A few good men

July 07, 2017

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SINCE independence, Pakistan’s rich and powerful have managed to evade the rule of law. However, after years of hibernation, the moribund accountability process in Pakistan finally appears to be coming of age. Used selectively in the past to pursue political opponents, or equally to reward friends and allies by ensuring forbearance or favourable application of the law, for the first time, a powerful ruling family is being made to account for its alleged misdeeds.

The sitting prime minister, who has ‘miraculously’ avoided judicial scrutiny in a host of serious charges for around three decades, obtaining what his detractors claim to be favourable treatment from the courts in case after case over this period, has had to present an account of his and his family’s meteoric increase in assets since first assuming public office.

The reaction from him, his family and party cronies has been less than edifying. Almost on a daily basis, the Supreme Court and the joint investigation team it instituted have been assailed and subjected to vilification, aspersion, abuse, intimidation and threats. A partisan section of the media has been used to try and make the judicial process controversial. (The one downside of this episode is that the main media groups of the country have jettisoned journalistic ethics and have completely lost their sense of objectivity, balance and impartiality — on both sides of the political divide).

Finally, Pakistan has a tryst with rule of law.

For now, the Supreme Court seems determined to see the due process it has set in motion to its logical conclusion, no matter what the consequences. This is a brave decision — and the right one. History provides examples where nations have triumphed over great odds because of the determined actions of a few.

Two examples where a few brave men altered the destiny of nations, in far more difficult circumstances where the challenge to the rule of law was direr, are provided by Italy and Colombia. Consider Italy’s long on-off fight against the stranglehold of the Mafia, specifically the deadly Sicilian Cosa Nostra. The Mafia’s penetration and buying-off of law-enforcement agencies, the legal system, politicians, the civil service, the media and even civil society ensured that it literally ruled the roost of Italian life — murdering opponents, blocking inquiries by high-powered commissions, and terrorising ordinary Italians at will.

The hold of the Mafia and its political supporters and sympathisers was so strong — especially in the dominant Christian Democratic party — that while Italy first decided to take on the Mafia in the aftermath of the Second World War, it took two decades for the word ‘Mafia’ to even make it into Italian legislation. In fact, arguably at the peak of its political clout, the Mafia’s most highly placed political asset was found to be none other than three-time Italian prime minister Giulio Andreotti.

Few in Pakistan can perhaps appreciate the fear and near-paralysis of the state engendered by the Mafia’s control of large swathes of Italian public sphere in the 1960s through the early 1990s. While the fight against the Mafia and organised crime still goes on six decades after its initial tentative start, a few watershed events, and a handful of courageous Italians — journalists, police officers, public prosecutors and judges — helped to turn the tide. A potent game-changer was the assassination in quick succession by the Mafia of prominent anti-Mafia judges Giovanni Falcone (along with his wife) and Paolo Borsellino in 1992.

The exceptional courage of these men and women (and their families) and many of their colleagues in the police, public prosecution, security forces and the media who laid down their lives in the fight against the Mafia has paid off.

Another example is offered by Colombia and its fight against the terror unleashed by the Medellin cartel under Pablo Escobar in the 1980s and early 1990s. The law-enforcement apparatus was reluctant to move against the cartel, while any arrests made could not be prosecuted due to intimidation and murder of witnesses and judges. In response, the Colombian government signed an extradition treaty with the United States, the biggest market for the cocaine produced by the cartel.

The backlash to this treaty from Pablo Escobar was vicious. The Medellin cartel essentially launched a terror war against the state, with a series of car bombs and a wave of assassinations in Colombia’s two biggest cities. After refusing to move against the extradition treaty, despite warnings, death threats were issued to Supreme Court judges. When these were ignored, a full-scale assault on the Supreme Court was launched by the Medellin cartel-allied M-19 guerilla group in November 1985 (known as the Palace of Justice siege). In the ensuing attempt to free the hostages, nearly half of Colombia’s Supreme Court judges were killed, among many others.

After losing thousands of members of the security forces, policemen, judges, journalists, politicians and ordinary Colombians, and at least one fearless justice minister, the steely resolve of a determined few to bring the Medellin cartel to justice finally paid off. Pablo Escobar and most of his cartel lynchpins were hunted down and either killed or captured, bringing relative peace to a troubled nation.

The lesson from both these examples is that it takes the resolve of just a few individuals to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds. The fight against the Medellin cartel or the Mafia was ‘do-or-die’ for the countries involved, for the rule of law and for justice.

One Colombian president and a justice minister who decided to take on the Medellin cartel no matter what the cost, and two fearless judges in Italy (among other Italians), ensured that the sacrifices of thousands others did not go in vain.

Pakistan is at a pivotal moment for establishing what has remained the Holy Grail so far — rule of law for the elite. If this process is taken to its logical conclusion by including all elites, the country would have taken a huge leap forward.

The writer is a former economic adviser to government, and currently heads a macroeconomic consultancy based in Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, July 7th, 2017