Tackling corruption is keyfor Pakistan’s PTI government but, writes Rahimullah Yusufzai, one of the country’s most influential anti-graft agencies is itself facing charges of political bias
The accountability of powerful people, particularly politicians, is dominating the news in Pakistan today. Media headlines daily relate to the arrests and trials of persons hitherto deemed beyond the law, and the common people are generally pleased that the wealthy and influential are finally being called to account.
However, those targeted are alleging foul play. Politicians from the opposition parties facing such chargesclaim they are being politically victimised by the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) led by Prime Minister Imran Khan, who has been a leading advocate of accountability in the country. His party’s slogans of ‘tabdeeli’ (change) and ‘insaf’ (justice) promise to deliver these things to improve people’s lives and help the downtrodden and oppressed.
Heading the campaign against corruption and misuse of power is the National Accountability Bureau (NAB). Although there are other government entities that investigate and prosecute these cases, such as the Anti-Corruption Establishment and the Federal Investigation Agency, the NAB is the biggest and most empowered institution as it is tasked with pursuing those suspected of involvement in corruption not only within the state and defence sectors, but also the private and corporate world.
The NAB was established by military ruler General Pervez Musharraf in November 1999, a month after he seized power by staging a coup against the elected government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Hedeclared that the NAB was created to put the fear of God into the corrupt as, before he came to power, Pakistan was on the brink of being declared a failed state.
One of Musharraf’s early slogans in power was ‘accountability’ and his pursuit of the high and mightyendeared him to many Pakistanis. However, he later started misusing the NAB to pressurise reluctant politicians from opposition parties into switching their loyalties and joining the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid-i-Azam (PML-Q), the so-called ‘King’s party’ he had created as a political platform to prolong his rule.
The NAB survived after Musharraf was forced to resign in 2008 as a result of popular protests. In fact, it subsequently gained further powers and is now a fully autonomous institution that has investigated even ruling politicians, putting some behind bars. Every government has argued that the NAB is an independent institution whose actions are not dictated by the rulers.
Currently the NAB chairman is retired Justice Javed Iqbal, a respected judge who served in the Supreme Court of Pakistan. He has defended the Bureau against criticism that it is soft towards the PTI government and is more intent on targeting opposition politicians. In a recent statement, he claimed that the NAB is aiming for across-the-board accountability and is not biased towards any political party or individual. Indeed, in response to a letter addressed to him, he has agreed to meet politicians from several parties to assuage the opposition’s apprehensions.
The NAB has also faced censure from Pakistan’s powerful superior judiciary for mismanagement and an inability to process mega-corruption scandals against the ruling elite. Its practice of plea bargaining– under which suspects are coerced into agreeing to an out-of-court settlement by confessing their crime and returning the embezzled amount – was described as ‘institutionalised corruption’ by a Supreme Court judge.
According to the NAB, since its establishment it has recovered Rs297 billion from elite politicians, bureaucrats, former military officers and those involved in white-collar crimes. Up to now it has filed references against hundreds of accused under a process that involves an initial inquiry, investigation and prosecution. At present, the Bureau is investigating mega-corruption cases involving Rs179 billion.
Not a day passes without the NAB appearing in the news for one reason or another. There are reports of fresh inquiries, the filing of references in the accountability courts, proceedings of cases in the high courts and Supreme Court, or criticism of the organisation by affected politicians.
For example, on December 19, the NAB filed references in the accountability court against former Federal Communication Minister Dr Arbab Alamgir Khan and his wife Asma Alamgir for possessing assets in the country beyond their known sources of income. Both had held high positions in the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) government (in power from 2008-2013), when the party’s head Asif Ali Zardari, husband of the late Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, was President of Pakistan. The NAB warned that a supplementary reference may be filed against the couple once the ongoing investigation into their foreign assets is completed.
A day earlier, Chief Minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, Mahmood Khan, a member of the PTI, was summoned to appear before an NAB investigation team in Peshawar for his role in the leasing of 275 acres of forest department land to a private company for developing a tourist resort at Malam Jabba in the picturesque Swat Valley. After appearing before the investigators, the Chief Minister, who was Provincial Minister for Culture, Tourism and Sports when the lease was allegedly given during the PTI’s previous term in power in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, claimed that he had been given ‘a clean chit’. But, to his embarrassment, the NAB issued a statement denying this claim, asserting that he could not give a satisfactory answer and would be subject to further investigation.
However, nowadays the most vocal politician against the NAB, the judiciary and the PTI government is Zardari, who is also facing investigation over keeping fake bank accounts for use in money-laundering. The NAB has told the Supreme Court that four cases of corruption are pending against Zardari, and the PTI government has declared that a reference will be filed against him, seeking his disqualification as a Member of Parliament for concealing his wealth abroad.
Zardari’s son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari – his political heir and now the chairman of the PPP – and his sister Faryal Talpur arefacing court cases too. Two former Prime Ministers, Yousaf Raza Gilani and Raja Pervez Ashraf, both affiliated with the PPP, and several leading party politicians are also defending charges of corruption and misuse of power. All this has prompted Zardari to launch a fresh tirade against the judiciary, the NAB and the PTI government for carrying out political victimisation. He has occasionally also been critical of the military, though politicians normally try to avoid getting entangled with Pakistan’s powerful generals.
Best known of all the cases of misuse of power and corruption are those filed against deposed Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, his daughter Maryam and sons Hussain and Hassan, and lately his younger brother Shahbaz Sharif. Nawaz Sharif was removed from power and disqualified for life from holding public office. Although PTI leader Jehangir Tareen was also disqualified for life by the apex court and Imran Khan too is facing a probe for using Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government helicopters during the PTI’s previous stint in power in the province, the stakes are much higher for Nawaz Sharif as he was Prime Minister thrice and was grooming Maryam as his political heir. In the interim period, former Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif was to succeed his brother as head of their PML-N party, and be in line to become Prime Minister in case of victory in the 2018 polls.
All those plans have gone awry and the Sharif family, along with former finance minister Ishaq Dar, another relative, are now fighting a legal battle in multiple cases to clear their names and avoid imprisonment. Nawaz Sharif, who spent some time in prison before getting bail, is awaiting the verdict of the accountability court in two corruption references, Al-Azizia and Flagship, still scheduled to be announced at the time of writing. His conviction could further complicate his problems and those of his family. Although Sharif has protested his innocence and recalled his services to Pakistan in making it a nuclear power, eliminating terrorism and reviving the economy, the cases against him are several and serious, and getting acquittals is going to be an uphill task.
It is obvious that the NAB and the judiciary are setting the agenda over the way Pakistan is to be ruled as they pursue cases of corruption and misuse of power. The people are following the trials with much interest as they have always been in favour of the rich and powerful being held to account.