• Anti-graft body cannot take up graft cases below Rs500m
• Arrest of govt official requires scrutiny body’s permission
• Remand period changes to 14 days from 90
• NAB officials barred from issuing public statements before filing references
• Once completed, no inquiry could be reopened
• Taxation cases to be transferred to other courts
ISLAMABAD: The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf government made drastic changes in the country’s accountability law — the National Accountability Ordinance, 1999 — through a presidential ordinance promulgated on Friday that would benefit not only politicians from across the aisle but also bureaucrats as well as the business community.
The new ordinance — The National Accountability (Amendment) Ordinance, 2019 — has made the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) a ‘toothless’ body since now it can only take up cases involving corruption or corrupt practices exceeding an amount of Rs500 million.
The latest amendments have hit the core of the accountability law that was first promulgated by then military dictator retired Gen Pervez Musharraf soon after ousting then prime minister Nawaz Sharif in a coup in 1999.
The powers of NAB have been curtailed keeping in view frequent complaints of the bureaucracy and the business community.The two groups had complained that due to NAB’s actions, bureaucrats, businessmen and industrialists had suffered a lot, with the result that officials became reluctant to sign files and businessmen were unwilling to make any investment or take new initiatives.
Speaking at an event in Karachi, Prime Minister Imran Khan said the new ordinance, promulgated by President Arif Alvi, will “insulate the business community” from the scrutiny of anti-graft watchdog.
“NAB had become a major hurdle in the way of the business community,” he said, adding: “It is our contention that NAB should engage in scrutiny of public office holders only. For the business community, there is the FBR (Federal Board of Revenue) and other institutions as well as courts.”
According to some amendments, the role of the NAB chairman in the appointment of the prosecutor general has been abolished; the anti-graft body cannot make a public statement at the stages of inquiry and investigation; it no longer can get the custody of a suspect for 90 days as the period has been curtailed to 14 days; burden of proof that previously rested on a suspect now lies on the prosecution.
Also, a time period for completion of an inquiry — six months — was inserted in the law through an amendment with another clause has bound NAB that it could not reopen an inquiry/investigation on a complaint once it was completed.
For the protection of bureaucrats, a six-member scrutiny committee comprising the NAB chairman, cabinet and establishment secretaries, chairmen of the Federal Board of Revenue and the Securities and Exchange Commission of Pakistan and a representative of law and justice division is formed and without its prior approval NAB cannot conduct any inquiry, investigation or arrest a government servant.
“Notwithstanding anything contained in this ordinance or any other law for the time being in force, no inquiry, investigation, arrest or proceedings against a government servant, under this ordinance, either as an accused or witness, shall be initiated or conducted by NAB without prior approval of the scrutiny committee,” said a new clause inserted in Section 33-F of the ordinance.
Another amendment barred NAB from confiscating property of any public office holder without prior approval of the scrutiny committee.
According to an amendment, “Inquiries and investigations shall stand transferred to the respective authorities or departments which administer the relevant laws of taxation, levies and imposts in question.
“Trials shall stand transferred from the relevant accountability courts to the criminal courts which deal with offences under the respective laws pertaining to taxation, levies and imposts in question.”
A significant aspect of the above amendment that may go in the favour of an accused is that if cases of organisations concerned were sent back to them for any action, the cases will be dealt by concerning laws of the relevant departments and not under NAB laws. Due to this, confusion may create on the fate of cases which do not fall into the timeline of the organisations concerned. Like, NAB can take up white collar crimes which had been committed during the last 30 years while the FBR does not take action on the offences committed before the last five years.
One of the amendments said a person and property which has no direct and indirect connection with a public office holder will not come under NAB’s action. Similarly, with regards to procedural lapses in any government project, or scheme, no action under the ordinance shall be taken against any holder of public office, unless it is shown that he had materially been benefitted by gaining any asset or monetary benefit which is disproportionate to his known source of income.
Through another amendment, NAB chairman is required to devise a “complaint redressal mechanism for attending complaints against NAB” and present a quarterly report on its performance to the federal government.
In a summary sent by the law ministry to the federal cabinet, the government claimed that NAB was dealing a large number of inquiries and investigation in addition to handling mega corruption cases. “Under the existing regime a number of inquiries have been initiated against the holders of public office and government servants on account of procedural lapses where no actual corruption is involved. This has enhanced NAB’s burden and has also affected working of the federal government.
It went on to say that NAB had also assumed parallel jurisdiction and was inquiring into matters pertaining to taxation, imposition of levies and therefore interfering within the domain of taxation regulatory bodies. “It is therefore felt necessary to define through the subject amendments the operational domain of NAB,” it added.
Published in Dawn, December 28th, 2019