Chief minister disqualified over fake university degree

The chief minister of Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan region has been removed from his position because of a fake university degree submitted in his nomination papers for election in 2022.

The verdict, disqualifying him from holding public office for five years, was announced by a three-member bench, formed on 29 May, of the region’s Chief Court, based on a petition filed by a member of the provincial assembly, Ghulam Shahzad Agha, of the opposition Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).

The Chief Minister Khalid Khurshid was disqualified on 4 July under Articles 62 and 63 of Pakistan’s constitution, which require holders of public office to be honest and truthful, and the Election Commission of Pakistan de-notified Khurshid as a member of the regional assembly.

He was removed immediately from his post as chief minister and declared ineligible to hold any public office for a period of five years.

Khurshid, the regional head of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party led by former prime minister Imran Khan, announced he would challenge the verdict in the Supreme Appellate Court.

The original case went to court when Pakistan’s Higher Education Commission (HEC) withdrew the equivalence certificate, which it issues to Pakistani citizens for degrees obtained from foreign countries.

The HEC wrote to Khurshid on 12 May, informing him that his degree – which was claimed to be issued by the University of London – was not verified by the issuing university.

The HEC letter states: “This commission approached the University of London for re-verification of your law degree, transcript, and letter of certification provided by you. The university has disclosed that the copy of the degree certificate, a letter of certification, and a transcript were not issued by the University of London. Therefore, the HEC equivalence certificate, issued to you on 23 September 2022, is cancelled.”

Articles 62 and 63 of Pakistan’s constitution have been a matter of debate for some time as many politicians, including former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, were declared ineligible to hold public office over ‘dishonesty’.

These articles were included in the constitution by former military dictator Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq in 1985. Politicians believe the vague interpretation of ‘truthfulness’ and ‘honesty’ make any public office holder vulnerable to disqualification.

Support for Imran Khan

When the case was registered in the court, Khurshid maintained the fake degree issue had been raised to malign him for political reasons and for supporting Imran Khan, and that he would file a defamation suit against political opponents over this allegation.

Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf claims Khurshid was penalised for supporting Imran Khan after the latter was ousted from power in April last year. Khurshid has allegedly provided regional security personnel for Khan’s protection, including when Khan was arrested on 9 May this year over the controversial Al-Qadir University alleged corruption case.

Khurshid was also put under house arrest in Islamabad in order to restrict the movement of his security escort that he was allegedly using for his own personal protection. However, paramilitary forces arrested Khan from designated court premises in Islamabad, sparking violent protests across the country in May. Khan was later released.

Reacting to Khurshid’s disqualification, Khan said he was shocked, describing Khurshid as an honest man and “the best chief minister” in the country.

Khurshid has also asked the HEC to explain the equivalence certificate that the HEC itself issued to him last year.

However, according to the court proceedings, Khurshid’s lawyers did not try to claim that the law degree which Khurshid had submitted in his nomination papers for the provincial assembly was genuinely issued by the University of London. Instead, they argued that Articles 62 and 63 do not apply in the region of Gilgit-Baltistan which has a special status equal to a province but is not an actual province.

The court, however, did not accept this, and said that Articles 62 and 63 were applicable in the region.

In response to why the HEC did not initiate the verification process earlier last year, an HEC official, requesting not to be named, told University World News: “We reassessed our own equivalence certificates after there was a doubt, and then we found that the manuscript submitted by Khalid Khurshid, claimed to be issued by the University of London, was suspicious as it differed from other genuine transcripts issued by the same university to other students in the same year.”

He added that the HEC then decided to re-confirm the degree with the issuing university.

Several fake degree submissions

Amjad Hussain, a lawyer of petitioner Agha, told the media after the court verdict that Khurshid had submitted the degree issued by Axact, a Karachi-based company which has been under judicial investigation for allegedly running degree mills worldwide. Hussain told the media: “Today, truth has prevailed, and it has been proven that the degree submitted by Mr Khurshid was fake.”

In an investigative report published by Pakistan’s English language Express Tribune newspaper on 5 April last year, it was revealed that Khurshid also presented a fake law degree issued by ‘Belford University’ to the region’s Bar Council in 2011 to obtain membership as a lawyer.

Bar Council membership was granted without any verification of his academic credentials.

Belford University, along with Belford High School, was shut down in August 2012 and their ‘founder’, Salem Kureshi, and others were ordered by the judge in a US district court in Flint, Michigan, to pay US$22.7 million in damages under a class action on behalf of 30,500 US residents who were victims of a fake high school diploma scam.

A source was quoted in the Express Tribune report as stating that “along with many similar websites, it [Belford University] was owned by the Karachi-based company Axact”.

Former FBI agent Allen Ezell, who headed the FBI’s DipScam task force charged with disbanding diploma mills and led a US investigation into Pakistan-based Axact, wrote that Axact sold more than nine million diplomas and transcripts drawn on fake universities, one of which was ‘Belford University’ which grew out of the equally fictitious ‘Belford High School’.

A 2018 BBC investigation said documents showed that more than 3,000 fake Axact qualifications were sold to UK-based buyers in 2013 and 2014 and cited the example of one sold by ‘Belford University’ in 2007.

Khurshid had earlier submitted the degree issued by ‘Belford University’ to the HEC but later withdrew it and submitted another degree purporting to have been issued by the University of London, that also turned out to be fake, according to the HEC.

Politicians’ fake degrees saga

The issue of fake degrees is not new in Pakistan. Many politicians were disqualified in 2010 and again in 2013 as former military dictator Pervez Musharraf, who died in Dubai this year after a long ailment, introduced a law in 2008 requiring politicians to have at least a bachelor degree to be eligible to contest elections.

Following the introduction of that law, many politicians acquired fake or bogus degrees to qualify to stand for election, but later political opponents of those elected to parliament challenged their academic qualifications and a large-scale verification of degrees was initiated in the country on court orders.

Over 54 politicians were disqualified over fake, counterfeit or bogus degrees and some were given jail sentences.

A few years later, in 2015, a New York Times report revealed Pakistan was the hub of the counterfeit academic degrees business worldwide, which led to a court case involving Axact.

Successive governments in Pakistan removed the bachelor degree requirement to contest parliamentary elections, but under Articles 62 and 63, submitting a fake degree in nomination papers is sufficient evidence for their disqualification, even after they are elected.

Aziz ur Rehman, director of the School of Law at Islamabad’s Quaid-i-Azam University, told University World News: “The prevalence of fake and bogus academic degrees in Pakistan is a matter of grave concern for the reputation of the country’s institutions.

“Despite the widescale media buzz and legal action against fake degree holders, one must wonder how a person successfully cheated three institutions, the HEC, the Bar Council and the Election Commission, and got himself elected as chief minister with fake academic credentials and remained on that slot for over a year.”