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ISLAMABAD: Attorney General Ashtar Ausaf informed the Supreme Court on Wednesday that a law was pending before the Senate that sought to amend the National Accountability Ordinance (NAO) 1999 by granting the relevant courts the authority to approve “voluntary return”.

The voluntary return is a provision of the NAO that authorises the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) chairman to allow a person found guilty of corruption to pay certain portions of the embezzled money and be released.

A Supreme Court bench headed by Justice Gulzar Ahmed, however, asked the attorney general as well as the advocates general for the provinces to come up with comprehensive replies on the matter when the case would be taken up again on Nov 8.

The court had taken up the matter on a suo motu initiated on the basis of an observation made by former Supreme Court judge Justice Amir Hani Muslim on Sept 2 last year during the hearing of an appeal filed by NAB. The judge had deplored the powers of the NAB chairman to allow an offender found guilty of corruption to get off scot-free without any stigma after voluntarily returning the embezzled money.

In some cases, the accused, after paying the embezzled amount, were even allowed to join their previous job from which they had been fired for committing corruption.

Section 25(a) of the NAO, Justice Hani had observed, prima facie, seemed to be in conflict with the provisions of the Constitution and, therefore, the vires of this provision needed to be examined.

On Oct 24 last year, the Supreme Court had restrained former NAB chairman Qamar Zaman Chaudhry from approving the voluntary return deal till the time the court decided the fate of the provision.

Justice Hani had also observed that the issue concerned the question of public importance having far-reaching effects that had a direct bearing on the fundamental rights of citizens.

The order had emphasised the need for laying down certain principles regarding cognizance of NAB in corruption matters under Section 9 of the NAO to further examine whether the bureau could extend its jurisdiction to take cognizance of the case which fell within the domain of anticorruption authorities or the Federal Investigation Agency.

The Supreme Court had also felt the need of examining Section 9 of the NAO after realising that NAB had started taking cognizance of petty matters that involved amounts less than Rs100 million when the ordinance was legislated primarily to counter mega scandals.

During the hearing on Wednes­day, Justice Sheikh Azmat Saeed regretted that the return of embezzled amount through the voluntary return scheme was in fact confession of guilt and an attempt to convert the crime into a good intention. He lamented that NAB itself asked the accused by writing a letter to them to return the plundered money and get themselves clean.

Justice Saeed observed that the court could not sit idle and shut its eyes when the accused who embezzled Rs500,000 from the state was asked to return the dirty money by paying Rs15,000 on instalments.

Published in Dawn, October 12th, 2017