ISLAMABAD: The National Accountability Bureau (NAB) on Monday arrested former president Asif Zardari after cancellation of his pre-arrest bail by the Islamabad High Court in the fake bank accounts case, prompting a strong reaction from the opposition and sporadic protests by Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) workers in various parts of the country, mostly in the party-ruled Sindh province.
Terming his father’s arrest an act of “political victimisation” by the PTI government, PPP chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari while addressing a presser declared it a negation of Article 10-A of the Constitution that guaranteed the right of fair trial to every citizen, but appealed to party workers to remain calm and wait for party directives.
The main opposition PML-N questioned the timing of arrest, alleging that it had been done to divert public attention from the “IMF-prepared anti-people budget” that the government would present on Tuesday (today).
The former president was shifted to NAB’s Rawalpindi office in a black SUV from Zardari House in Islamabad’s Sector F-8/3 after a 15-member NAB team arrived there to arrest him exactly at a time when the National Assembly was in session.
The PPP had convened a meeting of the Central Executive Committee (CEC) in anticipation of his arrest and to devise a strategy for the budget session of the parliament.
The IHC bench had also cancelled the bail of Mr Zardari’s sister Faryal Talpur, a co-accused in the case, but she was not arrested as her warrants had not been issued, a NAB official told Dawn. He said Ms Talpur would be arrested within a day or two.
Protests erupt in parts of country, especially in PPP-ruled Sindh
Later in the night, Mr Bhutto-Zardari held a second news conference after chairing the meeting of the party’s CEC, which condemned Mr Zardari’s arrest, and said that the PPP would form a coordination committee to ‘engage’ parties in and outside parliament and other stakeholders. “We are not ready to compromise on democratic, economic and human rights of the people. We believe Asif Zardari’s arrest is a mere excuse and their real target is 1973 Constitution, 18th Amendment and democracy.”
TV channels showed Mr Zardari accompanying the NAB officials after he was seen off by his daughter Aseefa Bhutto-Zardari, son Mr Bhutto-Zardari along with a number of senior party leaders and some two dozen charged party workers who had managed to reach the place though police and other law enforcement agencies had cordoned off the surrounding area of Zardari House.
Protest in National Assembly
After receiving the news of his arrest, PPP lawmakers staged a walkout from the National Assembly as they had been urging Speaker Asad Qaiser to ensure Mr Zardari’s presence in the house at a time when Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi was responding to the speeches of Leader of the Opposition Shahbaz Sharif and other lawmakers.
The protesting members later returned to the house when Mr Bhutto-Zardari arrived to deliver a speech, but instead of giving floor to the PPP chairman, Deputy Speaker Qasim Suri asked Railways Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed to speak on a point of personal explanation in response to Mr Sharif’s speech.
The PPP members insisted that the party chairman be allowed to speak in the house. The deputy speaker promised them that he would give floor to Mr Bhutto-Zardari if they took their seats and allowed the railways minister to continue his speech. However, Mr Suri abruptly adjourned the sitting shortly afterwards till Tuesday evening (today) amid slogans of “Go Niazi Go” by the opposition members.
Call for production order
Earlier at the outset of the sitting on the opening day of the NA budget session, PPP lawmaker Shazia Marri and ex-PM Raja Pervez Ashraf said Mr Zardari wanted to attend the proceedings but he was not being allowed by police and NAB officials who had surrounded his residence.
“He (Mr Zardari) is a member of this House and a former president,” Ms Marri said, while accusing NAB of harassing Mr Zardari.
“The two members of this house have already gone missing,” the PPP MNA said in her apparent reference to the arrest of MNAs Ali Wazir and Mohsin Dawar. “The opposition members are being picked up one by one. The opposition is being victimised against because they talk about people’s issues,” said a visibly-charged Marri.
Leader of the Opposition Shahbaz Sharif also called for issuance of a production order for the ex-president, arguing that there was “no reason” for NAB to arrest Mr Zardari when he had been regularly appearing before NAB and courts.
Interior Minister retired brigadier Ijaz Shah and Foreign Minister Qureshi claimed that the government had nothing to do with the arrest of the former president as the courts and NAB were functioning independently.
Mr Qureshi said the PTI government had not filed the case in which Mr Zardari had been arrested. He said the PTI had always maintained that accountability should be held across the board and “NAB should not be used for witch-hunting”.
Expressing surprise over the opposition leader’s statement regarding the arrest, Minister for Science and Technology Fawad Chaudhry said: “I thought Shahbaz Sharif will take the credit of the (Zardari’s) arrest as case investigations were started in 2015” when the PML-N was in power. He said then interior minister Chaudhry Nisar had claimed that his government had discovered those bank accounts.
‘Selected govt scared of criticism’
Addressing a press conference at Zardari House before the PPP’s CEC meeting at the shifted venue of Sindh House, the PPP chairman demanded resignation of both Speaker Qaiser and Deputy Speaker Suri over their “failure to run the house impartially”.
“When the government is selected and weak, it is scared of criticism,” the PPP chairman said, adding that the “selected government” wanted “selected media, selected judges and selected opposition”.
Mr Bhutto-Zardari said what was the difference between this Naya Pakistan and Pakistan under the military dictators? “People were silenced then and the same is happening now,” he remarked.
The PPP chairman complained that he was not allowed to speak “yet again” in the assembly whereas three ministers got the chance to speak. He demanded that they resign from their posts as they were “acting like an extension of the government”. He accused the speaker of running the house at the dictates of the ministers sitting in the front rows.
“I wanted to ask the speaker. How can you scare the child whose grandfather was hanged, whose grandmother was beaten, whose mother was killed, whose one uncle was poisoned to death and the other was killed in a targeted attack,” he said.
Mr Bhutto-Zardari also lambasted the government for turning the country into a “censored Pakistan”. “Our media is facing censorship….. Those who don’t toe the line, face repercussions,” he said.
He lamented the government for its decision to file reference against the “pro-democracy” judges.
Asked about the role of the establishment in the recent developments, the PPP chairman said: “They are running everything. We know this. You know this. They also know this as well.
“But the PPP has always tried to uphold democracy and tried to convince them that in democratic and civilised countries, army is posted in three positions: at the border, at the barracks and in the battlefield.”
Responding to a question, he said the future strategy of the party would be decided by the CEC and in consultation with the other opposition parties.
Earlier in the day, the IHC bench comprising Justice Aamer Farooq and Justice Mohsin Akhtar Kayani in a short order stated “for the reasons to be recorded later, instant petition is dismissed and ad-interim bail granted to the petitioner vide order dated March 28, 2019 is recalled”.
The same bench on March 28 had granted interim bail to Mr Zardari, his sister Faryal Talpur and others in the case related to transaction of Rs150 million to their private company through alleged fake bank accounts.
The case was originally registered with the Federal Investigation Agency and was filed before a banking court in Karachi. NAB later transferred this case to its Rawalpindi directorate.
The courtroom was packed with several key PPP leaders including former primer ministers Syed Yousaf Raza Gillani and Raja Pervaiz Ashraf, Rehman Malik, Farhatullah Babar, Latif Khosa, Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar and representatives of the Peoples Lawyers Forum in attendance.
However, Mr Zardari and Ms Talpur had left the IHC just before the pronouncement of the order.
The judges observed that non-appearance of the accused persons at the time of pronouncement of decision would be incorporated in the order sheet.
Farooq Naek, the counsel for Mr Zardari, argued that the alleged case was related to transaction of Rs14 billion through alleged fake account, but the prosecution conceded that Rs150 million transactions had been done in the name of Zardari Group.
Mr Naek said Mr Zardari and his sister both were leading sugar cane growers of the region and they sold their crops to Omni Group and in return received cash through banks. He said Rs150 million was in fact the payment for sugar cane that they had sold to the sugar mills owned by Omni Group.
Additional prosecutor general of NAB Jahanzeb Bharwana said the anti-graft watchdog was investigating billions of rupees transactions through 28 bank accounts for which the investigation team required custody of the accused persons. He said the NAB chairman had already issued arrest warrants for Mr Zardari.
After the court order, NAB issued a letter to the National Assembly speaker informing him about the arrest of Mr Zardari.
Published in Dawn, June 11th, 2019