By Ansar Abbasi
ISLAMABAD: Former Naval chief Admiral Abdul Aziz Mirza gives credence to the recent French investigative report that talked of almost $49 million kickbacks in the Agosta-submarine deal allegedly received by President Asif Ali Zardari and others, including Naval officers, disclosing that the then Benazir government had urged the Pakistan Navy to go for the French subs.
Mirza, while quoting the then Naval chief Admiral Saeed Khan, also revealed that Benazir Bhutto’s defence minister Aftab Shaban Mirani had clearly indicated to the Pakistan Navy’s high command the government’s preference for the induction of the French submarines.
Despite these clear indications by the defence minister, the top naval command again met and deliberated on the subject and decided to recommend two options to the government — the British Upholder and the French Agosta. The government later approved the induction of the Agosta.
Mirza, who led the Pakistan Navy from Oct 1999 to Oct 2002, said the Navy first formally came to know about the kickbacks in the Agosta deal in 1998 following which it proceeded against three officials of the rank of captain and commodore for getting bribe. They were eventually removed from service. “My hunch is that besides the politicians, some top ranking naval officers, even above the rank of commodore, might also have received kickbacks as reflected in the recent French media reports. They, however, (the top Naval officials) remained undetected for want of proof or witnesses,” Mirza said.
He claimed that even the condemned formal Naval chief, Masoorul Haq, was not convicted of the Agosta kickbacks but for the bribes that he had pocketed in other defence deals. According to a recent report in a leading French newspaper, investigations have revealed that Zardari received $4.3 million in kickbacks from the sale of three Agosta 90 submarines for Eu825 million. These reports also suggest that Naval officials might have received kickbacks out of this $49 million.
This deal was struck during Benazir Bhutto’s second tenure in 1994. According to former DG Naval Intelligence Commodore Shahid Ashraf, he had informed in early 1995 the then Naval chief Mansoorul Haq and his vice chief vice admiral AU Khan of the cash pay off to Capt ZU Alvi and Col (retd) Ejaz as bribe for further distribution amongst Naval officers.
Ashraf, who was dismissed from service, claimed in his statement in 1998 that he had informed the Naval chief and the vice chief in early 1995 of the Agosta kickbacks issue but was asked by them to keep quiet. Ashraf insisted that he was innocent and victimised by the Pakistan Navy in 1998 to save the skin of several other allegedly corrupt Naval officers, who had received kickbacks in the Agosta deal.
Admiral Mirza admitted the facts that Ashraf did make the same claim in his statement in 1998 and that retired vice admiral AU Khan too had confirmed the same fact when questioned in 1998 by the fact-finding inquiry.
But Admiral Mirza still insisted the ex-DG Naval Intelligence did receive kickbacks in the Agosta deal as was confirmed by the other two officers, Capt ZU Alvi and Capt Liaqat Ali Malik, who were blamed to have received bribes directly from the French. For the same reason, he said, the ex-DGNI was penalised.
He said that Capt ZU Alvi and Col (retd) Ejaz were the two main witnesses with the former having agreed to become approver on the condition of revealing all the details of kickbacks and corruption. Mirza though conceded that Ashraf was Admiral Mansurul Haq’s right-hand man, he did never carry the reputation of being corrupt before he was convicted to have received Rs 1.5 million from Alvi, who was the direct recipient of the kickbacks.
Mirza, who has also served as the country’s ambassador to Riyadh, said that one Zafar Iqbal, a middle man of the French company, was also interrogated and had admitted to have received $160,000 to be paid to four commodores. He, however, said that both Iqbal and Ejaz never paid this amount to anyone of them. The former Naval chief said that the four commodores were never charge sheeted or confronted by a board of inquiry as a fact-finding inquiry had already found them innocent, which led to their promotion as rear admiral.
Zafar Iqbal claimed during interrogation to have been assigned by the French company to bribe the Naval officials up to the rank of commodore. For top ranking Naval officers and for political bosses, Mirza quoted Zafar Iqbal to have claimed that some other middle men, including Aamir Lodhi, were responsible for the kickbacks and commissions of persons with higher status both in Navy and in the government.
Since these middle men were never caught and probed so it still remains a secret as to who amongst the senior most Naval officers of that time received how much money, he said. But he believed that there were some top men, who must have received the kickbacks but remained free.
Referring to the latest French media reports about the Agosta kickbacks, he said he gives such reports due credence also for the reason that the French, Germans, Italians and other manufacturers of defence equipment do have a recognised provision of allocating about 10 pc of the contract value as kickbacks, entertainment, gifts etc as a matter of policy.
When asked whether the kickbacks and commissions in defence deals in Pakistan could be curbed, he stated that with a little bit of sincere effort the kickbacks in defence procurements could be considerably reduced if not altogether eliminated.