Pak Hajj fiasco: Separate probe ordered into graft allegations

Islamabad: Pakistan government has been embroiled in an embarrassing controversy over fraud in arrangements for annual Haj pilgrims, with authorities ordering two separate inquiries into graft allegations amidst calls for the resignation of the Religious Affairs Minister.

A court in Islamabad today remanded Rao Shakeel Ahmed, the former chief of the Religious Affairs Ministry's Hajj directorate, to custody for three more days.

Ahmed, who was removed from his post and arrested on November 13, has been accused of wrongdoing in hiring accommodation for thousands of Pakistani pilgrims from Saudi Arabian firms. Ahmed's successor Sultan Shah too has been recalled to Pakistan from Saudi Arabia by the government.

At the same time, pressure is mounting on Religious Affairs Minister Hamid Saeed Kazmi from within PPP-led government to quit over the scandal, which is being described as the country's biggest fraud in Hajj arrangements.

Science and Technology Minister Azam Khan Swati yesterday said action should be taken against Kazmi for alleged corruption in the Hajj arrangements.

Swati and Kazmi engaged in a war of words before Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani stepped in today to end the feud.

An official statement said Gilani spoke to both ministers this morning and asked them to refrain from making statements as an inquiry had been started to fix responsibility for "malpractices in the Hajj arrangements".

Official sources said Gilani also asked Kazmi to take back a legal notice he had served on Swati, seeking Rs 100 million as compensation over corruption allegations.

The premier asked Kazmi, currently in Saudi Arabia, to meet him as soon he returned to Pakistan and to submit a report on the alleged corruption, the sources said.

Following protests by Pakistani pilgrims who performed Hajj under a government scheme, President Asif Ali Zardari ordered the Federal Investigation Agency to conduct a probe while Gilani ordered a separate inquiry.

Under the government's Hajj policy, accommodation should be provided to pilgrims within two kilometres of a key religious site. However, accommodation was hired three to eight kilometres away from the mosque and the housing was said to lack basic facilities like running water, sanitation and electricity.

Pakistan's Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Umar Khan Ali Sherzai has held Religious Affairs Minister responsible for poor arrangements made for pilgrims.

The pilgrims could not get transport and tents in Mina due to the minister's poor policies and "commission" of Rs 20,000 to Rs 25,000 were paid for every pilgrim, he alleged.

The PPP-led government, which has been dogged by charges of corruption, recently said it would launch a special drive to root out graft from all ministries and departments.

During the humanitarian crisis caused by floods earlier this year, Western countries and donor agencies routed most of their aid through NGOs instead of the government due to concerns about corruption.