ISLAMABAD: The government on Saturday amended controversial provisions governing plea bargains and voluntary returns in the National Accounta­bility Ordinance (NAO), 1999, disqualifying those who have availed these options from holding public office for life.

President Mamnoon Hussain promulgated the ordinance, called the National Accountability (Amendment) Ordinance 2017 and merged both provisions, which means that both now require court approval.

Earlier, only plea bargains were sent to the concerned accountability courts for a final nod; while voluntary returns merely required the approval of the chairman of National Accountability Bureau (NAB). Previously, those who opted for voluntary returns were not disqualified from holding public office and could resume their duties forthwith.

Ordinance will be tabled before parliament; amendment bars those making deals with NAB from public office

“The ordinance will be introduced in the Senate on Monday,” Finance Minister Ishaq Dar, flanked by Law Minister Zahid Hamid, told a press conference on Saturday.

Following its tabling before the upper house, the ordinance is expected to be referred to the standing committee concerned for approval and will then be tabled in the upper house for debate and passage.

The Supreme Court had taken serious notice of the controversial plea bargain deal worth over Rs2 billion recently made with former Balochistan finance secretary Mushtaq Raisani, and asked the government for its point of view on the powers conferred on the NAB chairman under Section 25-A of the NAO.

The finance minister said the government was of the view that a suspect who availed either a plea bargain or opted for voluntary return should be disqualified from public office for life.

Previously, those who executed plea bargains were only disqualified from public office for 10 years, during which time they could not avail a bank loan either.

Mr Dar said that under the directions of the prime minister, the Laws Review Committee examined the law on Jan 5, 2017, proposing amendments to Section 15 and seeking the substitution of Section 25 of NAO 1999.

He said that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had also suggested that court approval should be mandatory for every voluntary return and plea bargain deal.

“With the approval of the prime minister and the federal cabinet, the government has decided to immediately promulgate the National Accountability (Amendment) Ordinance 2017 to give immediate effect to the aforementioned amendments,” he said.

The provision for voluntary return under the old law did not entail disqualification of a holder of public office, nor did it require the approval of an accountability court.

Accordingly, the Laws Review Committee proposed certain amendments, including: merger of the provisions of voluntary return and plea bargain; making the voluntary return arrangement subject to approval of a court and not at the discretion of the NAB chairman; deeming persons who have entered into such arrangements as ‘convicted’ and disqualifying them from holding public office.

If an individual in government service avails any of these options, they shall stand dismissed without any pecuniary benefits and shall not be eligible to hold public office thereafter.

A person convicted by a court for corruption and corrupt practices shall cease to hold public office and shall stand disqualified from being a holder of public office in the future, according to the amendment.

In accordance with unanimous motions passed by the National Assembly and Senate, the National Assembly speaker, in consultation with the Senate chairman and leaders of the parliamentary parties has constituted a 20-member parliamentary committee, consisting of 13 MNAs and seven senators “to revisit the National Accountability Ordinance 1999 and recommend necessary amendments therein”. The committee is likely to commence work next week.

NAB officials have admitted in the past that the bureau was not able to recover the total amount fixed under plea bargain and voluntary return deals since the accused managed to go off scot-free after paying an initial amount.

According to official data, available on the NAB website, the bureau has struck 1,400 voluntary return and 418 plea bargain deals between January 2008 and June 2015, amounting to billions of rupees. In the year 2015-16, at least 215 plea bargains were approved.

In a recent briefing to a Senate committee, NAB Director General Zahid Shah said the bureau had so far recovered an amount of over Rs37 billion from 4,565 accused since its inception in 1999. He had said that since 2010, NAB had recovered Rs25.6bn from 2,591 accused through voluntary returns and plea bargains.

Recent plea bargains

On Sept 8, 2016, the NAB board approved the plea bargain of Mohammad Tufail of M/s Saffron Pharmaceuticals, worth Rs45.8 million.

On the same day, a voluntary return of Rs36.8 million was approved with the owner of Maaza Pakistan Pakistan, a private juice-making firm.

Another plea bargain worth Rs 3.667 billion was approved with Sheikh Afzal and the owners of Harris Steel Mills in the Rs8.4 billion corruption case, known popularly as the Bank of Punjab scam.

On March 2, NAB signed a plea bargain worth Rs 258 million with Syed Masoom Shah, special assistant to the former KP chief minister in a case regarding the acquisition of assets beyond known sources of income.

Retired Lt Gen Zahid Ali Akbar applied for a plea bargain through the High Commission of Pakistan in London, which was approved for Rs200 million on Dec 2015.

Published in Dawn, January 8th, 2017


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