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An Epitaph for NAB

by Khaled Ahmed

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Has the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Paragon Housing Society case sounded a death-knell for the controversy-laden anti-graft watchdog?

The Supreme Court of Pakistan on July 20 issued a 87-page reprimand to the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) for having wrongly imprisoned for over a year Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) leaders Khawaja Saad Rafique and Khawaja Salman Rafique in the Paragon Housing Society case. The two accused were not granted bail even after NAB failed to produce sufficient evidence against them. It re-established the principle set aside by a draconian NAB by asserting:

“The courts owe more than verbal respect to the principle that punishment begins after conviction, and that every man is deemed to be innocent until duly tried and duly found guilty. From the earliest times, it was appreciated that detention in custody pending completion of trial could be a cause of great hardship.”

The Rafique brothers walked, but NAB appears morally wounded after the verdict. Accused of “political engineering” by an earlier chief justice of the Supreme Court, it suffered from internal moral rot symbolized by it chief, ex-Supreme Court judge Javed Iqbal, who gave controversial interviews to the media while forcing a lot of innocent people, including a reputable vice chancellor, to suffer solitary confinement in NAB jails.

The apex court probably had in mind the innocent vice- chancellor of the Punjab University who was released from solitary only after NAB could pin nothing on him. It noted: “In this country, it would be quite contrary to the concept of personal liberty enshrined in the Constitution that any person should be punished in respect of any matter, upon which, he has not been convicted or that in any circumstances, he should be deprived of his liberty upon only the belief that he will tamper with the witnesses if left at liberty, save in the most extraordinary circumstances.”

NAB is hardly exempt from the moral turpitude rampant in the society it set out to cure. Manned by minimally presentable officers, NAB seems unaware of the economic damage its pursuit of businessmen is doing to the economy. It is focused on the satisfaction of an uninformed public passion instead of responding to the subtle requirements of internal and external trust on which today’s capitalism depends.

Abdul Hafeez Shaikh, adviser to the P.M. on finance, has objected to what NAB has been doing to investors, saying they should not be hounded by the process of “accountability” unleashed in Pakistan. No distinction was made between the holders of public office under scrutiny doing their usual hanky-panky and men of business who had to suffer red tape and consequent extortion while putting up new projects.

Shaikh must have taken account of a recent observation by former chief justice of Pakistan Asif Saeed Khosa that accountability was slipping into “political engineering” rather than providing justice. And yet: the most outrageous example of Pakistan’s economic myopia was the arrest on Sept. 4, 2019 of Iqbal Z. Ahmed of the Associated Group, which was noted with concern in the national media. Ahmed’s company had set up in 2016 Pakistan’s second Liquefied National Gas (LNG) import terminal with foreign expertise and investment, substantially from Norway and China, totaling $500 million. According to the Ministry of Energy, the project yields annual foreign exchange savings of an estimated $1.5 billion through fuel substitution in electricity production. [Full disclosure: Mr. Ahmed is the publisher of AG Publications, which publishes Newsweek Pakistan]

NAB picked up Ahmed “for money-laundering of Rs. 112 billion” and, as usual, was not required to prove anything before it arrested him and treated him like a convict. His media trial continued while his family refrained from issuing any public statement. The campaign against him was ugly to anyone looking objectively at Pakistan’s process of justice.

Apart from the normal risk-taking for which capitalism rewards its entrepreneurs, Ahmed, in his mid-70s with four stents in his heart, had to face persecution to satisfy the partisan lust of the rulers masquerading as champions of “accountability.” No one could visit him at his NAB prison, not even his lawyers, and NAB took its time framing money-laundering charges derived from reading his company’s bank statements.

The common enthusiast who wants to “uproot corruption” in quick time appears satisfied by the “emergency” measures taken by NAB. If you plead that the methodology of “uprooting” corruption without due process looked ugly, he in turn claims that the “correct” process of proving the wrongdoer guilty had been forever damaged by corruption; and therefore leapfrogging due process was the only course left.

But deep down there is an almost medieval resistance to accepting the demands of modern economy and the place in it of the risk-taking business community. There is a deep-seated resistance to looking objectively at what the state has done to projects in the public sector now withering on the political vine, with Prime Minister Imran Khan unwilling to privatize them and revive them in the private sector.

NAB has continued cannibalizing the country’s politics. It is empowered to arrest its victims on suspicion and is not required to prove the arrested guilty; those who get picked up and rot in NAB’s prisons without bail have to prove themselves not-guilty. NAB is meant to hound the opposition politicians and make them disappear as democracy slinks away from the country tail-between-legs. It also targets businessmen suspected of siding with politicians on the wrong side of the deep state. Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, the 21st Prime Minister of Pakistan from August 2017 to May 2018, was being kept in a death-cell while NAB looked around for something to pin on him.

The businessmen saw the end coming under NAB, which doesn’t have a clue about how the economy runs these days. It is least of all cognizant that 57 billionaires in India run 70 percent of its economy, while also pursuing the kind of transfer of technology that Pakistan is unable to manage.

At the National Institute of Public Policy, Lahore, two civil servants—Shahid Rahim Sheikh and Saifullah Khalid—prepared a study explaining why the bureaucracy had stopped helping the elected government in the implementation of public projects: “Bureaucratic Decision-making amid Multiple Accountability.”

The study begins thus: “Turbulent political developments also destabilized the Principal-Agent relationship between politicians and civil servants. This relationship had taken shape over a decade of democratic dispensation (2008-18). In the whirlwind of political upheaval, the civil servants, it appears, also became increasingly insecure, defensive and indecisive. A very strong feeling receiving an unfair deal took root among civil servants. They feel that while political bosses pressurize them into taking difficult and controversial decisions—often informed by political-economy considerations—when it comes to accountability and when questions are raised regarding the propriety of those decisions, the political bosses disown hem, leaving the civil servants high and dry and at the mercy of a scathing accountability process.”

The study took account of the number of anti-corruption hounds the civil servants have to fend against while helping politicians with “big decisions.” Bureaucrats are answerable to parliamentary scrutiny, and the propriety of their actions and expenditures is subject to statutory audit by the Auditor General’s Office. They also have to defend themselves before the Public Accounts Committees of the national and provincial assemblies. With so much punitive scrutiny in operation, is Pakistan doing well economically? The verdict is here: Pakistan is ranked 136 out of 190 countries on the Ease of Doing Business Index.

It all began with a draconian measure. Political accountability (Ehtesab Commission) was thought up by the caretaker government of President Farooq Leghari in November 1996, after his dismissal of then-Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto from office. Revenge was uppermost in the now-late Leghari’s mind. Even after his departure, the draconian NAB’s operations continued for purposes of political revenge by subsequent Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif under his henchman, Saifur Rahman, to chastise his political opponents.

General Musharraf seized power in 1999 by overthrowing Sharif, and immediately beefed up NAB to punish his political opponents in the PPP and PMLN, reducing accountability to obscenely manifest revenge without transparency and accepted norms of justice. Now NAB is taking orders from two quarters to further doom its identity as an instrument of justice. One of course is the government of Imran Khan. The other remains unnamed.

Soon enough, NAB boss Javed Iqbal started looking grotesque with a number of politicians sitting in his prison-cells despite no formal charges. He was further compromised when videos of him flirting with women in his office were leaked on social media. His sadism appears to spring from a background full of violence: his father, a policeman from a small town who retired as a senior officer, was killed in Lahore by his rickshaw driver son from his first marriage. At NAB, there were other not so meritorious judges who in time treated the nation to scandals. One NAB judge was even caught on camera drinking himself silly, and dancing an obscene dance. Is NAB finally on its deathbed? If it survives, it will reflect the turpitude of a state incapable of taking a moral decision.

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