JUSTICE must not only be done; it must be seen to be done — but the National Accountability Bureau appears entirely indifferent to this oft-quoted aphorism. The concept of accountability, never shorn of political considerations in this country, has over the years become increasingly tainted. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court directed that at least 120 more accountability courts should be set up in Pakistan. It was hearing a suo motu petition about the delays in accountability court trials and was irked by the fact that 1,226 references are pending since 2000, and that five out of a total of 25 such courts have vacancies for judges. According to Section 16 of the National Accountability Ordinance 1999, corruption cases must be decided within 30 days of being filed.
Certainly, the delay is unforgivable. It constitutes a violation of due process rights, and destroys lives and reputations of individuals who may well be innocent of the crime they have been charged with. However, setting up more courts is not going to address the real problem that bedevils the accountability drive. NAB’s performance has been so abysmal, its unearthing of prosecutable evidence so pathetic, and its disregard for legal requirements so brazen that it has forfeited any claim to being an impartial and independent body genuinely working to bring corrupt elements to book. So far-reaching have been the adverse effects of its high-handedness that the government some months ago undertook to selectively prune its powers to proceed against businessmen and bureaucrats. The superior courts have time and again taken NAB to task. In March, the Islamabad High Court passed a landmark judgement in which it termed the NAB chairman’s arbitrary powers of arrest as running counter to constitutionally protected fundamental rights. In its detailed verdict, the court said “there must be sufficient incriminating material to justify arresting an accused”. Indeed, more often than not, NAB prosecutors have been unable to convince the judges why they needed to keep an accused in prison when the detainee was willing to cooperate with them in the investigation. A number of high-profile arrests of opposition leaders by NAB, such as that of Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and Ahsan Iqbal among others, have been grossly mishandled and lent weight to accusations of a political witch-hunt being carried out under the guise of eradicating corruption. It is high time the government restrained NAB from bringing the concept of accountability itself into disrepute.
Published in Dawn, July 12th, 2020