South Asia

Pakistan Hajj scam inquiry: Top official kept on remand

Pakistani Muslims ready to depart from Lahore airport for the annual Hajj in Saudi Arabia
Image caption Each pilgrim to the Hajj is charged about £1,700 by Pakistan's government for travel and accommodation

A Pakistani court has kept a former top official in custody, amid an inquiry into what is being called the country's biggest Hajj pilgrimage fraud.

Rao Shakeel was head of the religious affairs ministry's Hajj directorate until his arrest on 14 November.

Pakistani pilgrims were lodged in poor accommodation in Saudi Arabia. Mr Shakeel denies wrongdoing.

Religious Affairs Minister Hamid Saeed Kazmi is resisting cabinet colleagues' pressure to quit over the scandal.

Mr Shakeel, who denies allegations of misappropriation of funds, was remanded by the court in Islamabad for another three days.

He already had his period in custody extended last week.

'Unfinished accommodation'

The housing provided to pilgrims was said to lack basic facilities, such as running water, proper sanitation and electricity; in some cases the buildings were still under construction.

Each pilgrim is charged about 230,000 rupees (£1,700; $2,700) by the government for transport and accommodation in Saudi Arabia during the Hajj.

It takes a long time for most ordinary Pakistani Muslims to save up that much money.

Outside the court, Mr Shakeel told journalists that "mismanagement had definitely taken place", but he denied financial wrongdoing, saying he had not been the only official in charge.

President Asif Ali Zardari ordered an investigation after a senior Saudi official wrote to Pakistani authorities claiming mismanagement.

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, meanwhile, has banned the religious affairs minister from speaking to the media.

Hamid Saeed Kazmi has strongly denied allegations from one minister of direct involvement in the alleged scam.

The government is the largest provider of accommodation and travel for its citizens attending the Hajj.

Although increasing numbers of private operators are also offering Hajj services, 25,000 Pakistanis used the government service this year, bringing in around 5.8bn rupees in revenue.