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Shirin Sadeghi

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Exclusive Interview With the Man at the Heart of Pakistan's Newest Political Scandal: The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court's Son

Posted: 06/17/2012 2:41 pm

The saying goes that boys will be boys. The trouble is when men are still boys. The chief justice of the Supreme Court of Pakistan knows about that all too well. Like a repeat of the 2007 debacle, in which he was fired by then-President Pervez Musharraf under the guise of corruption associated with his son, Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry is once again in the spotlight because of his son.

Except this time, it's not the president who is making the power moves against the chief justice, it's a real estate tycoon with powerful ties.

Malik Riaz Hussain, a businessman with connections at the highest levels of Pakistani government, military, security services, and media claims that Chaudhry's son, Arsalan Iftikhar, has blackmailed him out of $3.63 million over a three-year period. In an interview this week from Pakistan, Iftikhar called the allegations "propaganda" and "a trap."

The Chief of Justice

With the tensions surrounding Hussain's allegations reaching a head, the chief justice decided it was time to take a stand. Last week, he took a suo moto action -- a legal term meaning the judge took an action on his own to initiate an investigation into a matter that was not yet in court proceedings -- against his own son. An unprecedented move in Pakistani judicial history.

It's the top story in Pakistan now, not least because it is seen as an attempt to yet again use his son to damage the chief justice.

But Chaudhry has proven himself exceptionally adept at surviving attacks from all sides. He is, after all, rather disliked by a select group of exorbitantly wealthy Pakistanis -- Chaudhry isn't too keen on corruption -- and the government of the United States -- he's also not too keen on secrecy.

It was Chaudhry's 2006 suo moto action to initiate discovery of evidence about the missing persons cases in the Baluchistan province of Pakistan that confirmed his status as a thorn in the side of US operations in the country. At the time, Chaudhry famously stated that "90 percent of the people are accusing the FC [Frontier Corps] of abductions." The Frontier Corps is a paramilitary force that operates in that region of the country.

Of the $7 billion in military aid which the U.S. government gave to Pakistan from 2002-2007, most of it went to the Frontier Corps to aid in fighting what the U.S. believed to be Islamist militants. As a result, many Pakistanis believed that the U.S. and its agents in the country were in many ways responsible for the hundreds of missing Pakistani activists whose cases were not being brought to court for fear of reprisal. The 2011 case of Raymond Davis vindicated supporters of the missing persons' families: after Davis shot and killed a Pakistani citizen in broad daylight in Lahore, he was discovered to be a U.S. agent, with many active colleagues in the country.

The chief justice's 2006 suo moto action against the Pakistan Steel Mill was a big blow to corruption in the country -- that action led to a halt on the privatization of the country's national steel mill, something that had been of great concern to the mill's workers union.

More recently, Chaudhry has been involved in cases pertaining to the president, prime minister and the interior minister.

In February of this year, Chaudhry confronted Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, and effectively President Asif Ali Zardari himself, in what is commonly referred to in Pakistan as the "Swiss Letter" scandal. The prime minister narrowly escaped jail time after the court granted him a lenient sentence for his contempt of court conviction based on his refusal to write a letter to the Swiss government requesting that they revive existing corruption cases against the president.

In March, the chief justice headed a bench hearing a case against Prime Minister Gilani's son, Ali Musa Gilani, who is alleged to be involved in a $77 million scam pertaining to irregularities in the import of controlled drugs, specifically Ephedrine, also known as the poor man's cocaine. (That's the same son that was involved in an on-air brawl this past May on a Pakistani International Airlines flight from Lahore to Karachi.)

And just this month, Rehman Malik was suspended as interior minister in a decision led by Chaudhry at the Supreme Court. Malik was found to be a dual British citizen -- a position that is untenable in most -- if not all -- nations for such a high government position. Unable to prove that he had indeed relinquished his British nationality, Malik lost his job.

Now, at the very moment when both the prime minister, the president, and the (recently) former interior minister are no doubt seething at the chief justice's cases against them and their families, he finds himself in the midst of his own family scandal: Chaudhry's suo moto against his own son last week was seen by many as a defensive move.

Who Is Arsalan?

Arsalan Iftikhar Chaudhry, or Arsalan Iftikhar, is the chief justice's most well known son. He came to national prominence much in the same way that he finds himself in it again: amidst accusations and rumors that inevitably reflect negatively on his esteemed father. The first time around, the accusations were that the chief justice used his influence to get his son into medical school, despite his insufficient grades, and then got him a rapid promotion in his first government assignment.

"He hadn't taken money or anything," says Faria Khan, a London-based Pakistan observer, "and it wasn't proven on any level." But it was the trigger that then-President Musharraf used to initiate the chief justice's firing -- an act that resulted in a massive people's movement to reinstate the chief justice and ultimately led to Musharraf's own downfall.

But as Pakistani corruption allegations go, it was meager at best. "No one really believed it," Khan says, "Musharraf tried everything he could to incriminate the chief justice in various scandals, there was never anything he could come up with."

So he went with the son. And it failed. But the battle to take down the chief justice was just in hibernation, it seems.

In the years since, Iftikhar has abandoned his medical background and moved into the world of business. "I was a physician," he told me, "but I never practiced. I never took it as a proper profession so I started my own entrepreneurial thing," he said. He says he is now in the telecommunications business -- "the operation management and maintenance of the network of the telecom side."

Like most Pakistanis with prominent family members, Iftikhar's rise to success was quick. "It's just about influence," Khan says, "you don't even have to announce it if people know who you are. Then you'll get that loan, you'll get that contract, you'll get those marks at school, and you'll get those positions."

So while it isn't terribly surprising to most Pakistanis that Iftikhar would succeed in his business ventures, "there seems to be quite an amount of evidence suggesting that [Iftikhar] has lived a lifestyle that is not consistent with the wealth that he claims he earned publicly," says Arif Rafiq, an adjunct fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC.

As he did before, Iftikhar vehemently denies the current allegations. "Nobody ever helped me. My father is not the sort who will ever help me in anything in my businesses. I work hard and God helps me in my work," he said.

"Whatever I have earned, it's all black and white. I'm an honest businessman and I pay my taxes and I will prove this insha'allah."

The Expensive Trips

This time, however, the allegations come with what is said to be actual proof. According to Hussain, Iftikhar used him for trips and hotel stays in London and Monte Carlo. He has produced receipts, housing agreements and even passport and flight details -- all of which indicate a rather expensive lifestyle: stays at the London Hilton Park Lane and Monte Carlo's Hotel de Paris, and car rentals of a top model Range Rover during his stay in London.

"These documents have no authenticity," Iftikhar told me. In fact, the trips to London and Monte Carlo, according to Iftikhar, were arranged not through Hussain but through a businessman named Ahmed Khalil -- whom Iftikhar appears to know very little about -- and his London-based cousin Zaid Rehman. Aside from the allegations of improper exchanges of money, Iftikhar has been rumored to be cavorting with Khalil's wife, Sara Hanif, in Monte Carlo -- an allegation Iftikhar takes great exception to, being a newlywed of just a few months. "That's totally rubbish and bullshit," he told me, "she's like a sister."

Judging by Iftikhar's description of Khalil as a "friend who ended up like a Brutus," it would appear that he was not aware of Khalil's apparent relationship with Hussain, or at the very least trusted his ex-friend enough to not think anything of borrowing money from him, as he tells it.

"I always paid back," Iftikhar says. "I paid him [Rehman via Khalil] and I told him that if there are any other payments to be made from my side, please let me know. He said 'no'."

"My conscience is clear," Iftikhar says, "and alhamdulillah, with a period of time, I will prove myself."

Khan says most Pakistanis believe that Iftikhar knew what he was doing, in a general sense. "He probably knowingly went on these trips abroad or took the money -- even if it was via a third party so he can't link it back to Malik Riaz [Hussain] -- but he knew why he was receiving the money: to influence his father," Khan says. "But he had no intention of doing that."

Though Hussain is not saying what he got in return for the expensive vacations, some rumors are alleging that it was to get the chief justice to dismiss the many cases of corruption that are pending against him in the courts.

At least one theory has already been proven: even if Hussain couldn't get the cases thrown out, he could make certain that Chief Justice Chaudhry wouldn't be able to sit on the bench when his cases come up.

"So when the cases come up, he can say, 'I don't agree' or 'I refuse to appear before a court that's obviously prejudiced against me," Khan says. "It's an indirect route, but in effect he's made the chief justice redundant in any of the cases that involve him."

The Chief Justice's Reputation

But Iftikhar finds the very idea that anyone could influence his father through him ridiculous.

"Nobody can influence my father, the whole world knows this. If anybody thinks that being cozy with me can influence my father, they are totally wrong," Iftikhar told me.

The fact is, the son is right: his father's reputation is just about impeccable in a country where less powerful men are and have been using their influence to acquire outrageous wealth and favors. "The chief justice, in general is known to be an upright judge," Khan says, "in terms of his actual history in the judiciary, he is very clean."

It was this reputation, after all, that prompted so many Pakistanis to rise up and demand Chaudhry's reinstatement after Musharraf removed him from his position as chief justice in 2007. The historically-significant Lawyer's Movement of 2007 began as an effort by his colleagues in law and the judiciary but ultimately became a people's street movement that resulted in Chaudhry ultimately getting his job back. Not a small feat, considering he brought down U.S. ally Musharraf with the deed.

For his part, Iftikhar, like many Pakistanis, remains in awe of his father, even after the suo moto and the public announcement that his father has disowned him.

"I'm very proud of my father for this -- I will only go back home if I clear myself," he told me. Iftikhar lives apart from his father with his new bride, but says he won't even attempt to approach his father till he has cleared his name. "If I cannot clear myself, I have no right to go and meet such an honorable person, a person with such a feeling of justice," he said.

What's more, he not only denies the bribery allegations, he says he has no relationship with Hussain whatsoever. "I do not know this man, Malik Riaz [Hussain], or his son-in-law, or his daughter. I never came across -- never seen them in my life."

Enter Malik Riaz Hussain

Hussain doesn't claim to have met Iftikhar either. In fact, until this entire story went public, Hussain didn't claim very much at all.

"His political influence has been something that has been known but not necessarily seen," Rafiq says. According to Rafiq, Hussain has for years now been an unofficial and usually unseen-in-public middle-man between the various factions with whom he has ties: the military, the government, the security forces and politicians. "His political ties are pretty diverse. He's given bribes to politicians, bureaucrats, members of the military, and at the same time he's been used as an intermediary by political actors to negotiate deals or to lower tensions between different parties."

It was Hussain who was given the important contract to rebuild the Red Mosque -- or Lal Masjid as it is called in Urdu -- after a stand-off between the military and religious groups led to the mosque's destruction and significant tension between the two groups. And it was Hussain, in the days after Zardari became president in 2008, who is said to have brokered the coalition deal between Zardari's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and leading politician Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League - Nawaz Party (PML-N) -- a coalition that is now defunct due to Sharif and his party dropping out of the coalition amidst allegations of PPP corruption.

Given Hussain's high-reaching influence, many Pakistanis are baffled as to why he would risk it all just to take down the chief justice's son. "There's a huge amount of risk in what he's doing," Rafiq says. "Though I think the probability is pretty high that others at the very least gave their tacit approval to this." Rafiq wonders if Hussain has "guarantees from other power brokers in Pakistan that blowback to him might be limited."

And that is the reason -- Hussain's undisputed connections at the highest levels of Pakistani government, security forces, bureaucracy and even media -- why many Pakistanis believe Hussain's action is not a risk at all.

"He has his tentacles in absolutely everything," Khan says. "Apparently, he's got everyone on the payroll. He apparently boasted in the last election that he has control of over 80 [parliamentary] seats in Punjab."

Aside from his influence, according to Khan, Hussain is well known for video-recording his financial transactions. "He says it's for his own protection -- he's constantly accused of being almost like a mafia don, in effect, in Pakistan. When you have a recording of all those transactions, it's a tool of blackmail in essence."

A Comedy of Errors

Nonetheless, the Bahria Gate scandal, as it is now called, because of Hussain's biggest and most well-known project, the Bahria Town developments, has already had at least one victim: the media.

In Hussain's highly publicized media debut, days after the chief justice took the suo moto action, Pakistanis burgeoning media scene took a massive blow when a leak of the footage from the live interview's commercial breaks revealed that not only were the two interviewers being fed questions -- by Hussain, by their management, and by family members of Prime Minister Gilani and top opposition leader Sharif -- the entire interview appeared to be a set-up to uphold Hussain's position, rather than query critical elements of the growing scandal.

The two interviewers on Dunya News, a popular news channel in Pakistan, Mubasher Lucman and Meher Bukhari, were seen in the leaked footage of the commercial breaks (footage that can now easily be found on any popular video website on the Internet) not only bickering over petty logistics such as who got to ask Hussain more questions but are also seen constantly receiving phone calls.

One call was from Prime Minister Gilani's eldest son, Abdul Qadir Gilani -- himself a rising politician -- guiding the interviewers as to which questions should be asked of Hussain. Another call was from the daughter of Nawaz Sharif, the opposition leader of the PML-N party who quit the Zardari-led PPP coalition government claiming PPP corruption. Sharif's daughter, Maryam, called to tell the interviewers to make it clear that "gifts" her family were offered from Hussain had been refused.

Lucman, who is seen repeatedly lighting up cigarettes in front of the visibly pregnant Bukhari was particularly entertaining viewing. During a rather low point in the growing dispute between the interviewers, Lucman, a man in the twilight of his career, was seen throwing a tantrum even a toddler would shy at, grumbling that Bukhari had asked more questions than him. He then walked off the set. Scrambling to resolve the situation, not knowing whether her co-interviewer would be returning in time for the end of the commercial break -- the interview was being broadcast live -- Bukhari ordered his chair removed from the table. Just moments into the return of the live broadcast he is seen stumbling onto the set, infuriated that his chair is missing.

In the midst of it all, Hussain is seen doing what he does best: mediating between the feuding interviewers. Though he is clearly agitated by the effect Lucman's abrupt departure and less than professional return -- which was clearly visible during the live portion of the broadcast -- might have on his media coup.

The leaked video is seen as further evidence that Hussain is not acting alone -- he clearly had an arrangement with the television channel and the interviewers, and with leading politicians. The prime minister's son's phone call validates the suspicions of many that Hussain is in league with the prime minister and by default, President Zardari himself.

Only time will tell what other institution falls into the abyss. Meanwhile, it is clear that the trouble is widespread. "I see all those involved as having their hands dirty," Rafiq says, "it indicates the pervasiveness of corruption and nepotism in Pakistani culture, a systemic problem."

 

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