ISLAMABAD (Monitoring Desk): The Federal Board of Revenue (FBR) began on Saturday sending letters to over 600 Pakistanis named in the Panama Papers for owning offshore companies, but experts claim the chances of recovery remain bleak.
“This week we have begun the process of sending letters to hundreds of Pakistanis who have been named in Panama Papers,” said spokesperson FBR Dr Mohammad Iqbal. He said these individuals have been requested to confirm if they own offshore companies.
In April this year, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) published a fraction of the data leaked under the Panama Papers investigation, naming about 640 Pakistanis as beneficiaries of offshore holdings. The FBR spokesperson said the letters have been sent under Section 176 of the Income Tax Ordinance, which empowers tax officials to seek information about any transaction. However, the penalty for not giving information under Section 176 is only Rs25,000, with no other severe punishments attached.
The decision to send the notices coincided with Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI)’s move to launch a countrywide campaign against the government over corruption and delay in taking action against those who have been named in the Panama papers. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s family members, including Maryam Nawaz have been named in the leaks.
Iqbal did not confirm whether letters have also been sent to the PM’s daughter or his sons, Hussain and Hasan. He said the letters were written to all those whose confirmed addresses were available. A source in the FBR confirmed that the notices were also sent to them. However, legal experts argue that these letters would provide a safe exit to the prime minister’s family. The massive collection of leaked documents including details about offshore companies operating in multi-layered secrecy has revealed names of people from around the world, including Pakistani politicians, businessmen, bankers as well as a serving high court judge and a retired judge.
Immediately after the revelations, the intelligence and investigation wing of the FBR sought permission to move against these people, said sources in the FBR. However, FBR chairman Nisar Mohammad Khan was not keen on taking any action, a source revealed. The chairman was simply following the government’s policy. PTI’s Chairman Imran Khan on Saturday accused Nisar of laundering millions of rupees to Dubai and failing to take any action to hide his own wrongdoings. Nisar has denied the allegations.
On April 8, the FBR also sent a notice to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif under Section 176, seeking a clarification on receipts of foreign remittances from his son and subsequent distribution among his family members. No subsequent action was taken. Legal and tax experts believe tax authorities are unlikely to achieve anything through these notices since the named are protected by the law and well equipped to silence a weakened tax machinery.
“The existing taxpayers will not entertain Section 176 notices due to universal self-assessment scheme of the FBR and time-barred cases,” said Dr Ikramul Haq, a leading tax expert and Supreme Court advocate. Under the law, the FBR can only open cases up to five years old, in which case the authorities would also require information about concealment of assets and incomes.
He said non-resident Pakistanis who do not have a source of income in Pakistan would not be bound reply to these letters. For filing income tax returns, non-resident Pakistanis have to stay at least 183 days in Pakistan in a given tax year. “The sons of the PM will use it as an excuse. The letters will become a base for providing safe exit to them,” said Haq.