The case of Axact Company is an exact example of how political expediency and not the legitimacy of a case often leads to an action that rebounds, later exposing the inefficiencies of law enforcement agencies and leading people to distrust the prosecution system being practised in the country. It all began nearly 15 months ago when an investigative story appeared in The New York Times claiming that the company Axact was involved in running nearly 370 websites issuing fake diplomas around the world. Soon after the publication of the report, the interior ministry, despite being popular for its dormancy of action after all major terror attacks in the country, came into quick action, and directed the Federal Investigation Agency to begin its investigation against the company.
The CEO of the company, Shoaib Shaikh, and 13 top management officials were sent behind the bars, and all offices of the company and its affiliates like the Bol TV channel were sealed, leaving more than 2,000 employees out of job, making their families fear an uncertain future. A number of senior journalists and TV anchors who were lured to join Bol found themselves in a tricky and complicated situation where they had no choice other than to accept this sudden change, and forget about their appearance on the great launch of a channel that was supposed to bring revolutionary changes in media industry.
Raised in a lower middle class background, Shoaib Shaikh had maneuvered his way through various ups and downs of a challenging business environment to become the owner of a company that was often referred to by media as an empire bigger than what was initially imagined, and having involvement in a money laundering scam affecting at least 215,000 people in 197 countries, one-third of them from the United States. All these claims and allegations turned into hearsay when the court of law ordered the release of Shaikh and his team in the fake degree and money laundering cases. The court order said: “Despite the passage of around one year, no proof was found against Shoaib Shaikh and his companions.”
Does this court decision raise any question for those government officials who had shown quickness to go into action on the basis of one investigative report of a US journalist? Their past history is exactly opposite of what they exhibited in this case. No matter what justification they will find for this activism, their lack of similar activism on the official US accusations against the Jammat-ut-Dawa and Lashkar-e-Taiba for masterminding the Mumbai attack is an undeniable fact. Even the evidence provided by the Indian government was found insufficient to take any action against the banned outfits that were accused to have their role in the attack.
Last year, a Pakistani national was deported to Pakistan from Italy as the Italian authorities had suspected him of having sympathies for extremist elements. The day he arrived in Pakistan, he was briefly questioned at the Islamabad airport, and released by the FIA the very same day with the statement, “He was not involved in any crime, nor was he wanted by the FIA or any other local law-enforcement agency. Therefore, he was allowed to leave upon reaching the airport.”
While such a quick decision of the FIA in letting a terror suspect go free was a matter of surprise for many, the absence of a similar practice in the Axact case was a mystery that remains unsolved to this day. For 15 months, the accused persons in this case suffered hardship of imprisonment besides going through mental torture and agony for a case that had no proof and no complainant. A company that was making billions of rupees in revenue and paying taxes in millions of rupees annually was forced to go out of business, its 2,000 employees to become jobless for accusations that now appear to be fake and baseless. The most tragic and condemnable aspect of this case is the loss of survival-base for the families of its approximately 14,000 employees who were neither accused nor had anything to do with the business practices that were suspected to have been followed by the owners of the company.
The whole episode of the Axact case reflected an approach that appeared to be more lenient towards militants who are suspected of committing heinous crimes against humanity than those who provide livelihood to people. Does it mean that illegal business activities be allowed to go unchecked and unquestioned? Of course, not. All it needs is a different prosecution method that is least harmful to innocent people. A recent report brought to light a fake degree scam that involved eight employees of the Karachi University. The resultant action was to apprehend the culprits and let the university continue its operation.
The case of Dr Asim Hussain is another example of how the functioning of Ziauddin Hospital continued unabatedly while its chairman went through a legal trial. Why the Axact company and its employees weren’t lucky enough to enjoy similar freedom of doing business while its management team was tried at the court? Only a wild guess can be made that may or may not be true.
The harm caused by this case is multifaceted and the questions it raised are multiple. Was it a kind of personal vendetta that outweighed the sanctity of the government department that was pursuing this case? Would Axact and its employees be compensated for the losses this litigation incurred to them? Would there be any inquiry against those who pursued this case without making necessary preparations that it required? Even if these steps are taken the damage this case has already done to the company, its employees and the prosecution department are tremendous.
The writer is a Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Research & Security Studies, Islamabad