ISLAMABAD: Taking exception to the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) chairman’s frequent use of his authority to approve the voluntary return of embezzled money by offenders, Chief Justice Anwar Zaheer Jamali suggested on Wednesday that the benefit of the provision should be extended to the ordinary criminals as well so that overcrowding in prisons could be dealt with.

“The scope of the voluntary return of embezzled money by offenders should be extended in a way that an arrested thief is thanked and released once he gives back the stolen goods,” the chief justice said during a hearing in a suo motu case.

“This will also help end overcrowding of criminals in jails,” he said rather sarcastically.

A three-member bench headed by Chief Justice Jamali was hearing the suo motu case initiated on the observations made by Justice Amir Hani Muslim, who had criticised the powers enjoyed by the NAB chairman under Section 25(a) of the National Accountability Ordinance, 1999. The powers allow the NAB chief to let the accused go without any stigma after they return a portion of the embezzled money.

Section 25(a) of the NAB Ordinance, Justice Muslim had observed, prima facie seemed to be in conflict with the Constitution and, therefore, the vires of the provision needed to be examined.

The absence of Attorney General (AG) Ashtar Ausaf Ali from the hearing, despite earlier orders to attend it, also disturbed the court.

Additional Attorney General Muham­mad Waqar Rana informed the court that the AG was abroad in connection with the water dispute between India and Pakistan. At this the bench suggested that the AG should settle abroad permanently because he was always absent when a case of public interest or involving fundamental rights of citizens was heard.

Justice Muslim had also described as misconduct the joining of offices by the people who were accused of plundering colossal sums of money after depositing a portion of the embezzled money.

Mr Rana explained that according to a preliminary report of the Establishment Division, those who had joined services after voluntarily depositing the embezzled money could not be prosecuted further.

He, however, hastened to add that a five-member parliamentary committee working under the chairmanship of Naveed Qamar was studying the National Account­ability Ordinance so that it might propose amendments to the law. The bench observed that it was an old practice to appoint an inquiry committee or commission to prolong a matter and to avoid judicial resolution of the issue.

The court, however, asked the federal and provincial governments to furnish comprehensive lists of persons, civil servants or public servants of relevant departments of the government or state-owned organisations, who had entered into voluntary return scheme of NAB and then rejoined the services.

The court postponed proceedings of the case till Oct 24 with a warning that no further adjournment would be allowed.

Earlier, the court sought help of the AG, NAB chairman and NAB prosecutor general in settling certain principles regarding powers of the NAB chief.

Justice Muslim had underlined the need for laying down certain principles regarding cognisance of NAB in corruption matters under Section 9 of the Natio­nal Accountability Ordin­an­ce, with an observation that frequent exercise of powers to allow voluntary return of looted money by the NAB chairman had in fact served to multiply corruption on the one hand and defeat the very objective of the ordinance on the other.

Published in Dawn September 29th, 2016