The far-reaching impact of Axact’s misdeeds

Aftab Arif Siddiqui -The clues were in the name like a juicy riddle — hidden yet blatantly obvious. A business whose activities were immoral and illegitimate. Yet no one, including renowned investigative journalists who were guests of honour at many of the firm’s extravagant annual meets, picked up the clues. Let’s not forget they were among the few outsiders who enjoyed a personal rapport with Mr Shaikh and had unique access to his otherwise secretive business empire.

Mr Shaikh used Axact’s platform to lecture his audiences on how the company would transform Pakistan. How Bol, the TV channel, will cause a social revolution. Now he stands arrested — accused of fraud and acquiring wealth by deception. Axact’s premises were stuffed with blank foreign degrees, bogus authentication certificates and other documentation, all now in the hands of the FIA as evidence in the investigation into this multimillion dollar global fraud.

Axact CEO Mr Shaikh’s principal defense is that the company is a back office services provider acting as an agent for various international online universities. However, not a single foreign firm has come forward to corroborate this claim or complained that Axact, as their service provider is in breach of its service-level agreements or that they have suffered financially and reputations have been damaged because of the recent fiasco surrounding Axact.

The only reason for this could be that there are neither any foreign firms nor any enforceable agreements. The evidence gathered by the FIA suggests that Mr Shaikh and his cofounder, Viqas Atiq, wielded full control over all business activities as well as the numerous bogus schools and universities they were operating through Axact’s Karachi and Islamabad offices. Before his arrest, Mr Shaikh asserted Axact’s education and research units were just two of 10 business units. However, his claims are not substantiated by revenue or profitability contributions from each unit. It is obvious that the major activities of other units were to provide auxiliary services, such as digital marketing, web designing and administration to the education and research units. If Axact’s management could provide an independently audited breakdown of each unit’s finances, it could hope to claw back some credibility but that is unlikely.

The consequences of Axact’s crimes are far-reaching.Gene Morrison, a UK citizen, obtained a bogus degree from Rochville University and its associated concern Affordable Degrees — both fake establishments allegedly linked to Axact. Morrison hoodwinked the UK justice system by providing expert witness testimony as a highly-paid criminologist in over 700 cases and gave forensic reports. He was discovered and convicted of 20 charges of obtaining money and property by deception, perverting the course of justice and perjury in 2007. Unfortunately, the damage was done, his bogus degree and work giving him respectability in his community and during the course of his work he was provided access to vulnerable young girls whom he subsequently sexually assaulted. Once the deception was revealed, many of his child victims who had been afraid of complaining about him due to his social and professional status came forward to give evidence. He was jailed for an indefinite period for raping children as young as 10 and 11 years old. The girls who suffered physical and mental torture at his hands are scarred for life.

The internet age has made it easier for anyone to hide behind legal loopholes. An immoral act though, will always be immoral and illegitimate in any society. A business empire built on the basis of fraud cannot be a legitimate business activity; the proceeds of crime cannot be used to start a legitimate business to buy respectability and influence — it’s nothing but money laundering.

Bol cannot dissociate itself from Axact either legally or in practice. Pemra will have to address the issue of how Bol was funded. Earlier it gave a detailed response to this issue, the sooner it will settle speculation on it.

People might imagine that the criminal act of Axact of issuing bogus degrees is a victim-less crime. This is clearly not the case. Gene Morrison’s case is one among scores of similar cases and his victims are very real. There are many more victims of bogus degrees and their stories are yet to be told.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 5th, 2015.

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