When Umar Farooq Zahoor, a Dubai-based businessman who collects rare watches, shelled out what he said was $2 million for a diamond-crusted tourbillon watch from the luxury brand Graff in 2019, he had no idea the timepiece would be placed at the centre of a political crisis roiling Pakistan.
He didn’t know it at the time of the transaction, but the watch once belonged to Imran Khan. In 2018, when he was Pakistan’s prime minister, Khan received the unique watch, which featured an image of the Kaaba, the most sacred site in Islam, as a gift from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.
Precisely how much Khan profited from selling that watch is at the heart of a criminal case that saw his home surrounded by police and military personnel seeking to force Khan to face corruption and other charges in court last week.
But the inquiry into Khan, which he said is a political attack meant to prevent him from contesting upcoming elections, has turned up something some Pakistanis consider more troubling: Newly-declassified records of state gifts, released for the first time in Pakistan’s history, have exposed the vast wealth acquired by Pakistan’s political elite causing outrage across the cash-strapped country.
Details about the Graff watch are part of 466 pages of gift records published by Pakistan’s treasury, also known as Toshakhana. The list features prime ministers, military officials, ministers, ambassadors, who are legally allowed to purchase gifts from the state coffer at a discount: 15 to 20 percent of an item’s assessed value.
Close to 1,000 officials took expensive and rare gifts between 2002 and 2022 worth millions of dollars this way. Among the many precious items are luxury cars and over 1,000 luxury watches including nearly 100 Rolexes and dozens of Hublot, Chopard, Harry Winston, Faberge and Parmigiani watches.
In Khan’s case, the treasury records show that the watch’s value was assessed at about $700,000 and that he paid $170,000 to take it home. (Khan did not say how much he sold the watch for but claimed he acquired all the gifts legally.)
“This list exposes the political elite’s corruption through these expensive gifts,” Pakistani journalist Rana Abrar Khalid, whose Right to Information petition in 2020 culminated in the publication of state gift records, told VICE World News.
“I look at them as a form of bribery,” he said, adding that the gifts have possibly influenced Pakistan’s foreign relations.
The disclosure has struck a nerve among the public in Pakistan as it’s facing an acute economic crisis, with food inflation at an all-time high and the country’s currency depreciating rapidly.
Uzair Younus, vice president of Washington-based strategy advisory firm Asia Group, told VICE World News that many of the political elite seen in the records really had no need for those expensive gifts. “The Toshakhana revelations exhibit a moral and ethical bankruptcy among Pakistan’s ruling elite,” he said. On Twitter, Pakistani citizens and political oppositions have condemned politicians for taking home expensive cars, watches, and other expensive gifts.
The document shows no clear party lines when it comes to such gift-taking. In January alone, 20 Rolexes were received as gifts to various officials, including the current prime minister, foreign minister, finance minister and information minister, and are still “under process.”
The records show that when the current foreign minister’s father, Asif Ali Zardari, was president in 2009, he acquired two BMWs and a Lexus valued at 135 million Pakistani rupees, or $1.7 million, for just $245,000, about 15 percent of its declared value. Records show Zardari retained at least four luxury watches, gifted while he was president, paying a fraction of their value.
And in 2016, Nawaz Sharif, a former prime minister and brother of the current prime minister, bought a watch, a ring and cufflinks worth $360,000 at $72,500 – effectively 80 percent off of its declared value. Sharif retained at least six other luxury watches for him and his family members, paying 15-20 percent of their value.
Similarly, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, who was only prime minister for a year between 2017 and 2018, retained luxury watches gifted to himself and his family worth $173,500 and jewellery gifted to his wife, valued at about $833,000, for just a fifth of their value.
Zardari is the president of Pakistan People Party (PPP), while Nawaz Sharif founded another major party called the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). Abbasi was a member of Sharif’s party too. Both PPP and PML-N dominated Pakistani politics until Khan’s party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), took the lead in the 2018 elections. Members of the PPP and PML-N are currently running the government.
It is unclear if any of these gifts were retained or sold forward for profit by these politicians, and the current rules don’t mention the legality of selling state gifts once they are retained.
As for Khan, he retained five luxury watches from the state gifts he received: two Graff watches (including the tourbillon) and three Rolexes. He paid 20 percent of the value for the ones bought in 2018, and 50 percent of the value for the ones retained after 2020 – the highest percentage anyone paid on the list.
Khan’s state gifts became public knowledge last year when he was disqualified to run for election by Pakistan’s election commission for not declaring the watch as an asset and not being transparent about the profits from the sale of the Graff watch. Khan denies wrongdoing and has accused the commission of bias. No other politician is being investigated over the state gifts they bought.
Khan faces dozens of new charges ranging from corruption to terrorism to sedition while pushing for early elections since he was ousted from his prime ministership last year, following a no-confidence motion tabled by opposition politicians.
Earlier this month, Khan spoke to VICE World News in an exclusive interview and addressed the allegations, demanding a public hearing to expose other leaders who have “stolen” from the Toshakhana. Khan, a former celebrity cricketer, rose in politics on slogans on going after Pakistan’s corrupt elite and is well-respected for his massive donation drives and starting Pakistan’s largest charity-run cancer hospitals.
“It will be proven that whatever gifts I took from the Toshakhana is 100 percent legal,” Khan said. “And, in Pakistan’s history, I have done the greatest amount of charity. I have collected more money than anyone in this history. People trust me with their money. Therefore, these allegations should come into the court. [There should be] open hearings so everyone knows whether I did anything illegal or not.”
Criminal proceedings over the allegation that Khan concealed the gifts are continuing, but the former prime minister refused to go to court four times, maintaining that after his assassination attempt in November, it’s unsafe for him to visit a court that’s already been bombed twice in the past, in attacks unrelated to Khan.
Last week, hundreds of Khan’s supporters gathered outside his home to protect him from arrest, clashing with police wielding batons and riot shields.
Over the weekend, the court cancelled the arrest warrant against him, and he travelled to Islamabad to appear in the Toshkhana case. But he was unable to attend the hearing after police tear-gassed the entrance and clashes took place outside. Tear gas even entered the courtroom through windows and the judge adjourned the case until March 30.
Michael Kugelman, the director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center, a U.S.-based think tank, said the government of Shehbaz Sharif, who succeeded Khan, possibly released the gift records to strengthen its case against Khan but it has backfired.
“[Instead,] it makes the government look bad because the data shows that plenty of other leaders retained many more gifts than Khan.”
The publishing of the records has led to a wave of embarrassment, and some have moved to mend their image. Ahsan Iqbal, the minister of planning and development who is featured on the list, announced that he had deposited $7,000 to the national treasury—the entire assessed amount on the records for state gifts he received over a decade ago.
But even the published records may not reflect the true extent to which Pakistani political leaders benefited from their positions.
Younus said many items are undervalued on the list because the assessors of these highly valued items are underqualified and underpaid.
“There’s no transparency with regards to how the Toshakhana records have been assessed, or who assessed them,” Younus told VICE World News. “This needs to be looked into.”
Fawad Chaudhry, a member of Khan’s party, told the media that the Toshakhana records are incomplete as they do not include high ranking military generals and judges who have bought gifts from the Toshkhana. Chaudhry is demanding that an independent commission probe the records.
Last week, Khan published a statement saying he’s being unfairly singled out.
“Toshakhana means that when you’re offered gifts, you can buy them at a certain price. It’s been going on for 70 years,” he said.
Khalid, who initiated the Right to Information petition that led to the release of the gift records, said he doesn’t believe the Toshakhana revelations are politically motivated or timed.
“Given the country’s history of corruption, Khan being held accountable is important,” he said. Khalid’s lawyers have filed a petition at the Islamabad high court to disclose who has sold gifts apart from Khan.
Last week, the Lahore High Court also ordered the federal government to submit a record of gifts received since 1947—the year Pakistan was formed after gaining independence from Britain.
“The ruling elite shouldn’t be allowed to disrespect laws like this,” Khalid said.
Follow Pallavi Pundir on Twitter.
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