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The plot thickens…

Updated July 11, 2018

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FIRST it was Nawaz Sharif’s conviction and now the noose is tightening around former president Asif Ali Zardari. The plot is getting thicker. It is all happening in the name of accountability, providing convenient cover to what many describe as a creeping ‘judicial martial law’. The dramatic development just a few weeks before general elections has raised questions about the polls proceeding smoothly.

Does it appear coincidental that days after Sharif’s conviction, a multibillion-rupee money-laundering scandal involving Zardari and his sister should surface? It is obvious that investigation into the alleged crime of such a huge magnitude has been going on for a long time. There is also no apparent reason to doubt the veracity of the charges. But one wonders why the case has been taken up now so close to the polls.

With Sharif and his daughter returning to challenge the conviction and the leader of another major political party being put on the Exit Control List, the situation has become extremely ominous. A major question is how the caretaker government and the security establishment plan to deal with this situation and ensure a smooth democratic transition.

Interestingly, the action against Zardari has come at a time when stories about some kind of a deal between the establishment and the PPP have been circulating. The speculations had a ring of truth to them when last year the security agencies suddenly pulled back from taking action against persons considered close to the PPP leaders. Ostensibly, the purpose of the alleged deal then was to stop the PPP joining hands with the PML-N when Nawaz Sharif was ousted and put on trial on corruption charges. Learning a lesson from 2014 when the PPP helped the PML-N survive the PTI dharna, it was deemed necessary to neutralise the party.

Stories about some kind of a deal between the establishment and the PPP have been circulating.

It was also expedient for Zardari to get the pressure off himself and his friends. The plan did deliver as the PPP not only endorsed Sharif’s removal, but also supported his trial on corruption charges. A crafty politician who prided himself on being a wheeler and dealer, Zardari thought of gaining greater political space for the PPP in the emerging landscape with the PML-N having been contained.

Zardari had even boasted that the PPP could form the government after the elections. He may have thought that his party with its electoral position in Sindh assured could play the role of kingmaker in a, most likely, hung parliament. His confidence must have been reinforced after the PPP grabbed the position of Senate deputy chairman by entering into an alliance with the PTI in order to block the PML-N getting control of the upper house of parliament. It is no more a secret how the alliance of disparate political forces sprung up overnight.

However crafty Zardari may appear to be, little did he know that it was simply a matter of time before he too would come under the axe of accountability that has already fallen on a far more powerful political leader. The investigators claim to have collected enough material to proceed against the former president.

If media reports are correct, the laundered amount is to the tune of tens of billions of rupees. The alleged transactions have reportedly been carried out through dozens of fake bank accounts, many of them thought to be leading to Zardari, his sister, friends and business associates. Most of the alleged transactions have reportedly been carried out through a bank owned by a close friend of the PPP leader. The charges are indeed damning and the case must be taken to its conclusion.

But equally disturbing is the fact that the investigation into the matter had started years ago. Some of the information is believed to have come from close associates picked up by the intelligence agencies during the crackdown in Karachi in 2015. But no formal charges were filed against Zardari and his associates. That reinforces the widespread perception that it was out of political expediency that no legal action was initiated. If true it gives some credence to allegations that charges of financial corruption are often used to maintain control over politicians.

There have been many instances when such cases had been put on the back burner and revived when it was politically expedient to do so. Unsurprisingly, people have little trust in the investigation agencies and the judicial process. Despite all the charges of financial corruption against him and having languished in jail for several years, Zardari could never be convicted.

What could be more ironical than the fact that the most slandered man became the president and controlled the destiny of this country? Not surprisingly, many people would react to the latest charges against Zardari with scepticism and perhaps see it as an act of political victimisation, however substantive they may be. Can one blame them given the flaws of the justice system which is often perceived as being manipulated by the powers that be?

The timing of the action is particularly curious and has provided fuel to conspiracy theories about politicians being targeted before the polls in an effort to achieve the ‘desired result’. The sequence of events has added to the suspicion. Undoubtedly, white-collar crimes, particularly financial crimes, are never easy to prove, especially in Pakistan where investigations can easily be manipulated.

Moreover, it is still to be proved whether it is just a case of money laundering or corruption. The suo motu notice taken by the Supreme Court has added to the confusion. The reported decision to put Zardari and Faryal Talpur on the ECL even before they have been formally charged, let alone convicted, is certainly a premature one. It would have been more appropriate if the investigation were allowed to be completed before any such action could be taken. The PPP is right in pointing out that Nawaz Sharif was not put on the ECL even when he faced trial by an anti-corruption court. Such actions will only sour the political atmosphere and cast a long shadow over the coming elections and the democratic transition.

The writer is an author and journalist.

zhussain100@yahoo.com

Twitter: @hidhussain

Published in Dawn, July 11th, 2018