LHC orders accountability court to conclude Ashiana trial within four months

LAHORE: The Lahore High Court has ordered an accountability court to conclude within four months trial of Punjab Ashiana-i-Iqbal Housing Scheme reference involving Leader of Opposition in National Assembly Shahbaz Sharif, Lahore Development Authority (LDA) formerdirector general Ahad Khan Cheema and others.

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A detailed order by a two-judge bench passed on bail petitions of two suspects — Cheema and Shahid Shafiq — holds that material available on record connects the petitioners with commission of the alleged offence, therefore, they do not deserve to be enlarged on bail.

The NAB alleged that the Punjab Land Development Company signed a contract in 2015 but failed to complete the low-cost housing project despite the lapse of three years. It said Cheema being head of the LDA awarded Rs14 billion contract to a joint venture led by the Lahore Casa Company in violation of rules. It said according to laws a contract above Rs150 million could not be given to any company without bidding.

The bureau also alleged that Bismillah Engineering of Shahid Shafiq was a proxy firm working on behalf of the Paragon City Developers (Pvt) Ltd. It accused Cheema of receiving illegal gratification in the form of 32 kanal from the owners of Paragon developers.

In this case, the LHC had on Feb 14, 2019 granted post-arrest bail to Shahbaz Sharif and former principal secretary to prime minister Fawad Hassan Fawad.

The bench comprising Justice Sardar Ahmad Naeem and Justice Farooq Haider, through a short order on April 13, had denied post-arrest bail to Cheem and Shafiq in the Ashiana reference.

The bench in its detailed 16-page order observes that the case is one of the white collar crimes which are usually committed in planned manner by well-organised persons and they work through underhand mechanism.

“In such cases, the standard of evidence normally available in ordinary circumstances cannot be expected. They are totally different in nature from common crimes that take place in the society,” it rules.

The order states that in suchlike cases, documents are generated prior to or during the commission of that offence which is essential and normally make up the major part of evidence.

It remarks that Cheema, at the relevant time, was a public servant, therefore both petitioners played definite roles.

“The record suggested that they (Cheema and Shafiq) facilitated each other to obtain pecuniary advantage within the meaning of section 9 of National Accountability Ordinance, 1999,” maintains the bench adding that the white collar crimes of such nature affect whole society even though they may not have any immediate victim.

The order says it is imperative for a suspect to show that he has no nexus with crime even if material collected by prosecution is tentatively taken as correct.

“On the other hand, the available record suggests that petitioner Ahad Cheema was key player and as the documentation was his domain so he managed the award of contract to his co-accused i.e. the petitioner Muhammad Shafiq,” adds the order.

The bench also rejects argument of severe hardship taken by the defence for the grant of bail saying the record shows that hearing the trial has often been adjourned on the request of the petitioners and delay could not be attributed to the prosecution alone.

Cheema’s counsel had argued that the petitioner was arrested Feb 21, 2018 and the trial commenced after one year on Feb 18, 2019. He said nine witnesses had been examined so far by the trial court.

The bench rules that the petitioners have been specifically named and assigned specific role as perpetrators of the crime. The statement of the prosecution witnesses recorded during the investigation can validly be taken into consideration at this stage.

“There is sufficient material to believe that the petitioners are linked with the offences and one of the charge is causing huge loss to public exchequer, therefore, it was not an ordinary offence,” it further holds.

Dismissing the bail petitions for being meritless, the bench directed the trial court to conclude the trial within four months.

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