UK Fraud Office drops case against Nisar Afzal, returns assets
By Mujtaba Ali Shah
LONDON – Britain’s Serious Fraud Office (SFO) has dropped a high-profile criminal fraud investigation into the well-known British Pakistani businessman Nisar Ahmed Afzal after investigating an alleged mortgage fraud case of £50 million spanning more than 15 years of investigation in both the UK and Pakistan.
Authorities at the Serious Fraud Office have confirmed that criminal proceedings against Nisar Ahmed Afzal from Birmingham have been closed, his seized assets have been returned to him and he is no longer subject to an arrest warrant and the Restraint Orders (RO).
The Birmingham Mortgage Fraud case became one of the biggest cases of its nature in UK history and Nisar Afzal fled to Pakistan in 2006 at the start of the investigation, alleging that he was wrongly framed in the case in a high profile conspiracy and that he will not get justice in the given circumstances.
The SFO has confirmed that the Restraint Orders, first secured on 24 July 2006, against Nisar Ahmed Afzal have been discharged and “there are no proceedings by the SFO” against him anymore and the arrest warrant, secured at the Westminster Magistrates’ Court against Nisar Afzal on 29 October 2010, has been withdrawn by Director of the SFO under the Criminal Justice Act 1987.
The Southwark Crown Court ordered the release of Restraining Orders and discharging of the arrest warrant after the Serious Fraud Office made an application to the court before His Honour Judge Grieve QC explaining that it will not pursue the criminal case against Nisar Afzal anymore and planned to close the file.
The court Order, available with this reporter, reads: “It is ordered that the Restraint Order granted by his Honour Judge Elwen on 24 July 2006 as varied shall be discharged.”
The Birmingham Mortgage Fraud case is seen as one of the biggest and most complex cases investigated by the SFO with help from National Crime Agency (NCA) and cooperation from Pakistan’s National Accountability Bureau (NAB).
In May 2019, a senior investigator of the NCA visited NAB’s Rawalpindi office to obtain evidence that could corroborate “the banking transaction data already obtained in the UK”, according to a letter written by NCA to NAB.
In the same letter, the NCA told a senior NAB official it was “pleased to notify you that following our cooperation in the matter and the information that NAB has provided, the SFO was able to successfully confiscate a £1.53 million from the Afzal family in the High Court of London”.
Nisar Afzal left Britain for Pakistan in 2006 as he was implicated in the mortgage fraud case but he was never charged and he stressed his innocence from Pakistan through his UK lawyers.
The £50m Birmingham mortgage fraud, according to SFO, took place between 2004 and 2006 and offences included two counts of conspiracy to obtain money transfers by deception and four counts of obtaining a money transfer by deception. The Westminster Magistrates' Court ordered the forfeiture of all the funds held in Afzal's frozen bank account at the start of the investigation – the funds which have been released now.
There was an arrest warrant issued at the Westminster Magistrates’ Court for Nisar Afzal’s arrest but the UK government never asked the Government of Pakistan to bring him back to face trial.
This case has seen twists and turns like few other cases. Not only that the investigation has remained alive for over 15 years but there has been a high profile kidnapping of Nasir Afzal in Pakistan, the guilty plea of his younger brother under “duress”; the Serious Fraud Office requesting to adjourn the case and accepting in an open court they have no chance of success if Nisar Afzal’s defence is true; most of the accused being acquitted or hung juries; UK-Pakistan wide ranging cooperation and in the end the SFO deciding to drop the case against Nisar Afzal after failing to find enough evidence to establish criminality.
Nisar Afzal’s brother Saghir Afzal and banking expert Ian McGarry were charged along with six solicitors who conducted the property transactions on their behalf but at the trial three were acquitted of the charges against them and the jury was unable to reach a verdict in respect of the other three.
The SFO investigators accepted in the court in September 2018 during a hearing that Nisar Afzal had consistently pleaded his innocence and abuse of power and that the SFO will close the file if it turns out that Afzal’s position was right that he was not involved in the criminal conspiracy.
Nisar Afzal was never charged for the allegations for which his brother was convicted but the SFO wanted Nisar Afzal to return to the UK to face trial. However, Nisar Afzal stressed that he would return to the UK if the SFO confirmed in writing that it had completed its investigations in the UK and Pakistan, covering every aspect of the case with full verifications. He asked the SFO to investigate through the British High Commission and Pakistan High Commission as this would potentially help his defence but the SFO didn’t do that. However, the SFO took help from Pakistan authorities when needed.
Nisar Afzal’s lawyers argued that if Nisar himself assisted his own evidence then the SFO would not accept it as genuine but on the other hand the NCA didn’t want to actively investigate to gather evidence. The lawyers argued that it was deeply unfair and unjust that the matter was not being investigated and that the defence, which was capable of exonerating Nisar Afzal, was not being obtained as that would help a fair trial and help uphold the rule of law.
The lawyers argued with the SFO in legal correspondence that the actions being taken by the SFO, including seizure of assets, tantamount to “abuse of process” as Nisar Afzal was prepared to be prosecuted but only once the full evidence had been gathered.
Nisar Afzal’s brother Saghir Afzal was jailed for 10 years in 2011 around the time Nisar Afzal was kidnapped in Pakistan and Saghir’s lawyers told the court of Appeal that Saghir was never involved in any criminal act but pleaded guilty under extreme duress. They also said that vital evidence should have been first gathered in Pakistan which the SFO didn’t obtain and the court would look at the case if the full evidence was before it during the trial.
According to a letter sent by Nisar Afzal’s lawyers to the SFO: “At the time of the appeal hearing, no enquiries were made by the SFO or the Appeal authorities or the Pakistan authorities. He believes that this meant that there was vital information that may have assisted in submissions being made by Saghir Afzal in being presented to the court.”
Throughout the 15 years, Nisar Afzal disputed the criminal case against him and stressed that he was a victim of abuse of power; didn’t commit any fraud or criminal act. He said that the SFO had failed to properly investigate an individual called Abdul Ajram who, he said, was the one involved.
In the meantime, Nisar Afzal’s assets remained frozen through a confiscation order by the Westminster Magistrates’ Court. Nisar Afzal’s lawyers filed substantial evidence on his behalf to counter the allegations being made by the SFO. After a long stretch of litigation, the SFO has now informed the court that it has closed the cases and investigations against Nisar Afzal due to lack of evidence, and further requested to the court that his assets, therefore, should be returned to him. It’s understood that Nisar Afzal plans to launch a series of legal actions.
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