Former PM arrested, released in university corruption case
Khan is facing charges of corruption in relation to the establishment of a private university trust headed by himself and his wife Bushra Bibi. The private Al-Qadir University, a pet project of Khan’s while he was prime minister, was set up in Sohawa, 80 km northeast of the capital Islamabad, on a 23 hectare site. It admitted its first 40 students in 2021.
The land for the university was said to be donated by a businessman and was transferred to the trust in 2021. The trust also received other donations, but it has been under investigation by anti-corruption agencies that have on multiple occasions summoned Khan to answer questions.
After his arrest at the High Court premises to which Khan was summoned for biometric verification for pre-arrest bail related to cases against him that are not linked to the trust case, Khan appeared on Wednesday before an Islamabad accountability court, a special court that deals with corruption cases.
The accountability court said it would allow the apex anti-corruption agency, the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), to keep Khan in physical custody for eight days before he appears in court on 17 May, but in a dramatic hearing the following day, Thursday 11 May, his arrest was declared illegal by the Supreme Court and referred back to the High Court.
The judgment by the Supreme Court states that the release order for Khan does not relate to the Al-Qadir University case but applies to the way he was arrested from the high court premises.
Khan, ousted from power in April last year, has a following of mostly young people. A former cricket hero who won the World Cup for Pakistan in 1992, Khan has gained popularity due to disaffection with the government because of rising inflation as a result of the war in Ukraine and massive floods in the country.
Speaking to University World News before his own arrest by Islamabad police on Wednesday 10 May, senior PTI member Fawad Chaudhry, Khan’s close aide and former information minister, said: “Is setting up a university a crime? Al-Qadir University is imparting free education, and this corruption case is politically motivated to keep Imran Khan out of the election process … due [to take place] this year. People are protesting and they will continue to protest until Khan is freed.”
The army was called in this week as violence spread. Khan’s political fans clashed with police and torched several public and private vehicles, including an ambulance. They also set fire to the house of a military corps commander in Lahore in addition to attacking police stations and some army cantonments in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces.
Several government buildings were set alight by protesters, including a state-run radio station in Peshawar. At least eight people were killed. Many were injured, including activists and law enforcers. Hundreds of protesters were arrested.
An angry mob also tried to attack the military headquarters in the garrison city of Rawalpindi, adjacent to the capital Islamabad where a police station and railway station were also torched, and police vehicles set ablaze. Smoke is still being seen rising from many cities across all provinces and internet services across the country remain suspended.
Schools and universities have been closed, examinations (including those being conducted by the British Council) cancelled, and shops, markets and transport shut down in most affected areas.
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif addressed the nation on Wednesday and warned of strict action against any protesters who damaged public property, terming such activities “acts of terrorism” and advised Khan to face his corruption charge through legal means instead of creating anarchy.
Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah Khan told University World News: “This extreme reaction over a case of corruption in the name of a university manifests [shows] that the defendant [Khan] does not have any grounds to prove his innocence, and that is why Imran Khan has set loose the rioters to ‘blackmail’ state institutions and get away with corruption.”
He added: “The rioters and those who instigated them will have to face the consequences. Khan will have to return the money embezzled in the name of Al-Qadir University and face the law like every citizen. He cannot be given concessions just because his supporters are angry over his arrest.”
Failure to respond to legal notices
Before his arrest this week, Khan had been summoned by the NAB several times since the Al-Qadir University Trust corruption case was initiated in November last year. It is alleged that Khan and his wife obtained billions of rupees for the trust in 2019 – when Khan was still prime minister – from Malik Riaz, a property tycoon, in order to build the university.
The coalition government that came into power by ousting Khan through a parliamentary vote of no confidence, had tasked the NAB in June 2022 with an investigation of alleged embezzlement and money laundering related to the trust.
The sum of £190 million (US$238 million) had been recovered from Riaz by the United Kingdom’s National Crime Agency (NCA), which decided to hand over that money to the government of Pakistan. According to the NCA, it was “dirty money” with no “legal or defendable” source, even in Pakistan, and was brought to the UK from Pakistan.
According to the NAB, Khan never appeared before the bureau or responded to legal notices. The last notice asking him to appear in person to answer queries by the investigation team, or face arrest, was served on 1 May this year. Khan did not respond to that notice either, leading to his arrest on 9 May.
Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Planning and Development Ahsan Iqbal told University World News: “Khan has been arrested in a corruption case related to a university that he set up to launder the kickbacks and embezzlement of 60 billion rupees (£190 million at the 2019 exchange rate when the transaction took place).
“They are fanning protests and creating unrest in the country to get away with this fraud,” Iqbal said.
“Imran Khan is misguiding the youth and directing them to clash with state institutions in order to hide his corruption. He must be held accountable, and no concession should be allowed to him just because some people are protesting against his arrest in the university corruption case.”
According to an investigative report in December 2022 published by Rawalpindi-based English-language daily The News, the university had only 100 students (by the end of 2022) and was charging fees although it did not yet have degree-awarding status. The university has said that status has been applied for.
Al-Qadir University provides free education, in accordance with its own rules, but says it charges 10% of the total value of the fees, which its management says helps to “create responsibility” among students.
No rebuttal was issued from any side in respect of the newspaper report, which also said the university trust was created within a few weeks after then prime minister Khan got the deal approved by the cabinet and the beneficiary of the deal (Riaz) became the main donor to the trust.
The report claimed the university trust received PKR282 million (US$954,000) in donations over two years (2020 and 2021) and only incurred expenses of around PKR8 million.
The accountability court prosecution told Judge Muhammad Bashir that Khan was charged with evading investigation into an estimated PKR60 billion corruption case.
NAB prosecutor Muzaffar Abbasi told the court the alleged embezzlement was channelled through the Al-Qadir University Trust registered in the name of Imran Khan as chairman of the trust and his wife Bushra Bibi, as co-trustee.
In his defence, Khan and his lawyer Khawaja Haris told the judge that repatriation of the money from the UK to Pakistan – where part of it was used to settle an earlier fine imposed by the government of Pakistan on Riaz over a different case – was endorsed by the cabinet during Khan’s tenure as prime minister.
According to prosecution documents, this meant Riaz received relief of PKR60 billion in respect of a PKR490 billion fine. In return, Riaz provided 23 hectares of land in Sohawa for the university. An NAB lawyer argued the university and trust were merely a guise to hide the benefits of receiving precious land in a scenic town.
The opposition at the time, now in government, maintains the university trust was “specially set up to cover this dubious transaction”. It claims the cabinet was forced by Khan to approve the deal.
Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) Chairperson Bilawal Bhutto on 11 May said Khan deceived his cabinet when he was prime minister by securing endorsement of the deal without showing details to cabinet members in the name of secrecy in the national interest.
Bhutto said in a press conference that Khan “was arrested over alleged corruption in Al-Qadir University, but he used his supporters to attack state-owned and private properties just like Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), but only to hide his high-magnitude corruption”.