The National Accountability Bureau (NAB) recently announced to have filed a reference against Ahad Cheema, ex-DG LDA, for allegedly acquiring assets beyond his sources but NAB was not sure if the value of the assets was in billions or millions! As a procedural entity the accountability watchdog has already been proved inefficient and now the doubts have arisen about its actual intent. It widely touted independence is increasingly questioned and it is now blamed as a political tool working to harm opposition to the government.
While no one questions the drive against corruption as it is considered to be the single-most disease eating in the body-politic but the way NAB has proceeded against corruption has probably provided protection to culprits instead of rooting out the menace. The inherent shortcomings in a quasi-judicial set-up have now started to play up seriously impairing the presence and relevance of the organisation. It is obvious that the corrupt must be held accountable in a fair and transparent manner but NAB appears to be failing in doing so.
It is quite apparent that official institutions depend on public trust in their impartiality that, in turn, guarantees them legitimacy. But if an institution is perceived deeply to be performing under specific political instructions the people will be deemed right to show their dissent. Distrust shown in performance of organisations deprives them of legitimacy and can well usher in constitutional crisis.
While the political parties are mired in debate NAB continues to initiate actions whose timing is questionable and the intent dubious
People who matter should be especially careful about NAB as its inception was based on flimsy ground as it came into being during the tenure of a dictator. The obvious aim was to tame political opposition to dictatorial rule and it went haywire from the word go as its first chairman Lt General Amjad resigned due to his disagreement with the military ruler who wanted NAB to carry out selective accountability. Corruption cases would suddenly disappear when the concerned politician joined the ranks of the king’s party. NAB continued to perform in the same way as it was made to during dictatorial rule and refused to change its practices.
NAB was difficult to dispense away with because it was enveloped in a statute requiring two-thirds majority to annul it but it was carefully watched that no party would achieve such dominance in the parliament. Most political parties favoured introducing amendments to the NAB law but during the last ten years of democratic governance, these parties were unable to come up with mutually agreed changes letting the status quo to prevail by default. Pakistan People’s Party-led coalition government tried to repeal the NAB law in 2009 and later in 2013-14 but Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz did not cooperate each time.
Rather late in the day PMLN government in 2016 started a debate to amend the NAB law and a parliamentary committee was formed to come up with suggested amendments. PMLN and PPP agreed to form a National Accountability Commission to replace NAB. Both the parties agreed on 53 out of 55 clauses for formation of the new commission. However, the parliamentary committee could not formulate the final draft because PTI and JI did not agree with the suggested clauses for amendment.
While the political parties are mired in debate NAB continues to initiate actions whose timing is questionable and the intent dubious. There is a range of dubious and incomprehensible decisions ranging from conviction of Nawaz Sharif before general elections, arrest of Shehbaz Sharif before by-elections, threats of looming arrest against Kh Saad Rafiq and his brother and incarceration of two prominent civil servants without properly charging them. The arrest of the leader of the opposition is perhaps the most glaring instance of NAB’s failure to foresee the long-term repercussions of its actions. He was duly cooperating with authorities and there was no concrete evidence against him yet he was nabbed.
It is more than evident that the blatant disregard shown by NAB of considerations of due process of law has badly injured its legitimacy. Its practice of arresting people on the basis of suspicion has wrought havoc with legal traditions in the country. The media trial resorted to be NAB is detrimental to the country but it has no qualms in parading several university professors in handcuffs before the media robbing them of their dignity and reputation before a trial had even begun. NAB appears singularly impervious to the widely-held legal notions of innocence of a person unless proven otherwise and goes ahead with populist tactics.
The outrageous power given to NAB to detain an accused for 90 days during which cases are made against an individual is a sure means of coercion that law the world-over castigates. The intensity of measures adopted to obtain confession are now widely discussed coupled with the stringent measure denying bail to the accused through regular judicial process and only recourse to High Court is permissible. It should be realised that such travesty of fair play is not endurable and will certainly give in to its own dichotomies. It should be realised that NAB is structured in a way that perpetuates that undermines due process of law and requires a substantial overhaul. It is heartening to note, however, that the federal government has now constituted a committee to revise the existing legal framework of NAB in consultation with all concerned departments.
Rameez Ansari is an entrepreneur