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So much for corruption

Updated February 23, 2017

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WHENEVER I begin to think that hitting the barricades against corruption by high and mighty politicians is a great idea, I think back to the example of Malik Qayyum. Remember him?

In case you don’t, here’s a sketch. Qayyum was the judge of the lower courts who heard the case of Hudaibya Engineering. Yes, long before we had Hudaibya paper mills, we had the engineering concern. This was in the mid-1990s, the second Benazir government. Amongst other ‘explosive’ revelations that were tried from that era was the Asghar Khan case, another episode involving bags of money and high and mighty politicians. Remember that?

You see, the judgement authored by Qayyum basically interpreted a recent piece of legislation in such a way as to open the door to a massive money-laundering scheme: the resident foreign currency accounts. In the judgement, Qayyum explicitly wrote that under the Protection of Economic Reforms Act (PERA) of 1992, which was drafted and passed into law during Nawaz Sharif’s first rule, no government officer or department has the authority to inquire into the dealings of any foreign currency account. That judgement not only got the defendants off the hook in that case in which a slew of benami accounts had allegedly been used to obscure the source of the funds travelling through them, it also served as a precedent in later cases when others resorted to the same tactics.

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That understanding of PERA was problematic though. When the same case came up before the Supreme Court in May 1997, the then deputy attorney general argued that the immunity offered by the act extended only to the point of asking about the source of funds, especially for tax purposes. If a criminal case is registered against the activities taking place in a foreign currency account, the subsequent investigations are not covered by the immunity offered by PERA.


Malik Qayyum was the political football that got kicked around for two decades.


To make a long, and excruciatingly painful, story short, it was Qayyum’s interpretation of the act that prevailed. Not because it had superior juridical merit, but because it was the most convenient interpretation for everyone involved. And a lot of people were involved in subsequent years in misusing the foreign currency accounts scheme to basically launder ill-gotten gains, tax evaded wealth, and amounts accumulated through mis-declaration of trade values.

When Nawaz Sharif came back to power in 1997, he promoted Qayyum to the Lahore High Court where the wily lawyer-turned-jurist was tasked with hearing cases against Benazir Bhutto when he was nominated to the Ehtesab bench of the LHC. It was during these proceedings that a tape recording was played in court by Bhutto’s lawyers of a telephone conversation taking place between Qayyum and another party in which they were heard discussing ways to rig the outcome of the case against Benazir. Qayyum claimed the tape was doctored, but the controversy it raised was enough to end his career. For now.

Later, Qayyum was brought back as attorney general by Pervez Musharraf. Anybody who had the dirt on the Sharif family and experience trying the Bhuttos was useful for the general. After 2008, when the Zardari government came to power, they retained Qayyum as attorney general and made him write the letter to the Swiss authorities asking for all cases against Bhutto and Zardari to be withdrawn, with which he complied.

Qayyum’s story is instructive when reflecting on how powerless the state and its organs are against the menace of high-level corruption. He was the political football that got kicked around for two decades. He was instrumental in advancing the cases against the Bhuttos, and it was with his hand that the most advanced of those cases was withdrawn. He was instrumental in getting the Sharif family off the hook when they faced criminal charges that are echoing once again in the Supreme Court today. And he served as the attorney general of the family’s sworn enemy Pervez Musharraf, helping him interpret the law in such a way as to prevent the return of the family to Pakistan in the run-up to the 2008 election.

I don’t mean to suggest that he was personally responsible for the deeds that he became a central player in. But look closely at this person and you will get a glimpse of how the machinery turns when corruption allegations are pursued in this country. For a while he was the central cog in this machine, the man who just happened to be there whenever a matter related to corruption was coming to a boil. What is important to look for in this story is not the man and his intentions, but the machine that produced him and put him there every time.

That machine has grown enormously by now. Look carefully, for example, at how the case against Khanani and Kalia fell apart and you will see the operation of this machine once again. Look at how any institution of the state charged with regulatory and oversight functions withers every time it nets a big fish — the Competition Commission is a shadow of its original self, the SECP is reduced to being a joke, and so on.

The reason, in my view, is that each institution of the state has been chewed away by decades of a searing power struggle that puts every ruler in a do-or-die position within a year or two after coming into power. This struggle sucks all other institutions into its fires, reduces all discourse to its terms, creates two sides only to every issue and forces everybody, one by one, to choose their team. In short, it drains the oxygen from our politics, and creates the conditions under which those willing to cut any deal and go to any lengths to secure their own advancement thrive, while the rest sink into cynicism. Corruption and the endless power struggle that is our politics are like two mirrors face to face: they reflect each other to infinity.

The writer is a member of staff.

khurram.husain@gmail.com

Twitter: @khurramhusain

Published in Dawn, February 23rd, 2017