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Imran Khan’s former adviser attacked with acid in UK home in front of four-year-old daughter

Exclusive: Shahzad Akbar told The Independent a man wearing a motorbike helmet and armed with a plastic bottle squirted acid in his face in front of his four-year-old daughter at his home in Hertfordshire

David Rose
Monday 27 November 2023 18:29 GMT
Related video: Imran Khan says his staff were tortured during his arrest

Police are investigating an alleged acid attack on an ex-adviser to the former Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan at his home in Hertfordshire. There are claims by a senior Tory MP it was carried out by an agent of the country’s feared intelligence agency, the ISI.

Shahzad Akbar, who sought refuge in Britain after leading Pakistan’s efforts to combat corruption and becoming an outspoken opponent of the regime, told The Independent he was lucky not to lose his sight in the attack on Sunday afternoon.

He was saved by his spectacles, which were badly damaged. Mr Akbar described how the attack was launched in front of his four-year-old daughter, and left him with acid burns on an arm and the top of his head.

The Tory MP and former cabinet minister David Davis said foreign secretary Lord Cameron should summon Pakistan’s high commissioner over the incident.

Mr Akbar said he was lucky not to lose his sight (Shahzad Akbar)

“The circumstantial evidence that this attack was conducted at the behest of the ISI is persuasive,” Mr Davis said. “The Pakistanis have to understand that whatever the standards of law at home, they cannot be allowed to attack British residents on British soil.

“The foreign secretary should summon the high commissioner and demand an explanation.” Likening the incident to the poisonings of Yulia and Sergei Skripal in Salisbury in 2018, he said such behaviour would be “no more acceptable from the Pakistanis than from the Russians”.

Describing the alleged attack, Mr Akbar said that at 4.35pm on Sunday he was washing pots in his kitchen with his daughter when there was a knock at his front door: “I saw a thin person, around 5ft 6ins, wearing a red padded jacket like a delivery person. He had a motorbike helmet with the glass drawn down. I think he had gloves.

“In his right hand he had a plastic bottle. He squeezed and aimed for my face. It happened in a split second, and I slammed the door. Acid came on my face and clothes but the door got most of it. I shouted to my wife to call 999.”

Her first question was: “Have you been shot?” The father-of-two replied: “Not yet.” He had the presence of mind to rush to his downstairs washroom and spent many minutes dousing his face, but said “the top of my head and an ear started burning”.

Paramedics arrived in an ambulance and took him to Addenbrooke’s hospital in Cambridge, where “nurses in bodysuits had me strip and washed me from head to toe”. After eight hours he was discharged, with his acid-burnt arm and other injuries bandaged.

The lawyer’s glasses after the attack, showing signs of damage (Shahzad Akbar)

Mr Akbar, who read law at Newcastle University and is a member of the English bar, was appointed head of the asset recovery unit Khan set up when he became prime minister in 2018, spearheading high-profile attempts to investigate officials and politicians suspected of stealing millions and aiming to return the money to the Pakistani treasury.

He had previously led Pakistan’s pre-eminent human rights law firm, which had sued the American government over the deaths of civilians in US drone strikes and defended clients, some of British origin, in cases where they faced the death penalty.

Mr Akbar also became a minister in Khan’s cabinet, but stepped down in January last year, shortly before Khan was ousted after falling foul of Pakistan’s “establishment” – the term often used locally to describe the shadowy alliance between the military, the ISI and compliant political leaders, which both generates wealth and wields immense power. Some of those responsible had been targets of investigations by Mr Akbar and his colleagues.

He fled first to the Gulf and then Britain after Khan was deposed in March last year, finding work with two human rights organisations and settling in Royston, a market town in Hertfordshire. He continued to attack the establishment and the government that succeeded Khan on Pakistani TV and social media.

In May 2023, the ISI kidnapped Mr Akbar’s brother Murad from his home in Islamabad and held him without charge at an undisclosed location. The following month, a senior government official told a press conference that Murad would be held indefinitely unless Mr Akbar returned to Pakistan.

Murad was finally freed on 27 August after prominent figures including Mr Davis and the Labour MP Chris Bryant wrote an open letter to then-foreign secretary James Cleverly, saying he was “at risk of torture, disappearance and death”, and asking him to do all he could to secure his release.

Mr Akbar kept his Royston address secret, but last month he received a package of documents there sent from the High Commission in London. “Obviously they had discovered where we live,” he said.

Police escort Pakistan’s former prime minister Imran Khan as he arrives at the high court in Islamabad on 12 May 2023 (AFP via Getty)

Two weeks ago, he sent an email, seen by The Independent, expressing concern at this development to the National Crime Agency (NCA) and Hertfordshire Police. He told said their advice was that his personal “threat level” remained low, but added: “I suppose I agreed with them. It was one thing to try to intimidate me remotely through my brother, but I never really thought they would attack me in Britain.”

An authoritative Pakistani source known to have links with establishment figures told The Independent he warned Mr Akbar weeks ago that he was being targeted, adding: “He’s very lucky he left Pakistan when he did and isn’t dead. But here in Britain, he’s on his own.”

It is understood that the bottle that had contained the acid has been recovered by police, who are currently guarding Akbar’s house.

The incident comes two months after Canada’s prime minister Justin Trudeau accused Indian agents of murdering the Sikh separatist leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar in British Columbia.

Hertfordshire Police said: Police were contacted by the ambulance service just before 4.45pm on Sunday to reports of an assault in Royston.

“It is believed an acidic solution was used. A 44-year-old man received hospital treatment and has now been discharged. Safety of any victim is paramount and we believe this is an isolated incident. Active enquiries are underway.”

The Pakistan High Commission did not respond to a request for comment.

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