Islamabad: Pakistan has asked US authorities to help investigate Axact, the software firm accused of earning millions of dollars from the international sale of bogus university degrees online, officials said on Wednesday.
Pakistani police also arrested the head of Axact in the early hours of Wednesday following a raid on the company’s diploma printing operations, and registered a criminal case against him, investigators said.
Judicial magistrate Noor Mohammad Kalmati ordered the FIA officials to present Shoaib Shaikh, the chief executive officer of the Axact into the court on June 4 after completing their interrogations.
Earlier, FIA, the prime interrogating agency of the country, arrested Shaikh who was accused of running a global fake degree empire and conducted fresh raids at the company’s Karachi headquarters where they discovered thousands of blank diplomas.
The arrest came after a 12-year interrogation of Shaikh at the FIA office in which he pointed out the location of the fake degrees near his office.
The FIA team headed by Shahid Hayat Khan raided a building adjacent to the Axact office, located at a commercial street in the posh Defence area.
In the presence of a judicial magistrate, hundreds of thousands of degrees were found placed on shelves.
A large number of student identity cards were also found during the raid.
Soon after the raid, the FIA arrested Shaikh formally and registered a first information report (FIR) under section 402, 468, 420 of Pakistan Penal Code that deals with the cases of fraud and cheating.
A case was also registered under electronic transfer ordinance and money laundering laws.
Hayat told the media that the FIA had sufficient evidence against Axact as hundreds of thousands fake degrees were found at the premises the agency raided.
Six other company directors would be charged under Pakistani laws relating to fraud, cheating, money laundering, and illegal electronic money transfer.
Pakistan began investigating Axact after it was accused by the New York Times earlier this month of running a network of websites for phoney universities as part of an elaborate scheme that generated tens of millions of dollars annually. Islamabad has also sought the FBI and Interpol’s assistance in the probe.
The Times report quoted former employees and analysed more than 370 websites of fake universities, accreditation bodies and other purported institutions and cited clients from the US, Britain and the United Arab Emirates who had paid sums ranging from thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars for their degrees.
Axact had also announced plans to launch a news channel called Bol, which had hired many of Pakistan’s leading TV anchors at above-market salaries. Many of the journalists have resigned in the wake of the scandal.
The interior ministry wrote to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) on Tuesday seeking assistance. Officials said a letter had been sent to the US State Department.
The request came days after a New York Times article said that Axact had run a global network of fake online universities that manipulated customers and generated tens of millions of dollars in estimated revenue annually by selling bogus diplomas.
Axact has denied the allegations, calling them “baseless”.
A senior interior ministry official, who did not wish to be named, said: “This is a scam whose victims are mostly people outside of Pakistan, in the US, UK and the Middle East.
“It was inevitable for the FBI to get involved in a scam in which so many Americans have allegedly been cheated. We will also reach out to Interpol in the coming days.”
The allegations, which have dominated Pakistani headlines in recent days, are an embarrassment for a government already under pressure from a faltering economy, with people questioning why regulators appeared to be wrong-footed.
Officials from Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) questioned Axact’s CEO Shoaib Shaikh for several hours on Tuesday night in the southern port city of Karachi, where the company is based.
In scenes shown live on television overnight, Shaikh led investigators to a company office piled high with blank degrees from fake colleges and certificates appearing to bear the signature of US Secretary of State John Kerry.
On Wednesday afternoon he was presented before a court in handcuffs.
Earlier in the week, authorities had sealed several Axact offices across Pakistan and confiscated documents and computers.
Shaikh has released a series of videotaped “appeals” to the public to protest over the crackdown on Axact.
“In the last week there has been a conspiracy to shut down Axact; because of this the company that contributes to 65 per cent of Pakistan’s IT exports has been reduced to zero,” Shaikh said in a message recorded shortly before he was taken in for questioning.
“I want to say this clearly: this is just a conspiracy. For God’s sake, come out on the streets against this conspiracy.”
According to Shaikh, a campaign against Axact has been led by Pakistani media moguls who felt threatened by Bol, a new television network that Axact was setting up.
In the last two years, Shaikh has poached several senior journalists from rival networks. Some of the most prominent ones have resigned in the wake of the allegations against Axact.