Thursday, July 1, 2010

Major Customs gang busted, 25 officers arrested

By Ikram Hoti

An international smuggling syndicate was busted by the Customs Intelligence on Monday and over 25 Customs officials, besides members of the gang, had been arrested, officials said.

As many as 13 officials are under the police custody, 21 Customs officials have been booked in Karachi (now allowed back on their jobs after a week-long suspension), 12 arrested in Peshawar and two in Lahore.

They had ganged up to evade duties and taxes of over Rs 230 billion in the past two years but those arrested were now exerting pressure to get the top Customs Intelligence officials removed from their posts and get the cases withdrawn.

At the Customs House, Karachi, as sources privy to the entire episode revealed, the suspected gang members were not just those booked but higher officials, too, who supervised clearance of the ISAF and Afghan Transit Trade (ATT) goods on fake papers (the containers never crossed Pak-Afghan border).

“These are influential officials and the gang they operate is well entrenched in the state machinery. They are not just making efforts to get the Customs Intelligence officials at the top and middle levels removed but have also launched a campaign through the FIA and other channels to get the Directorate General Customs Intelligence (DGCI) offices in Lahore vacated by exerting pressure on the owners of the buildings.”

In order to obtain the FBR version, this correspondent called its spokesman Israr Rauf repeatedly on Monday evening, but there was no response. The following SMS message was sent on his cell number (0300-8444212): “Why were Customs men booked in Karachi let off the hook? They were suspected of abetting the ISAF-container smuggling.”

DGCI, Lutfullah Virk, flatly refused to say anything. “Please, do not make calls to me again”, he said. Sources in Karachi and Peshawar, however, pointed out that the international syndicate of smugglers that operated in connivance with the Customs officials was actually busted when three tribal boys were caught from Torkham on the Pak-Afghan border about a month ago on suspicion of stealing the Customs computer user ID that helped access to the documentation operation of the ISAF and Transit Trade shipments from overseas to Afghanistan through Pakistan.

These three boys were the sons of tribesmen killed in a Customs-smuggler shootout about four years ago and were given Customs jobs under a government-jirga agreement as compensation.

They were working as helping staff and were frequent to the Customs offices at the border check-post where the computation of ISAF-ATT shipment-clearance documentation was routinely conducted.

As these boys sang to the investigators and coughed up the names of the technical staff that gave them out the user IDs, more arrests were made, as confirmed by Directorate General Customs Intelligence (DGCI), Islamabad.

Simultaneously, the DGCI was frustrated by the Karachi Customs as it was refused the relevant files helping its investigation on how more than 10,000 imported containers slipped off the records, mostly carrying banned items like liquor, auto-parts and other heavy-duty goods.

These were (40-ft) containers, which imported ISAF shipments from Western destinations, the UAE and Monaco ports.

The ISAF-declared consignments started disappearing about two years ago, and the sources said that the efforts to abort the investigation were also going on as they were approaching FBR high officials to ensure that the entire exercise of detecting the missing containers and export of banned items was suspended so that the big and the small fish in this racket might not be touched.

The DGCI took up with higher authorities the issue of refusal by the Karachi Customs to provide records on these containers and also shared its conclusions of the investigation conducted into the missing containers so far. This activity coincided with three other important events:

a) The tribal boys revealed that most of the missing containers were ISAF-declared in Karachi, then Afghan Transit Trade shipments in Nowshera (on fake documents). These containers were shown having been transported outside Pakistan, while they were seal-opened, offloaded and the goods were sold out in the Pakistani markets.

b) An internal audit was conducted by the Peshawar Customs, which revealed that there existed a syndicate of smugglers that had penetrated into the department’s sensitive shipment-handling (duties-taxes collecting) data-monitoring-computing offices in Karachi, Peshawar, Nowshera and Torkhum, to ensure that the forged ISAF-shipment plus ATT-shipment papers of goods declaration were accepted as legal.

c) A committee of investigators was formed by the FBR.

It is pertinent to mention that the names of officials that allowed them to use their ID, have not been listed properly by the relevant authorities. They included the deputy collector level Customs officials, superintendents and more than 10 inspectors. They form part of the smuggling syndicate but investigations are yet to be completed about them.

The story does not end here. DGCI officials recorded after cross checking of the export documents over the past couple of years that 70 containers out of 10,000 were confirmed to have been cleared on fake ISAF-ATT papers. Others too were allowed clearance by succumbing to the same trick applied by the international smugglers’ syndicate, which had penetrated into the fabric of Pakistan Customs.

The officials cleared more than 70 containers — 36 confirmed with fake papers — carrying poppy-seed (khashkhash) for export to European destinations. There was no news if these shipments were intercepted on the high seas or at the ports of delivery (most of them are believed to have touched the shores of Turkey), as the exporters’ (a bogus Karachi company) records reveal.

A manager of the company has been arrested and several others booked, while the relevant Karachi Customs staffs were suspended. They went on strike and the FBR capitulated allowing them back on their jobs with a warning when the investigation was completed and indicated their involvement, they would be arrested and charged for allowing export of a dangerous banned item under the declaration papers of rice and pulses. (The News)

Karachi Transporters refuse to cut down fare

Despite a fall in the prices of petroleum products, the transporters have refused to lower fare vexing citizens all over the country, SAMAA reported Thursday.

Transporters in Karachi said that the fuel prices are not so low that the fare can be decreased. They said that the fuel prices have to come down by Rs 13 in order for them to lower fare.

For July, the Oil and Gas Regulatory Authority had decreased the price of petrol by Rs 1.9 and of diesel by Rs 4.14.

The price cuts were announced by OGRA spokesperson Jawad Naseem in a news conference in Islamabad.

The price of petrol stands at Rs 66.95 after a decline of Rs 1.9, and that of diesel is now Rs 71.58 after a decline of Rs 4.14.

The price of kerosene is slashed by Rs 0.11 only. The price of light diesel is now Rs 61.68 after a decline of Rs 0.95.