Pakistani authorities thought they had scored a victory in 2015 when they forced retired Lt. Gen. Zahid Ali Akbar Khan to plead guilty to having unexplained assets and pay a fine of $2 million.
Yet, what seemed like a win for corruption fighters may have been a defeat.
Leaked bank records reveal that Akbar had stashed away 15.5 million Swiss francs ($11.8 million) in a Credit Suisse account, which Pakistan’s National Accountability Bureau (NAB) never knew about.
“Flouting Pakistani laws, Gen. Zahid not only amassed tons of dirty money, but also got away with it,” said Shoaib Suddle, a former federal tax ombudsman who also headed Pakistan’s civilian secret service, the Intelligence Bureau.
“The greater the secrecy of such accounts, the lower the deterrability of anti-corruption penalties, however severe,” he told OCCRP after learning of the new findings.
Akbar is one of several prominent Pakistanis who used Switzerland’s second-largest bank to shield assets from tax officials or corruption investigators, according to the leaked account data obtained by Süddeutsche Zeitung and shared with OCCRP.
Suisse Secrets is a collaborative journalism project based on leaked bank account data from Swiss banking giant Credit Suisse.
The data was provided by an anonymous source to the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, which shared it with OCCRP and 46 other media partners around the world. Reporters on five continents combed through thousands of bank records, interviewed insiders, regulators, and criminal prosecutors, and dug into court records and financial disclosures to corroborate their findings. The data covers over 18,000 accounts that were open from the 1940s until well into the last decade. Together, they held funds worth more than $100 billion.
"I believe that Swiss banking secrecy laws are immoral,” the source of the data said in a statement. “The pretext of protecting financial privacy is merely a fig leaf covering the shameful role of Swiss banks as collaborators of tax evaders. This situation enables corruption and starves developing countries of much-needed tax revenue.”
Data from the Suisse Secrets investigation shows that at its peak, the bank held a total of about $200 million for Pakistanis who came under scrutiny by the NAB — which fights corruption and financial crime — while their accounts were active. In 2000 the NAB launched a high-profile anti-corruption drive, investigating 200 military officers, politicians, and prominent businesspeople, and reporters found 10 people from that list who had Credit Suisse accounts.
“Undoubtedly, the sorts of laundering activities indulged in by Gen. Zahid result in the economic loss of substantial amounts of revenue to the national exchequer,” said Suddle, who wrote a Ph.D. thesis on white collar crime. “Think on how Pakistan’s economy might look like if tax evasion, of all sorts, were to significantly disappear.”
He said the amount of money Pakistan loses to tax evasion could likely balance its budget deficit, which currently sits at around $21 billion, as well as pay off a significant amount of its $120-billion foreign debt.
Cricket, Construction, and Corruption
Akbar, born in 1933, was one of the NAB’s more high-profile targets. He has held several public and influential roles during his long career, including a prestigious job as head of the Pakistan Cricket Board.
In the 1980s, he was seconded from the military to a civilian position as chair of Pakistan’s Water and Power Development Authority. Before that, he was an engineer overseeing major construction projects for the Army, reportedly including its general headquarters in Rawalpindi. He also directed the construction of a secret nuclear research facility, according to Abdul Qadeer Khan, who is known as the “father of Pakistan’s atomic weapons program.”
By the time he retired in 1988, Akbar had acquired real estate holdings and other assets well beyond the means of a three-star general and civil servant. The NAB’s investigation, which scrutinized his finances from 1985 onwards, found he had accumulated an unjustifiably large fortune.
The “accused acquired assets, made investments and incurred expenditures in his name and in the names of his dependents… disproportionate to his known sources of income, which he could not account for,” the NAB said in its investigation report, which was submitted as evidence in court.
The law that created the NAB states that the agency can only lay charges for offenses that took place after its formation in 1985. But investigators noted that Akbar had amassed as many as 14 residential, commercial, and agricultural properties before that date that also cost more than he should have been able to afford.
"The greater the secrecy of such [offshore] accounts, the lower the deterrability of anti-corruption penalties, however severe."
– Shoaib Suddle Former Pakistani federal tax ombudsman
“The known sources of income derived by the accused during the period from 1953 to 1984 were hardly sufficient to justify the acquisition of above referred properties,” said the NAB report.
Investigators were able to tie at least 72 bank accounts to Akbar, his family members, or companies he controlled, including several foreign accounts.
Notably absent from the list was Akbar’s Credit Suisse company account.
The NAB filed corruption charges against him in 2006, but Akbar left Pakistan before he could be tried. Authorities issued an international warrant for his arrest, and he remained a fugitive until being detained in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2013.
But Akbar managed once again to escape justice in Pakistan. He went instead to the United Kingdom, where he reportedly also holds citizenship.
“We had issued a red warrant for the accused, and we wanted the U.K.’s help in his repatriation and it didn’t provide,” said a former NAB official, who requested anonymity as he was not authorized to speak about the case. “We don’t have an extradition treaty with the U.K.”
In 2015, Akbar entered into a plea bargain with Pakistani authorities, and the charges were dropped after he admitted guilt and paid his fine.
Akbar did not respond directly to questions about why he had not declared his Credit Suisse accounts or the funds they held to the NAB, or to Pakistan’s tax authority. But he told OCCRP that he had settled his accounts with the Pakistani government. “All funds stand declared to the tax authorities in Pakistan and the tax stands duly paid thereon as per law,” he said in his email.
But a second former NAB official, who had worked on Akbar’s plea bargain, said the agency could take action based on the newly discovered Credit Suisse account.
“It appears that he had other assets too, which have not been included in the investigation,” the former official said in a text message. “NAB can initiate proceedings on the basis of this info.”
Credit Suisse declined to answer questions about specific clients around the world who are named in the Suisse Secrets investigation. The bank noted that “the matters presented are predominantly historical,” and that regulations and banking standards have changed over time.
“In line with financial reforms across the sector and in Switzerland, Credit Suisse has taken a series of significant additional measures over the last decade, including considerable further investments in combating financial crime,” the bank said in a statement to media partners involved in the investigation.
Credit Suisse says it has improved its ability to detect problem clients and prevent them from using the bank to avoid taxes or launder money since the early 2000s. But the leaked data shows some of its Pakistani clients were publicly known to be under investigation for financial crimes –– or had even admitted guilt –– at the time they held accounts.
Akbar was not the only controversial Pakistani citizen to hold a Credit Suisse account while under investigation by the National Accountability Bureau or other agencies. Here are some others found in the leaked account data:
The Schon Group
A business empire that spans real estate, information technology and other sectors, this conglomerate is owned by the Hussain brothers, Syed Tahir and Syed Nasir. Pakistan’s Privatization Commission is still pursuing money owed for a fertilizer company they bought from the state in 1992. In 1997, Pakistan issued international arrest warrants for the brothers on bank fraud charges after they failed to repay loans worth over $32 million. In 2005, they agreed to pay almost two thirds of that back. The leaked banking data shows that they had two Credit Suisse accounts during the period when authorities were attempting to reclaim those funds. An account opened in 2001 held a maximum amount of 477,140 Swiss francs in 2007 before it was closed in 2010. The other account was opened from 2010 to 2015, and held a maximum balance of 1 million Swiss francs.
The Hussain brothers told OCCRP that they had “faced political victimization from 1996-2005 and there is nothing wrong with opening a bank account at that time.” They said they had fully repaid their debts by 2019. They also provided a document signed by the NAB prosecutor general stating that “there are reasons to believe that the accused had not indulged in acts of corruption,” and asking the courts to dismiss the charges. However, documents obtained by OCCRP show that the prosecutor general’s request was made only in exchange for an agreement made days before, which required them to repay their loans. When this was pointed out, Nasir sent a response saying: “Yes but we were still honorably exonerated.”
The married couple Muhammad and Fatima Ismail were among 44 people operating a Ponzi scheme that netted about $62 million. They pled guilty to fraud in 2003 and agreed to pay $1.8 million in damages. The leaked banking data shows that they had a Credit Suisse account holding more than 2 million Swiss francs –– about $1.5 million –– just two months before the plea deal was struck. Court documents obtained by OCCRP show that Credit Suisse failed to respond to an NAB inquiry about the account balance. Muhammad Ismail did not respond to requests for comment.
The Lakson Group
Four brothers from the Lakhani family own this massive conglomerate, with interests in everything from newspapers to fast-food restaurants. One brother, Sultan, was arrested in 2000 on allegations that he took out large loans through phony companies and then defaulted. Sultan agreed the following year to repay $18.90 million. Between 2004 and 2010, three of the brothers –– Sultan, Zulfiqar, and Amin –– opened separate Credit Suisse accounts. Cumulatively, they held almost 60 million Swiss francs. The accounts were all shut down by 2015. Three Lakhani brothers did not reply to requests for comment.
The Khan Family
Gulzar Ahmed and his sons, Waqar and Ammar, opened a family account in 2005. They were all senators when the account’s balance swelled to 9.8 million Swiss francs ($9.36 million) in 2008. They closed the account in 2013, the year they were forced by a London court to repay a loan to Deutsche Bank. The litigation revealed properties in their home country they had used as collateral for the loan, but had not declared to Pakistan’s Federal Board of Revenue. Authorities investigated the businesses belonging to the family and found they were running losses at home, even as they accumulated assets abroad. Gulzar Ahmad Khan and his two sons did not respond to requests for comment.
Haji Saifullah Khan Bangash
This former senator and real estate developer opened an account in 2008, midway through an NAB investigation. It reached a maximum balance of more than 105 million Swiss francs ($97 million) in June 2009, and was closed in December 2011. Bangash and his sons, Shaukat and Kifayat, were charged in Pakistan with bank fraud in 2010. Bangash died in 2018, but his son responded by text message to a request for comment: "I have no knowledge what are you writing for me pls tell me in detail so we can claim that amount as legal heirs too."
By the time Akbar opened a company account at Credit Suisse in 2004, his long career in the military and public service would have made him a client who carried some risk. As a politically exposed person, or “PEP” in the parlance of bankers, he would have required extra scrutiny by Credit Suisse’s compliance officers.
Back at home, the NAB investigation into his wealth had been ongoing since 2001, making it illegal for him to sell off assets. But the NAB report reveals that he sold two properties in 2002 and 2003, which were registered under his wife’s name.
“Accused was fully aware of the authorization of investigation against him as he had joined the investigation in 2001,” the NAB said in its report.
Akbar denied that the funds in his Swiss bank account came from the sale of those properties and said in an email that the account holdings “did not originate during the period of the NAB inquiry.”
The leaked Credit Suisse data shows that in February 2006, Akbar’s company account hit its maximum balance of 15.5 million Swiss francs. It was closed in June of that year, three days after the NAB ended its investigation.
Research on this story was provided by OCCRP ID.
Data expertise was provided by OCCRP's Data Team.
Fact-checking was provided by the OCCRP Fact-Checking Desk.