Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 29 October 2020

Senior Pakistani general faces scrutiny over family's business

Asim Saleem Bajwa oversees Chinese investment and advises Prime Minister Imran Khan

Asim Saleem Bajwa briefs media in June 2015, while serving as the Pakistani army spokesman before his retirement. AFP
Asim Saleem Bajwa briefs media in June 2015, while serving as the Pakistani army spokesman before his retirement. AFP

A retired general holding one of Pakistan's most sensitive posts is facing scrutiny over his family's finances after an investigative report claimed they acquired a vast empire as he rose through the ranks.

The report on Gen Asim Saleem Bajwa's family finances has triggered opposition calls for a high-level inquiry and demands for greater accountability from the powerful generals who wield huge influence in Pakistan.

Gen Bajwa has strongly denied the findings of the investigation by a Pakistani journalist and dismissed them as malicious propaganda.

The senior officer chairs the government body overseeing billions of dollars of investment from China, and also advises the prime minister, Imran Khan, on information and broadcasting.

The general on Thursday offered his resignation as special adviser, which Mr Khan refused to accept.

The investigation reported on a news website called FactFocus said company records and filings showed Gen Bajwa's brothers, wife and sons amassed businesses, property and assets worth tens of millions of dollars in the past two decades.

According to the report, the family owns a business empire which set up 99 companies in four countries, including a pizza franchise with 133 restaurants. Gen Bajwa's wife jointly owns businesses and assets worth $52.7 million (Dh194m), the report said. The National has been unable to independently verify the records.

While the investigation makes no specific allegations of corruption, it said Gen Bajwa had not mentioned the interests when making a June asset declaration for his role as an aide to Mr Khan.

Gen Bajwa at first replied with only a terse tweet saying he strongly rebutted a “malicious propaganda story published on an unknown site”.

Government officials claimed the report was an attempt by foreign intelligence agencies to undermine confidence in him and weaken Chinese investment.

A week later Gen Bajwa published a four-page statement saying he “vehemently denied” the report. He said his wife had got rid of all her investments three weeks before he made his asset declaration. Many of the companies listed in the report were dormant and investment in the family business had been almost entirely fuelled by bank loans, rather than family money, he said.

Pakistani media, which watchdogs say faces increasing repression for criticising the government or powerful military, at first barely covered the story.

Ahmad Noorani, the journalist behind the investigation, told The National that the website had come under nearly constant cyber attack after publishing his report.

Overseas assets held by senior politicians and officials have become a hot political topic, with Mr Khan railing against what he says is the looting of his country.

Promising to wipe out corruption by a venal elite was the centrepiece of the election campaign which swept Mr Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party to power in 2018.

A federal anti-corruption watchdog has since pursued a string of cases against leaders of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), often alleging they squirrelled money abroad.

The opposition parties have called the probes a politically driven witch hunt and questioned why investigators did not look at governing politicians or the military.

"I want to question Imran Khan and his government that today, when allegations have been made against Asim Saleem Bajwa with proof, why is his narrative of accountability sleeping?” PML-N vice president Maryam Nawaz said last week.

Mr Khan's government said it was satisfied with Gen Bajwa's explanation of his finances and that he had been asked to continue advising the prime minister.

Updated: September 6, 2020 03:57 PM

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