When the former prime minister of Pakistan Imran Khan was arrested last month, it triggered uproar across the country, with days of protest and violence. The unrest was not limited to Islamabad: it also spilled over into the streets of London.
Such was the disruption at one address just off London’s exclusive Park Lane that the Metropolitan police imposed a dispersal order on the area, temporarily banning gatherings. The street is allegedly home to Khan’s bitter rival, Nawaz Sharif, a three-time former prime minister of Pakistan and brother of the current leader, Shehbaz Sharif.
Khan has accused Pakistan’s army chief of ordering his arrest on corruption charges, in comments that cast a spotlight on the status of the country’s powerful military. It is perhaps not surprising that Pakistani politics is closely followed in the UK. There were 1.6 million British Pakistanis in England and Wales counted in the 2021 census – in part a legacy of Pakistan’s status as a former British colony until it was created in the violent Partition of India in 1947.
The chaos in Pakistan also raises serious questions for the UK itself. Khan’s arrest and the turmoil of the past decade in Pakistani politics are deeply entangled with the movement of money between Islamabad and London, and Britain’s awkward status as haven for political elites and their fortunes. Khan described his arrest on Twitter as a “London plan”, an apparent reference to alleged influence of Nawaz Sharif on Pakistan.
After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, London’s role as a store of wealth has come under scrutiny as never before. For all the focus on oligarchs linked to Russia, activists have long argued that the city draws the political elite from all over the world. Few symbols better illustrate that than two plush properties, located barely 400 metres apart, overlooking Hyde Park.
A Georgian palace
The first property is a mansion on Hyde Park Place, described as “one of London’s last surviving Georgian palaces” in a rental listing in 2017. One month’s rent for the Grade II-listed, 10-bed house would cost £86,667, the listing said. Overlooking Hyde Park, a stone’s throw from Marble Arch, the building is on a par with the elegant grandeur of John Nash’s 18th century Regent’s Park development – with an added swimming pool, cinema and steam room. It came to broader attention in 2019 when Britain’s National Crime Agency (NCA) revealed the property had been handed over to the UK authorities by a Pakistani property tycoon, Malik Riaz Hussain.
Malik Riaz is the owner of Bahria Town, which claims to be Asia’s largest property developer. It has close links to the Pakistani military – “Bahria” in Urdu translates to “navy” – and the company has grown in part through developing land controversially given to it by the military. In 2019 the developer reached a 460bn-rupee (£1.3bn) settlement with Pakistan’s supreme court in relation to illegal land transfers in Karachi, where Bahria Town built a gated development complete with the world’s third largest mosque and a scale model of the Eiffel Tower.
The NCA said it had reached a settlement with Malik Riaz that included the house and £140m in funds, then valued at £50m, that were suspected to be recoverable under the Proceeds of Crime Act. Malik Riaz highlighted on Twitter that the NCA said the settlement “does not represent a finding of guilt”. Lawyers for the Riaz family and Bahria Town said their position “was, and always has been, that the property was legitimate and there was no reasonable basis for suspecting that it was recoverable”. Thanks to the settlement “there never was any finding that any of the property was recoverable”, they said.
The fate of that money has become a matter of huge controversy in Pakistan. Khan was arrested on allegations that in late 2019 he and his wife, Bushra Bibi, received more than 20 hectares of land and millions of rupees in exchange for allowing the roughly £180m in settlement money – which was returned to the state of Pakistan – to be used by Malik Riaz’s company to pay its own supreme court settlement.
Khan, who came to power after captaining his country’s cricket team to world cup victory over England in 1992, has vehemently denied corruption allegations against him and his wife, and has vowed to take on the military establishment.
Lawyers for the Riaz family said: “Under the agreement, the funds previously frozen would be paid against the judgment debt owed by [Bahria Town].” There was never “any order, or agreement, that the ownership of any property should pass to the state of Pakistan”.
They added: “The whole point of the agreement was to reach an amicable settlement in relation to the property, and returning the property to Pakistan to settle the judgment debt was the most satisfactory outcome for all concerned. The property was not judged to be the proceeds of crime and ownership of the property did not pass to the state of Pakistan.”
The recent turmoil in Pakistan had raised serious questions for the NCA over its role in obtaining funds from the settlement for the benefit of a wealthy property tycoon, anti-corruption campaigners say.
Susan Hawley, executive director of Spotlight on Corruption, a charity, said: “The NCA’s settlement on secret terms with Malik Riaz Hussain showed an appalling lack of judgment by the agency which is now coming home to roost. The deal raised very serious questions at the time about whether it allowed Malik Riaz to benefit personally from its terms, and whether it represented a robust enough response to allegations of wrongdoing. The fact that it has now become central to the political turmoil taking place currently in Pakistan should give the NCA reason to review whether settlements in cases of kleptocracy are ever really suitable.”
Malik Riaz’s family still appears to be linked to other properties in London. The NCA’s original application to freeze the bank accounts related to Malik Riaz has been obtained by Spotlight. In the application – withdrawn after settlement was reached – NCA officers highlighted funds held on behalf of Fortune Event Limited, a British Virgin Islands company. Ahmed Ali Riaz, the son of Malik Riaz and the chief executive of Bahria Town, was named by the NCA as an ultimate beneficial owner of the company. The same company is listed on the UK’s Land Registry as the owner of nine apartments in grand Victorian stucco-fronted houses on Lancaster Gate, also overlooking Hyde Park. Title documents for two of the properties list an email address containing part of Ali Riaz’s name.
The properties, which were bought between 2011 and 2018, are worth a combined £37m, according to prices listed on the Land Registry. However, Malik Riaz and his son appear to be unable to use the properties themselves: they failed to overturn the withdrawal of their visas after the UK government in 2019 said that “on the balance of probabilities [they were] involved with corruption and financial/commercial misconduct”, according to a letter cited in a 2021 judgment.
The Riaz family lawyers said the NCA was aware “that the family owned other properties in the UK” and “all such property has been declared to the tax authorities in Pakistan”.
The revelation of more properties with apparent links to Malik Riaz and his family raises questions as to why they were not included in the settlement with the NCA.
The NCA said: “Our international corruption unit is dedicated to tracing and recovering the proceeds of grand corruption. The pursuit of assets can be complicated and protracted, and must consider the likelihood of cooperation from the affected state as well as associated law enforcement action by international partners. We will continue to use all the criminal and civil tools available to pursue the proceeds of corruption.”
The NCA said it repatriated all the funds from the Hyde Park Place property and the frozen accounts to the state of Pakistan following the agreed processes and in accordance with UK law. It said the terms of Malik Riaz’s settlement agreement remain confidential and it would be a legal breach for it to give any details.
The NCA valued the Hyde Park Place property at about £50m. In fact, it sold in January 2022 for £38.5m – money which was also returned to Pakistan by the NCA.
For the people of Pakistan, the Hyde Park Place property is of significance not just because of Malik Riaz. The family of the property developer bought the house using a British Virgin Islands shell company in 2016 from Hasan Nawaz Sharif, a son of Nawaz Sharif, for £42.5m. The Sharif family had owned the property since at least 2007, in between Nawaz Sharif’s second and third stints as prime minister.
Down the road, another expensive property remains a key centre of power in Pakistani politics.
The Sharif family’s investment in expensive London property was first disclosed in 1998 by a political opponent. Reportedly four apartments knocked together to create a single flat, the Sharif family’s residence in Avenfield House on Park Lane also overlooks Hyde Park.
In 2016, the leaked Panama Papers revealed that Sharif’s family – including his daughter and political heir, Maryam Nawaz Sharif – had raised a £7m loan against four apartments in the building.
The controversy over Avenfield House eventually led to Nawaz Sharif’s ousting as prime minister in 2017 by Pakistan’s supreme court. The properties continue to be owned by the same companies.
Pakistani anti–corruption authorities have previously accused the Sharif family of buying the apartments using money stolen from the people of Pakistan. The family has strongly denied that, claiming in 2016 that the source of the funds was primarily from the sale of a steel mill in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
Nawaz Sharif, Maryam Sharif, and her husband were sentenced to prison on corruption charges linked to the Panama Papers revelations, but were released in 2018 after a court in Islamabad said prosecutors had failed to bring any evidence of Nawaz Sharif’s ownership of the Avenfield apartments.
Return to prominence
In 2019, Nawaz Sharif left Pakistan for the UK, reportedly on medical grounds. Since then, videos published on social media appeared to show the ex-politician, now aged 73, walking in London, including in Hyde Park.
And since Khan’s fall from power the Sharif family has regained its place at the pinnacle of Pakistani politics. Shehbaz Sharif last year said he was consulting his brother over the formation of a cabinet, while Maryam Nawaz Sharif has taken up the role of leader of the PML-N party after her corruption conviction was quashed last year.
In a statement provided by their lawyers, the Sharif family said: “The spurious claims and allegations contained in your correspondence are completely false and vehemently denied.”
The family did not respond directly to a detailed list of questions, but said they demonstrated a “fundamental misunderstanding of the facts” or were “fake news” “designed to manipulate and distort the truth to mislead the public”.
Nawaz Sharif’s ability to remain in London raises questions for the UK government, said Spotlight on Corruption.
Hawley said: “The fact that Sharif was able to escape justice in Pakistan by coming to the UK, then stayed on running businesses and directing political activities here is the real immigration scandal. There is clearly one rule for corrupt politicians and another for genuine refugees when it comes to the UK immigration system.”
Asked what the UK would do about the situation in Pakistan following Khan’s arrest, Rishi Sunak said it was “an internal matter for Pakistan” and that “we support peaceful democratic processes and adherence to the rule of law”.
Anti-corruption campaigners say the stories of the two properties show how the UK has questions to answer on its approach to investigating unexplained wealth stashed in London by the world’s political elite.
Transparency International UK, a campaign group, in 2018 called for the National Crime Agency to use the same powers from the Hyde Park Place investigation to consider the Avenfield House apartments.
Ben Cowdock, investigations lead at Transparency International UK, said Britain and its property market were seen as a “haven” and a “bolt hole” for political elites from Pakistan and around the world. Some of that money may well be legitimate, but others will buy properties far beyond the reach of most people on government salaries.
“It is important that the property market here does not continue to act as a safe deposit box for corrupt politicians who have stolen from the people they represent,” Cowdock said. “Law enforcement bodies tasked with tackling this issue should be resourced to fully investigate the breadth of unexplained wealth stashed here to ensure the UK is not seen as a soft touch on dirty money.”