Pakistan’s Head of Belt and Road Program Accused in Media Report of Corruption

September 16, 2020 Updated: September 17, 2020

A top aide to Pakistan’s prime minister who serves as the chairman of the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor Authority (CPEC) is under pressure to resign after an investigative report claimed that he’s guilty of corruption, having used his military rank to benefit his family business in four countries, including the United States.

Retired Lt. Gen. Asim Saleem Bajwa leads the government body that oversees China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) plans in Pakistan, including the $62 billion CPEC alliance.

The “Bajwa family business empire grew in four countries in sync with Bajwa’s rise in military,” according to an investigative report published by Pakistani media outlet FactFocus on Aug. 27. The story alleged that Bajwa, who also is a special assistant to Prime Minister Imran Khan for information and broadcasting, used his influence to help his family amass huge wealth.

Bajwa served the Pakistan army as commander of the Southern Command and as director-general of Pakistan’s Inter-service Public Relations before he retired and was named chairman of the CPEC, which made him a key person in the Pakistan–China relationship.

In a statement on Sept. 3, Bajwa described the investigative report as an attempt to damage his reputation.

“I strongly rebut the baseless allegations leveled against me and my family,” he wrote in a message on Twitter.

Adnan Aamir, an independent journalist covering the Belt and Road program in Pakistan, told The Epoch Times in an email: “This certainly gives a bad name to CPEC. There are already allegations of corruption and financial irregularities in CPEC and this scandal will further inflame the controversy.”

In response to the FactFocus allegations, Bajwa resigned as special assistant to Khan but continued to chair the CPEC. Khan rejected his resignation.

A Pakistan government report earlier this year had alleged widespread corruption in the CPEC. A nine-member committee was appointed last year to study the high cost charged for power even as CPEC projects boosted generation.

The report indicates “corruption and collusion between influential people on both the Pakistani and Chinese sides,” according to a commentary by the European Foundation for South Asian Studies.

Aamir, however, points out that the current allegations against Bajwa aren’t linked with China and CPEC in any way.

“China and CPEC are dragged in this scandal because General Bajwa is the chief of Belt and Road in Pakistan,” Aamir said.

Allegations

The growth of the Bajwa family’s business in the United States and later in Pakistan progressed proportionally with Bajwa’s rising “power” within the army, the FactFocus investigation concludes.

“Asim Bajwa’s younger brothers opened their first Papa John’s pizza restaurant in 2002, the year he went to work for General Pervez Musharraf as a lieutenant colonel on the military dictator’s staff,” writes journalist and FactFocus co-founder Ahmad Noorani.

Musharraf had come to power in 1999 by leading a coup against Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and had appointed himself as president in 2001 while continuing to head the army.

The FactFocus report details evidence of how someone on an army salary and no prior evidence of wealth came to have extensive holdings in four countries outside of Pakistan.

It includes, among other information, a database of the 99 companies set up by the Bajwa family, along with relevant documents; year-by-year details of the opening of Papa John’s Pizza franchises, along with the estimated investment required; details of commercial and residential properties purchases, along with relevant documents; and a graphical timeline of the developments that took place in the Bajwa family business.

The report says that from 2002, when Bajwa joined Musharaff’s staff, to 2008, the family purchased 53 franchises of Papa John’s Pizza worth $16 million and registered 19 companies in the United States, two in Pakistan, and four in Canada. The report lists and tabulates details by year how the Bajwa family’s wealth increased as his “power” in the army increased.

“It’s saying that General Bajwa used his power in the military to make illegal money and then laundered them abroad where his family invested them in businesses,” said a Pakistani political analyst, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The editor of the report says the group managing investments to these companies avoided questions about where the initial investments for the business in the early 2000s came from.

When Bajwa was appointed as assistant to Khan for information and broadcasting, he declared in his statement of assets and liabilities that he and his wife didn’t have any “immovable property held outside Pakistan” or “business capital outside Pakistan,” which is contradicted by FactFocus’s reporting.

Papa John’s Pizza didn’t immediately respond to a request by The Epoch Times for comment about the allegations against the Bajwa family business.

“The records of U.S. state governments and other records related to companies show that some of these American companies (all jointly owned by Asim’s wife, Farrukh Zeba) also have investments in the real estate sector and own some 13 commercial properties in the United States, including two shopping centers,” according to the FactFocus report, which estimates that the value of investments owned by Zeba is $52.7 million.

The family’s global business is managed by a company called Bajco Global Management LLC, which is registered in the United States and has a liaison office in Pakistan, the report said.

“The official documents of this parent company show that Asim Bajwa’s wife, Farrukh Zeba, is an equal shareholder in the businesses of Bajco Group along with his five brothers. Farrukh Zeba is a housewife with no known business experience,” the report states.

“Asim declined to respond to FactFocus when asked through different WhatsApp messages and a Twitter post if there are any bank accounts maintained in the name of his wife in the United States, and why he declared that he and his wife have no business capital outside Pakistan.”

In a statement, Bajwa says allegations of his wife’s business investments in the United States are false, and asserts that she divested all her interests this year, which he said is documented in official records in the United States.

“If one were to look at the actual figures, the inescapable conclusion would be that the news item has been spread with a view to malign my reputation,” he said.

Aamir, who says he doesn’t sense any “major conspiracy” behind the allegations, noted that there is a faction in the political opposition who aim to gain from the accusations.

Death Threats to Noorani

Noorani formerly worked for The News, an influential news outlet in Pakistan, and is known for his criticisms of Pakistan’s military and intelligence agencies. He has earlier written about financial impropriety by Khan’s political party. He survived an attack by unknown assailants in Islamabad in 2017.

Due to a threat on his life, Noorani was forced to move to Islamabad from Rawalpindi and deactivate his Twitter account. His current Twitter account has over 235,000 followers. The Committee to Protect Journalists reported that Noorani has received more death threats since the release of the FactFocus investigative report.

The Pakistan Bar Council, Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, and Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists in a joint statement all “strongly condemned” the threats against Noorani.

“The bar, press, and civil society leaderships urge the government to provide protection to Mr. Noorani and investigate elements behind these threats to the journalist,” the statement reads, according to Pakistan’s leading newspaper, Dawn.

The statement noted that the assailants in the 2017 attack on Noorani have not been caught.

Noorani didn’t immediately respond to a request by The Epoch Times for comment.

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