Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Another Reko Diq scandal?By Ikram Sehgal

The writer is a defence and security analyst and chairman of the Pathfinder Group as well as director of the East West Institute

Located in the sparsely populated Chaghi district in northwestern Balochistan and accessible from the Quetta-Zahedan highway, Reko Diq has extreme weather, ranging from searing summers to freezing winters. High wind and sandstorms demobilise local activities and trade. A large low-grade copper porphyry deposit, Reko Diq has mineral resources totalling 5.9 billion tons of ore with an average copper grade of 0.41 per cent and gold grade of 0.22 grammes/ton. The economically mineable portion has been calculated at 2.2 billion tons with an average copper grade of 0.53 per cent and gold grade of 0.30 grammes/ton.
Reko Diq’s annual production is estimated at 200,000 tons of copper and 250,000 ounces of gold from 600,000 tons of concentrate. At today’s international prices, the profit worked out by Tethyan Copper Company (TCC) is about $1.14 billion for copper and $2.5 billion for gold, totaling $3.64 billion approximately annually. The TCC’s calculation of a $200 billion-plus profit over the 55-year life of the mine is disputed, higher estimates ranging up to $450-500 billion.
BHP Billiton initially signed the exploration licence with the Balochistan government in 1993, forming the TCC later in Australia, having 75 per cent and 25 per cent stake respectively. With gold and copper established in substantial quantity, BHP sold its stake, 37.5 per cent each to the Chilean conglomerate, Antofagasta Minerals, and Canadian company Barrick Gold.
Who gave the waiver to BHP Billiton to palm off its 75 per cent share in the TCC, and at what profit, even before a ton of ore was mined? Why were the Chileans and Canadians risking life and limb, as well as their investments, in such a dangerous area? And most mysterious of all, why were they not making the smelting plants in Pakistan, instead of shipping the concentrate abroad?
Malik Riaz Hussain, a renowned land developer, claimed in mid-June 2012 that Arsalan Iftikhar, son of the then chief justice of Pakistan, Iftikhar Chaudhry, had blackmailed him out of $3.63 million over a three-year period. Receipts, housing agreements and even passport and flight details were produced by an associate of Malik Riaz (and Arsalan’s friend) about Arsalan’s trips and hotel stays in London and Monte Carlo. While Arsalan termed the allegations “propaganda”, his father launched a preemptive judicial strike, taking suo-motu action to initiate an investigation against his own son. Shoaib Suddle uncovered a lot of incriminating evidence against both, Malik Riaz and Arsalan, recommending their prosecution for massive tax evasion. Both having a lot to lose, a compromise seems to have been reached.
Arsalan is not new to controversy reflecting negatively on his father, who was accused of getting him into medical school despite insufficient grades and then getting him rapidly promoted in his first government assignment. Later, controversially appointed vice-chairman of the Balochistan Investment Board, Arsalan immediately honed in on the Reko Diq gold mines, announcing an open global tender. Jan Buledi, official spokesperson for the Balochistan government, said his government was “acting on advice from the federal government, trying to reach an out-of-court settlement with the TCC as it would not be able to bear the financial losses in case a financial penalty is inflicted by the International Court of Arbitration”. Revealingly, Buledi added, “It will be unfair to prevent the TCC from participating in the bidding for a licence.” The legal lacuna was created on January 7, 2013 when a three-member Supreme Court bench, headed by Arsalan’s father, declared the July 20, 1993 agreement between the Balochistan government and the TCC void. Is it really a coincidence that the former chief justice plans to establish a ‘consultancy office’?
Attracting widespread criticism, Arsalan was forced to resign within 12 days into the Reko Diq controversy. Defending Arsalan’s appointment, a PML-N stalwart, Mushahidullah Khan, touted this as a “reward” for Iftikhar Chaudhry’s “many services to the nation”. Was this a reward for services rendered to the nation or to the PML-N? Arsalan’s federally-inspired appointment was ‘Reko Diq-specific’. Who else was in on the attempted scam?
Arsalan Iftikhar is desperately trying to divert attention from the scam by attempting Imran Khan’s character assassination and subsequent disbarment by the Election Commission of Pakistan. Bereft of his feared seat of power, can Arsalan’s father rely on colleagues in his former power base to aid and abet in his machinations?
Published in The Express Tribune, July 10th, 2014.
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