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National Accountability Ordinance's (NAO) plea bargain provision came under fire in the Supreme Court (SC) on Wednesday with the court saying that it cannot look the other way while the plea bargain and voluntary return practices continue.

The SC bench headed by Justice Gulzar Ahmed was hearing the case that had begun on a suo moto notice.

Last year, the SC had ruled that the authority of the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) chairman to accept offer of voluntary return of the illegally earned money by corrupt public servants is prima facie in conflict with provisions of the Constitution. It had then sent the matter to the Chief Justice of Pakistan, requesting the issue to be treated under suo moto provision.

Justice Gulzar Ahmed on Wednesday said that the issue relates to NAO's section 25 and asked the Attorney General (AG) Ashtar Ausaf the difference between a plea bargain and voluntary return.

Under Section 25 of the NAO, the NAB chairman, with the approval of any accountability court, can order the release of an accused found guilty of corruption after he/she enters into a plea bargain or an agreement by returning the misappropriated money to the Bureau.

Read: NAB’s plea bargain

Justice Azmat Saeed commented that the outcomes of the two [plea bargain and voluntary return] were different. He said that voluntary return of money is actually a confession of the crime; however, the accountability laws relating to it change its nature from being a crime to a case of good intentions.

When an inquiry begins, NAB chairman writes to the accused, asking him to return the money, Justice Saeed said, and the accused is offered a scheme "which allows him to continue earning [illegally] and keep returning the money earned [to NAB]."

He added that chairman NAB has been given limitless powers when it comes to a plea bargain.

He pointed out the duplicity in NAB law and conduct, saying that while the Bureau says a case concerning Rs75 million is a minor one, a person convicted in Rs1m case is imprisoned.

"Is there anyone who can defend this law?" Justice Saeed asked. "We cannot keep our eyes closed in this situation."

"An accused of Rs5m [worth corruption] is freed after giving Rs15,000 [to NAB]," he said.

The court was informed that the federation does not support the plea bargain and the bill to change it is pending in the Senate.

The court asked the attorney general to submit a written reply. The AG responded that he will inform the court regarding legislation on the issue in his written statement.

Seeking replies from advocate general Islamabad and the provincial government, the court adjourned the hearing until November 9.

While speaking to journalists after the hearing, the AG said that the government is working on bringing amendments, adding that personally, he was in favour of the plea bargain.