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‘Corrupt’ but never convicted

October 09, 2018

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The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

THE aggressive drive to nail the corrupt in Punjab has finally reached Shahbaz Sharif, three-time chief minister of the province. Unsurprisingly, he has been detained as the National Accountability Bureau looks into a project which has caused the public exchequer loss due to delay and incompletion. Aside from the debate on how serious these charges may be, the junior Sharif’s detention has once again highlighted the flawed nature of our accountability system (which is not limited to NAB).

Our drive against corruption has become more about creating media hype and less about nailing the suspect. Each occasion to question a high-profile ‘suspect’ is reason enough to send out press releases and turn the television screens red. An arrest or detention is no less of a media circus with sources working overtime to reveal the same titbits to every journalist on the beat. (Innumerable times, some critical right-hand man or bureaucrat has turned approver — only in the imagination of the ‘sources’.)

But all this defies logic. One would imagine that if a high-profile political personality (whether in power or not) was suspected of wrongdoing, the investigators would spend months and even years building up a watertight case before calling him or her in for questioning. But in our land, the questioning is carried out with much fanfare and press releases, and the detention and arrest celebrated the way a royal wedding is in England.

It’s as if the objective is less to get a conviction and more to create the impression of guilt. This perception is lent more credence by our history and civil-military relations.

Our system is broken. And it needs to be fixed before accountability can be ensured.

This is not just true of NAB but other institutions as well; after all, the major scandals during the tenure of the 2008 PPP government were not investigated by NAB (an institution which changes its tenor with each new chairman) but other organisations. And their results have been rarely better than what the high court judgement reveals about the prosecution case against Nawaz Sharif in the Avenfield references.

Take the Haj scandal case which the Supreme Court had passed on to the FIA to investigate. The scandal, when it blew up, cost two federal ministers their jobs — Hamid Kazmi, who was accused of corruption while his accuser, Azam Swati, then with the JUI-F, also left the cabinet. Kazmi and others were accused of renting substandard buildings for pilgrims in Makkah in exchange for bribes.

They were finally acquitted in 2017; by then, the former minister had already spent around three years in prison.

And the judgement acquitting them, according to a news story observed: the “charges [against the accused] have not been proved as the entire documentary evidence is inadmissible, no recovery of crime proceeds has been established by the investigation officers, no connection has been established … that appellant [Kazmi and others] received any kickback, commission or cash favour….”

In other words, there was no evidence of any money having been received as bribe.

The recent judgement against Sharif senior also hinted at the weakness of the prosecution’s case.

But it is not just the media circus and weak cases that are recurring plot lines in our corruption sagas. Allegations thrown about wildly are another; and neither was this just a practice that began with the PTI. Try counting the cases heard by the courts which began with a story or a press conference being noticed.

In the Haj case also, the then prime minister’s son was dragged in because a PML-N parliamentarian claimed that the former had received a car as a bribe. A year later, this allegation was withdrawn and Abdul Qadir Gilani was acquitted in the case. (In those glorious days, not only did the PML-N believe in the integrity and respect of the courts, they weren’t averse to levelling allegations or dragging the PPP to the courts when deemed necessary.)

Cases as lengthy and unending as soap operas are also the norm — consider the ephedrine scandal which surfaced in 2011 and the main accused were finally indicted in 2017. Here too the accused included a PPP minister and a son of then prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, who are yet to be convicted though the PML-N’s Hanif Abbasi was, in a quick trial shortly before the recent elections. In this particular case, the ANF handled the investigation.

Agreed that part of this delay was due to appeals filed by the defence itself but such is the environment in Pakistan that the accused politicians and their lawyers feel it’s better to drag their feet on the case than let it proceed. They have become immune to tainted reputations, and only fear the conviction.

No wonder then that these corruption cases eventually work in the politicians’ favour; they end up looking like victims targeted for their politics and the alleged corruption (which may be true in a number of cases) never gets proven and punished.

This is exactly what may end up happening in the cases of Nawaz Sharif and even his younger brother. The high court bail judgement in the case of the first and the inexplicable manner in which the second has been detained, hints at this to those who have seen this happen so many times before.

Our system is broken. And it needs to be fixed before accountability can be ensured.

The prosecution’s capacity needs to be strengthened, so it can investigate white-collar crime through documentation instead of the testimony of unreliable witnesses. Investigation and prosecution needs to be separated, in order to give prosecution the autonomy to decide if the evidence is strong enough to merit charges and a trial. Those investigating and those prosecuting need to be invulnerable to pressure from above — so that political pressure cannot influence or speed up either stage, leading to a weak case reaching the courts. These are just some of the basic reforms that are needed. Lawyers and other related experts are best placed to provide detailed suggestions.

The government needs to reform the system if it wants genuine and sustainable accountability. Without this change, we may end up repeating history.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, October 9th, 2018