Politicians in jail

July 20, 2019

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THE spate of arrests targeting politicians does not bode well for the health of the political process in the country. With the arrest of former prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi by NAB on Thursday, there are now 12 politicians — the vast majority of them from opposition parties — in jail, with one convicted and the rest pending investigation. Included in this number are two Waziristan MNAs in police custody, who were booked for assault and criminal conspiracy in May but whose production orders are yet to be issued. There are reports of NAB ‘hunting’ for yet another opposition party politician, and speculation is rife regarding the next member of the PPP or PML-N to be picked up. A prominent member of the ruling PTI, Aleem Khan, too, was arrested by NAB in a corruption case, but was released on bail after two months.

There is no doubt that accountability is an essential component of governance. Those who wield power and receive tax money from citizens are bound to answer to the people about the use or misuse of public funds. However, the astonishing frequency with which opposition parties are being targeted for alleged crimes ranging from so-called mega corruption and terrorism to drug possession, makes it appear more like a sinister campaign to muzzle political opponents. The allegations levelled against these politicians are undisputedly serious, but the trend of ‘imprison first, investigate later’ and the sheer arbitrariness of the investigation process bear all the characteristics of a political witch-hunt. Too often, we have seen lawmakers critical of the government jailed, remanded into custody and then left to languish there while a fishing expedition is in full swing. Authorities have the right to question individuals whom they legitimately suspect of wrongdoing, but the ongoing spectacle of dramatic arrests and prolonged incarceration pending indictment or even an inquiry, has weakened the public’s confidence in these investigating institutions. To make matters worse, the media trial and simultaneous smear campaigns against those being probed violate the presumption of innocence principle and cast a shadow over the fairness of the process. Even if individuals are later released from custody, there is little they can do to rectify the damage that has been done to their reputation.

Regrettably, in this country, the court of public opinion has a tendency to assume that all politicians are guilty of wrongdoing. But institutions must not operate under that impulse. They have a responsibility to build airtight cases with legitimate evidence that will hold in a court of law and ensure that these cases proceed in a transparent and efficient manner. There are certainly more professional methods that investigating bodies can employ to probe these individuals — who now include a former prime minister and a former president. Going after opposition politicians in this manner, without solid evidence, is tantamount to harassment of the worst kind.

Published in Dawn, July 20th, 2019