Top Court Allows Bahria Town To Continue In Larger Public Interest With Caveats

Real Estate Tycoon Malik Riaz was present at the hearings, along with many overseas Pakistanis and investors in Bahria projects.

JUN 28, 2018: Bahria Town has been ordered to deposit Rs5 billion (US$42 million) as surety within two weeks before the Supreme Court, and 20% from the total amounts collected every month by the real estate firm on its ongoing projects shall be deposited in the specified account set up by the top court which will be held in escrow.

Bahria Town Chairman Malik Riaz has also been ordered to deposit his property documents and an undertaking that he will not sell any of his assets before the court issues a verdict.

The top judge also directed him not to initiate any new Bahria Town project until decision on his appeal.

The top property developer has agreed to all of court’s instructions given during its hearings conducted on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Malik Riaz was present at the hearings on top court’s direction. Also present during the hearings were many overseas Pakistanis and investors in Bahria projects, specially in Bahria Town Karachi (BTK), and in Lahore and Murree. They thanked the court for protecting their interests first.

A huge number of Pakistani expats are have their hard-earned monies put in Bahria projects (and others) as first time home-owners or as real estate commercial investments due to excellent returns not available in such ventures abroad – even in the Middle East.

The court has also directed the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) to halt further action against Bahria Town till the apex court decides on an appeal filed by the top property developer in the Bahria Town Karachi (BTK) land allotment case.

The apex court also allowed Bahria Town to continue and complete these projects in the larger interest of the public at large and collect payments and dues from allottees and investors so that construction work can be completed in letter and spirit.

As per the order, NAB has been restrained from any investigation into Bahria Town, its directors, and all persons directly or indirectly related to the project while the court reviews Bahria’s appeal to court’s landmark verdict in May.

The Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar on Tuesday had appeared unimpressed by Malik Riaz’s charity work — which the property tycoon mentioned more than once during the hearing connected to Bahria Town Karachi — pointing out that charity does not make up for occupying land illegally.

“Charity work cannot be done by bribing people,” Justice Nisar pointedly said to Riaz, who swore that he had never bribed anyone.

Riaz tried to argue that he had built Bahria Town Karachi so that “Pakistan can grow from a third world country to a first world country”.

“We planned construction projects in the areas where people did not go [due to poor security],” he said, directing the court’s attention towards the fact that the housing society project also included the “world’s third largest mosque”, as well as an old-age home, a zoo, schools, and other facilities.

Justice Nisar, however, told Riaz that the court could not “allow [Riaz] to continue with illegal ventures just because of his religious projects”.

“You cannot Illegally occupy land and then do charity,” he added.

‘Violation of court order’

Riaz had appeared before the Supreme Court (on latter’s directive) in a case pertaining to Bahria Town Karachi issuing notices to people who have already been allotted plots, commercial buildings or build-up units to make payments to a new bank account set up by the housing society — in clear violation of the court order.

Earlier, the chief justice had barred the housing society from collecting any payments, saying that the administration of Bahria Town Karachi had violated court orders by opening up a separate bank account to collect outstanding payments.

Last month, the apex court had ordered the additional registrar of the Supreme Court’s Karachi registry to open a special account facilitating the deposit of the outstanding amount against allotments through pay orders, demand drafts or cross-checks.

As a huge amount of money on account of allotment of plots, build-up units and commercial buildings was still outstanding against the allottees, some makeshift arrangement should be made to facilitate the recovery and secure it, the judgement had stated. Bahria Town Karachi was also barred from selling or allotting land by the top court after declaring that the land for the project was acquired illegally.

However, Riaz’s counsel Aitzaz Ahsan on Tuesday denied that the housing society had issued notices to anyone.

Riaz vowed that he would obey court orders, but urged Justice Nisar not to pass a verdict that would “affect employees”.

The top judge then ordered Riaz to deposit Rs5 billion in court as surety, saying that the money had to be “returned to the nation”, along with his property documents and an undertaking that he will not sell any of his assets before the court issues a verdict.

The top judge also directed him not to initiate any new Bahria Town project until decision on his appeal.

Dawn published an editorial Wednesday on the Bahria matter which we endorse:

CHIEF Justice Saqib Nisar on Tuesday rightly alluded to a basic principle of integrity: no amount of apparent ‘charity’ that is the fruit of ill-gotten gains can negate the dishonesty from which it springs. The chief justice said as much while hearing a review petition by Bahria Town against the verdict pronounced on May 4 by the Supreme Court, which held the real estate developer guilty of illegally acquiring thousands of acres of land to establish a mammoth housing scheme in Karachi’s Malir district. The judgement struck down the transfer as null and void and banned Bahria from selling any plot, built-up unit, apartment, etc in the project.

According to a conservative estimate spelled out in the verdict itself, the value of the land alone is such that Bahria’s net earnings from a mere 4,241 acres in the project add up to an eye-watering Rs225bn.

NAB has since also weighed in, saying it has “irrefutable evidence” of the massive land grab.

During Tuesday’s hearing, Chief Justice Nisar took issue with the fact that Bahria had opened a separate bank account to collect outstanding dues for the project; the verdict had directed the court’s additional registrar to open a special account where such payments could be deposited. Yesterday, he sent the review to a five-member Supreme Court bench.

The real estate developer’s violation of the apex court’s orders is a measure of the impunity with which it believes it can operate. To justify fraud and deceit on the grounds of bringing ‘development’ to the country is a perverse argument. Pakistan cannot be transformed into a “first world country” if there is no rule of law, no accountability for the privileged, and no protection for the marginalized.

Among the latter in the Bahria Town Karachi case are indigenous communities who have resided for generations in Malir, earning their living from rain-fed agriculture and livestock farming. Many of them have been pressured and intimidated into surrendering their land. Certainly, those who invest in such projects have legitimate aspirations.

But this is where the role of the media as a watchdog for the public interest comes in, a role that it has, with a few exceptions, woefully relinquished where Bahria is concerned.

The Supreme Court on May 4 handed down two other separate and equally searing judgements pertaining to Bahria’s projects in Murree and Rawalpindi. One hopes the apex court ensures that those verdicts too are respected. (Dawn editorial, June 28th, 2018)

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