THE veneer has all but disappeared and what remains is an age-old practice that undermines public trust in the state and the elected order. NAB has struck again. This time, two more figures belonging to the PML-N — former federal minister for railways Saad Rafique and his brother Salman — have been taken into NAB custody. The NAB action became possible after the Lahore High Court dismissed the brothers’ pleas for bail. The arrest coming just a day before a by-election on a Punjab Assembly seat vacated by Saad Rafique, who has returned to the National Assembly after winning a by-election in the Lahore constituency won by Imran Khan in the general election. The arrests of the Rafique brothers have been sought by NAB in a high-profile misuse of power and corruption case involving a housing scheme that is allegedly controlled by the brothers. At this stage, it remains unclear what proof the anti-graft watchdog has amassed against the brothers.

As NAB continues its anti-corruption crusade with great verve and enthusiasm, it has become increasingly apparent that the accountability body’s political focus is primarily on one party, with a second opposition party also drawing some attention. To the extent that the PML-N was the governing party in Punjab over the last decade and governed at the centre for the last five years, it is inevitable that NAB would have the PML-N under a microscope. No reasonable political and governance observer in the country would suggest that corruption is not a serious national issue. But there is also an unarguable pattern of NAB conduct that suggests a political focus on the PML-N and the PPP — which goes beyond NAB’s legal mandate. Indeed, at this stage, it appears that PML-N leaders who are strong critics of the government or outspoken about interference in politics by anti-democratic elements in the state quickly find themselves under NAB inquiry and even arrest.

Perhaps most troubling are the tactics being used by NAB. In the PML-N or the PPP, there is no political figure who has rejected the possibility of being investigated or has strived to evade scrutiny. In fact, several opposition leaders have termed the NAB investigations against them as a badge of honour, and have cooperated with NAB and the courts as required by the law. But NAB continues to use draconian tactics such as arresting individuals even during the investigation phase. The crimes opposition figures are accused of are serious, but the law does not require immediate and prolonged detention during the investigation phase. It is highly unusual to arrest individuals who are cooperating with investigators as required by the law. The more NAB resorts to aggressive, authoritarian tactics, the less validity and public acceptance the institution will have.

Published in Dawn, December 13th, 2018

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