Asim Hussain: The prisoner who could be a pawn

Published 29 Mar, 2017 03:57pm
Fahim Siddiqui, White Star
Fahim Siddiqui, White Star

Dr Asim Hussain may start 2017 on a hopeful note. Courts have already given him bail in all but two cases that he has been facing [at the time of publication]; he is no longer in a detention centre or a jail (and, instead, is staying in a private suite at a hospital in Karachi); he has the full backing of Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and its Sindh government (the party’s chairperson Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari has called him a “political prisoner” and Sindh Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah has declared him a “prisoner of conscience”); and his lifelong friend, former president Asif Ali Zardari, has resumed his politics in Pakistan after spending more than 18 months in self-exile abroad.

Compare this with 2016. Asim Hussain was still in jail then. Stories based on his investigation were doing the rounds in the media. He was reported to have told his investigators about the nexus between PPP and Lyari gangsters and currency smuggling by senior leaders of the party through models such as Ayyan Ali. In one of his alleged confessional videos, he could be heard accusing Owais Muzaffar, a close family associate of Asif Ali Zardari, of engaging in all kinds of corrupt practices, including land scams and purchase of medicine on inflated prices. Everyone – especially his critics and investigators from Sindh Rangers, Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) and the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) – expected that Asim Hussain will, sooner or later, spill the beans on Asif Ali Zardari’s alleged wrongdoings. He is supposed to have information about the former president of the country and PPP co-chairperson that few others do. The supposed pawn was squeezed in interrogation rooms and tossed around from one court to another but he has remained tight-lipped — at least so far.

Dr Asim Hussain came in at number 9 in the Herald's top 10 nominations for Person of the Year 2016 with a total of 0.8 per cent of votes (online, postal, selected judges).

His silence is now seen as paying off. Senior PPP leaders – from Asif Ali Zardari and Bilawal to former Sindh chief minister Qaim Ali Shah – have visited him in the hospital and commiserated with him over his suffering. The party has recently raised the issue of his continued detention in parliament as well. Most significantly, he has been appointed PPP’s Karachi division chief in November 2016 even though he has no experience of running a political organisation at any level.

Asim Hussain was first detained by the Sindh Rangers in August 2015 from the Clifton, Karachi, offices of the Sindh Higher Education Commission which he was then heading (his critics say the position involved a serious conflict of interest because he is also the chancellor of Ziauddin University, a private higher education facility). His arrest came a day after the then army chief “directed to break [the] evil nexus [between] terrorism, criminal mafias, violence and corruption to ensure [a] peaceful and terror-free” Karachi.

First charges levelled against Asim Hussain pertained to him providing treatment and a safe haven to terrorists and criminals at his private hospital as well as illegal accumulation of wealth during his stint as a federal minister in PPP’s last government. He was initially confined at Mitha Ram Hostel, a pre-Partition building in the old part of Karachi used as a sub-jail by the Sindh Rangers.

During his 90-day “preventive custody”, he was frequently questioned by several state agencies. He later told a court that he was tortured to make confessional statements that he was not willing to make. He claims he was directed to read out some papers – under the influence of drugs – the contents of which he does not remember.

During his tenure as federal minister, he was considered so powerful that no one wanted to cross paths with him.

The rangers had made several arrests from the Sindh Building Control Authority and the Fishermen Cooperative Society Limited in the same weeks, alleging that money made through corrupt practices at these institutions was used to finance and arm criminal and extortion gangs in Karachi. Most people arrested under the charges of being facilitators of those gangs belonged to PPP and Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), the biggest parties in Karachi. It was obvious that it was no longer business as usual for the two parties.

Even though PPP did not explicitly come to Asim Hussain’s aid immediately after his arrest, Sindh government changed the public prosecutor dealing with terrorism cases against him only a day after the rangers had moved court in December 2015, seeking a restraining order against the change. The prosecutor had reportedly refused to approve a report that might have helped Asim Hussain secure his release.

The rangers also alleged that Deputy Superintendent of Police Altaf Hussain – assigned the task of investigating Asim Hussain in terrorism-related cases – was favouring him by allegedly excluding incriminating evidence from the case file. The police officer denied the charges. The court also dismissed the rangers’ accusations. 

Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan then claimed in a press conference in August 2016 that he was offered a deal for quashing cases against Asim Hussain and Ayyan Ali, both with alleged links to Asif Ali Zardari. He never specified the details of the deal and also did not disclose the name of the person who had made the offer to him.

Asim Hussain denies that Sindh government and PPP are helping him in his trial. “The move to make [me] PPP Karachi division president has to do with the party leadership’s plan to consolidate its position in Karachi following the MQM’s dive into disarray,” he says in response to queries on his arrest and trial. He has been given the post “because no other person knows better … about the demographics and politics of Karachi”.

During his 90-day “preventive custody”, he was frequently questioned by several state agencies. He later told a court that he was tortured to make confessional statements that he was not willing to make.

He hails from a family originally belonging to Uttar Pradesh, now in India. His maternal grandfather, Dr Ziauddin Ahmed, was a prominent member of the educated Muslim elite in pre-Partition India. His mother set up Ziauddin Memorial Trust in Nazimabad, Karachi, many years ago — today that has evolved into Dr Ziauddin Hospital and Ziauddin University.

Asim Hussain received his early education at Cadet College Petaro where he befriended Asif Ali Zardari. He joined the army in 1971 but left it after a short stint. He then obtained a degree in medicine from Dow University of Health Sciences, Karachi, and became an orthopedic surgeon.

When Asif Ali Zardari was sent behind bars in 1990s, he ended up spending a lot of time at Dr Ziauddin Hospital to get treatment for various ailments. Asif Ali Zardari’s late father, Hakim Ali Zardari, also stayed at Dr Ziauddin Hospital for treatment during his imprisonment and trial for corruption. Asim Hussain was never considered a PPP man even though he was close to Asif Ali Zardari. He, instead, was reported to have close political links with MQM (which explains his role of a mediator whenever the two parties needed one during their often tense relations between 2008 and 2013). It was only in 2008 that Asim Hussain formally became a PPP person. He was elected to the Senate on the party’s ticket and was later made federal minister for petroleum and natural resources (even though he was ineligible to become a senator and a minister because he is a dual national). He also worked as the head of the Pakistan Medical and Dental Council (PMDC) that regulates the medical profession in the country (this in spite of the fact that he himself runs a private hospital and a medical university).

During his tenure as federal minister, he was considered so powerful that no one wanted to cross paths with him. Dr Hafeez Sheikh, who was working as finance minister at that time, reportedly resigned in protest when, towards the end of the PPP government’s tenure, Asim Hussain reportedly sought to scrap the process of issuing tenders for the procurement of liquefied petroleum gas. A report by the Auditor General of Pakistan pertaining to his tenure as the PMDC head is now lying before the National Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee. Headed by PPP’s Khurshid Ahmed Shah, the committee has not started any hearings on the report.

The cases against Asim Hussain for helping terrorists and criminals affiliated with MQM, PPP, Lyari gangs and religious parties put him in the company of the who’s who of Karachi’s politics. His co-accused include Karachi mayor Wasim Akhtar, MQM’s former provincial minister Rauf Siddiqui, PPP Karachi’s former chief Abdul Qadir Patel and Pak Sarzameen Party’s founding leader Anis Qaimkhani. The political salience of these cases has dwarfed the allegations of corruption against him. If true, these corruption allegations will prove him to be the most corrupt person in Pakistan — and also possibly one of the richest people in the world.

He is alleged to have curtailed gas supply to industrial sector, illegally diverting it to a particular fertilizer producer. He is also alleged to have received kickbacks in return for allowing arbitrary hike in fertilizer prices.

The political salience of these cases has dwarfed the allegations of corruption against him. If true, these corruption allegations will prove him to be the most corrupt person in Pakistan — and also possibly one of the richest people in the world.

Other allegations against him include illegal occupation and use of amenity plots, fraud in the sale and purchase of government lands and money laundering. The total amount allegedly embezzled by Asim Hussain in these cases stands at an astounding 462.5 billion rupees.

Another NAB reference accuses him of giving allegedly illegal contracts to a private gas processing company, Jamshoro Joint Venture Limited. These contracts are alleged to have caused a total loss of 17.3 billion rupees to the national exchequer.

His closest friend laughs off the allegations. In a television interview broadcast in March 2016, Asif Ali Zardari called Asim Hussain an “innocent rabbit afraid of his own shadow”. He said Asim Hussain was “incapable of corruption” let alone facilitating or providing medical help to terrorists.

Documents presented by the NAB during his trial claim that Asim Hussain’s net worth amounts to 100 billion US dollars. If that is to be believed, he is even richer than Bill Gates whose net worth, according to Forbes magazine, is 83.7 billion US dollars. The investigators claim the amount has been calculated taking into consideration the assets and worth of 36 companies that Asim Hussain is allegedly linked to, directly or indirectly.

Asim Hussain is sarcastic about his alleged net worth. He says he is grateful to his prosecutors for making him the “richest guy on earth”. Talking over a cup of tea a few months ago at Karachi’s Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Centre – where he is undergoing treatment for lower back pain, a mild stroke and a heart ailment – he says: “I have left my case to God. He will help me.”

Politicians accused of corruption in Pakistan are fond of saying such things. If he walks free of all the charges in 2017, only then will his words carry any weight.

This article was written as part of the Person of the Year series for the Herald's Annual 2017 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.

The writer is a freelance journalist.