The Dragon

The Dragon
The Chief Justice of Pakistan, Gulzar Ahmed, has put the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) on the mat. About time, too. The fire breathing dragon has ravaged the political opposition to every government in turn. Although the NAB Chairman and the Chief Public Prosecutor are appointed after consultations between the government and opposition, they tend not to be as independent and indiscriminate as required. The irony is that when a party is in opposition, it decries NAB and wants the law suitably amended because it is the target, but when the same party is in office it is content to let it be. Behind the curtain, the Miltablishment that created the NAB during a martial law regime and has protected it diligently from the wrath of political parties, quietly steers it in whichever direction is needed.

The CJP is appalled. The court noted that there are only 25 Accountability Courts (no judges in five) in the country to adjudicate 1226 pending NAB references, some of which go back to 2001 (in one such, the accused has passed away) when NAB was established, when each case was required to be adjudged within 3 months. “At this rate”, remarked the CJP, “it will take a century more to decide them”! Accordingly, the CJP has ordered the government to take steps to install 120 additional Accountability Courts with competent judges within 30 days, or else!

Obviously, the CJP thinks that by increasing the number of courts and judges, justice will be speeded up. But the court has not taken one critical factor into account: NAB’s inability to put up a swift and solid prosecution to wrap up each case satisfactorily. This, despite the fact that the NAB law is loaded against the accused because the onus of disproving the allegations is upon him/her (guilty unless proven innocent) rather than the other way round as generally decreed in law (innocent unless proven guilty). Indeed, this is the singular clause that makes NAB lazy and flabby because it encourages it to arrest the accused, oppose bail and lean on him/her to compromise and settle out of court instead of going the whole hog of researching, preparing and effectively prosecuting him/her. The statistics show that “plea bargains” account for an overwhelming number of settlements in cases against businessmen and bureaucrats, while those against politicians who refuse to admit corruption linger on endlessly for lack of proper homework.

In any functioning democracy such a law would be struck down as unconstitutional. But the SC is reluctant to wade into such waters for two reasons. First, this is the job of parliament and if parliament is unable or unwilling to do so, even when the ruling party has the votes to amend the law, why should the courts step into its shoes. Second, corruption is such a huge public issue that any attempt to curtail the outreach of any accountability body is likely to face loud outrage.

In recent years, NAB has begun to pose new problems for governance by increasingly encroaching into the domain of the Anti-Corruption Departments of provincial governments by slapping charges on senior bureaucrats of aiding and abetting corruption and “causing untold losses to the public exchequer”. This has led to an implicit pen-down strike by top Babus because no one is prepared to sign off on any major decision even if it is ordered by the minister in charge since every bureaucrat can now be hauled up on charges of suspicion and investigation by NAB to show that there has not been any inordinate or inexplicable increase in his/her income or wealth. The manner in which senior bureaucrats like Ahad Cheema and Fawad Hasan Fawad, who worked under the last PMLN government, have been mistreated by NAB has sent colleagues scurrying for cover and bringing government to a halt.

The disarray has been compounded by disjointed attempts to amend the law. The PTI government recently passed an Ordinance protecting bureaucrats and businessmen from prosecution by NAB under certain circumstances. But it made no attempt to make the Ordinance into an Act of Parliament after it expired. Now there is a vacuum. No one knows what to make of those cases that were being tried under the new Ordinance which no longer exists.

It is also known that NAB is the most serious impediment to any change in the current law. Its view is that the changes proposed by the opposition parties, bureaucrats and businessmen effectively defang it and render it impotent. The Miltablishment stands in-between: it wants businessmen and bureaucrats not to be unduly hindered but it wants undesirable politicians in opposition and government swiftly knocked out. The government, meanwhile, wants NAB to go after the opposition but leave alone its own corrupt stalwarts.

Now the dragon has been prodded to attack the Jang-Geo media group that remains a thorn in the side of the government and Miltablishment. Where will it all end?

Monsters, we know, have a habit of turning on their masters without warning.

Najam Aziz Sethi is a Pakistani journalist, businessman who is also the founder of The Friday Times and Vanguard Books. Previously, as an administrator, he served as Chairman of Pakistan Cricket Board, caretaker Federal Minister of Pakistan and Chief Minister of Punjab, Pakistan.