearing of an appeal by Shoaib Ahmed Shaikh, CEO of Axact, against a 2018 conviction for fraud and forgery involving the selling of fake degrees of non-existent universities to thousands of people worldwide.

The new chief justice of Islamabad High Court, Aamer Farooq, has held three hearings since mid-November with the latest one on 7 December. He was concerned about the prolonging of the judicial proceedings, which started in 2016 and had been held pending since 2018. The counsel for prosecution alleged that the delay was deliberately caused by the defendants as they had not shown up in the court since then.

When the chief justice enquired about why the fraud and forgery case had been pending for over four years, the prosecutor of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) informed the judge that “when the conviction was announced on 5 July of 2018, Shoaib Shaikh ran away from the court. He had earlier fled from the court when his bail was rejected in March 2018.”

The prosecutor informed the court that Shaikh surrendered in September 2018 and the sentence was suspended in October 2018 after Shaikh filed an appeal against his conviction and the FIA then filed a counter appeal against suspension of conviction.

Chief Justice Aamer Farooq observed: “It is a criminal matter; the appeal had been pending for over four years and the accused are hiding from the court. The court can withdraw the bail, send them to jail and then fix the case for 2031. Pending cases are a blemish on the system.”

The chief justice then directed Shoaib Shaikh to appear in person for every hearing, rejecting his lawyer’s request for a permanent exemption from in-person appearances.

The counsel for Shaikh tried to get the case adjourned for a longer period, to which the chief justice remarked: “You should not make [an] inappropriate plea. They are on bail since 2018. Let the case run or [the court can] withdraw the order of suspension of conviction and bail and adjourn the case for two years.”

After Shaikh’s appearance before the court on 2 December, the hearing was adjourned until 7 December and the case of another accused, Nigel Brin Robello, who according to the FIA had fled to Sweden to avoid arrest, was separated from the appeal hearing case and the court issued a non-bailable arrest warrant for him.

In the latest hearing on 7 December, the case was again adjourned until 16 December. At the very start of the hearing, Shaikh’s counsel made another plea to exempt his client from in-person appearances stating security-related issues and requested to adjourn the case until January next year, but the chief justice rejected the request saying: “The arguments in the case have yet not started but an exemption request has been made.”

Earlier, in September this year, the previous chief justice of Islamabad High Court, Athar Minallah, now promoted as judge of the Supreme Court, had also expressed displeasure over the non-appearance of Shaikh for hearings on his own appeals against his conviction.

A judge of the Session Court of Islamabad, Pervaiz-ul-Qadir Memon, had acquitted Axact CEO Shoaib Shaikh and 27 others in the fake degrees case in October 2016 after receiving a bribe of PKR5 million (US$22,300). The judge was sacked in February 2018 after he confessed before a committee to having received the bribe in return for acquitting Axact officials. His verdict of acquittal was cancelled.

Shaikh was arrested in Karachi by the FIA in February 2018 in a money laundering case after a two-member bench had set aside the order of acquittal earlier passed by the District and Session Court judge of Karachi over money laundering of PKR170 million. The FIA had maintained that money was generated through selling bogus degrees, but Axact’s lawyer argued that the funds were earned through selling software.

The case of forgery and fraud involving selling fake degrees was registered against Shaikh and other Axact officials in May 2015 under different sections of the Pakistan Penal Code when the alleged scam created a media buzz in the country after an investigative report by Declan Walsh was published in the New York Times in 2015.

In this case, the Sindh High Court granted bail to Shaikh and other accused in August 2016 after they had been in custody for 15 months. The FIA had lodged the cases in Karachi and Islamabad separately as the agency raided Axact offices in these two cities and as, according to legal requirements, the cases could be filed in the relevant jurisdictions where the alleged crime is committed.

In July 2018, a local court of Islamabad sentenced Shoaib Shaikh and other officials of Axact in the fraud and forgery case involving selling fake degrees to seven years’ imprisonment.

He was again arrested in September 2018, but Islamabad High Court suspended conviction of Shaikh and others in October 2018. Since the conviction was suspended, Shaikh maintains he was never convicted.

Former head of the strategic studies department of Islamabad’s Quaid-i-Azam University, Rasheed Khalid, told University World News that the then chief justice of the Supreme Court Saqib Nisar had observed that the case of fake degrees was an embarrassment for the country at a global level and had directed to conclude the case within three weeks back in 2018, but four years have elapsed and still there is no outcome.

Rasheed Khalid said: “This shows inherent weaknesses in our judicial system and raises questions on the role of money, influence, and pressures or other tactics for prolonged pendency of the cases.”

Pakistan’s Express Tribune newspaper reported in 2018 that approximately 2.1 million blank bogus degrees and certificates of universities and schools were recovered from the administrative process management department of Axact in Karachi, and it had taken 15 days just to count them.