Last week Lahore saw an interesting criminal case regarding the abduction of two European nationals, German citizen Stephan Ehrhardt and Swiss citizen Maria Spari, and the subsequent payment of the ransom in Bitcoin. 

As of now, the police has been unsuccessful in tracking down the suspect. 

Series of events 

Stephan, a small businessman in Germany, has been kidnapped by a Pakistani criminal in Lahore. Rana Irfan, who has never been on the police’s radar before, become friends with Stephan in Germany in 2019. 

On his return to Pakistan, Rana Irfan invited Stephan to visit Pakistan and see investment opportunities. Stephan, with his staff member Maria, a swiss national, landed in Lahore on 10 February 20201, staying at the Pearl Continental Hotel. On their arrival, Rana Irfan did not go to receive them, which police believe was a bid to avoid CCTV camera. 

On the same day, at 9:30 pm, Stephan requested the hotel for a car rental service as he explained to hotel staff that he and Maria were invited for dinner by his friend. Stephan, since his arrival in Lahore, was constantly in touch with Rana Irfan on Whatsapp messenger.

Police said Stephan and Maria left Hotel between 9:30 to 10 pm to meet Rana Irfan. During their travel, Rana Irfan called to guide for the address. Stephan had given his phone to the driver to understand the destination. The driver, according to police, spoke three times with Rana Irfan.

Rana Irfan first asked the driver to come on Jail Road near Services Hospital as the car was just two minutes away from the hospital. Rana Irfan called again and asked the driver to come to Mall Road GPO side. When the car reached the GPO crossing, Rana Irfan contacted them again and asked the car’s colour and serial number. According to the driver, within the next minute, two cars arrived, one for the guests, while an unidentified person sat in the second car, which the police assumes was Rana Irfan. Stephan and Maria sent the hotel’s car back to the hotel, assuming that their guests are taking them for dinner.

The car then drove for an hour before being stopped by a police mobile, Stephan explained. He said a jeep with blue lights on the top had stopped their car, and a person in police uniform ordered a search of the car. Rana Irfan’s car, meanwhile, disappeared from the scene. 

According to Stephan, after a few minutes, the police party planted drugs in his pockets. The police say that these individuals posing as the police were likely fake. Still, an investigation into possible collaboration between the criminals and members of the police force is also underway. 

At this moment, two more persons appeared with a camera. The fake police officer told the cameraman and reporter that he had caught foreign drug dealers. The alleged news team left after filming their videos. After the news team went away, the fake police officer demanded money to release them, threatening that otherwise they would be awarded a death sentence by the Pakistani courts. 

At this point, Stephan contacted his family in Germany and asked his son to transfer money to his account. The police party gave Stephan a bank account and asked him to transfer money in bitcoin, after which he transferred 1.69 Bitcoin (equal to Rs 14.2 million).

Stephan told the police that only Rana Irfan was aware of the fact that he had bitcoin.  Rana Irfan had asked Stephane to explain his investment in the bitcoin after dinner. This is why Stephan was carrying his laptop while going for dinner, making it convenient for the fake police to ensure the instant transfer of the ransom money.

The case is registered on the complaint of Atta Nor, a translator from Islamabad who is working for Belmont Asia company. He has been asked to work as a translator for Stephane so police can understand his ordeal as Stephanis not conversant in English. 

As of now, the police has arrested two suspects from Gujranwala, however, Irfan is at large.

Bitcoin ransom

However, this is not the first time abductors have taken the ransom in Bitcoin. The Correspondent talked to Superindentent (SP) Dolphin Force Rashid Hadayat who recalled solving a similar case. 

Hadayat was the SP in Sadar division green town Police station Lahore at the time when a curious case surfaced. A trader and local business owner was abducted from Lahore and the kidnappers asked for the ransom money in Bitcoin, resulting in the family paying 0.30 Bitcoin (Rs 2.5 million). 

Rashid Hadayat informed that currently, the police does not have the forensic capabilities to track Bitcoin transactions and this case was solved by a stroke of luck. The abductors got a sim-card on the CNIC of the victim and made the telephone calls and demanded the ransom through Bitcoin, which can not be traced. The car used in the kidnapping had a distinct colour which was then tracked through the safe city cameras installed in the city, which eventually led to the suspects in this case. 

He added, that the way in which crimes are committed in the digital age is changing but there is a lack of structural improvement to provide the police with adequate equipment to tackle the newly rising threats.  

After the recent case of abduction of the two Europeans, the Punjab Assembly has moved to legislate regarding better regulation of travel agents, without addressing the lack of forensic capacities of the police.

The author has been working in the field for 15 years, focusing on sports, crime and investigative reports.

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