THE accountability juggernaut continued to roll on in 2020. Its path was uneven, for even as it bore down relentlessly on some individuals, it turned a blind eye to the unexplained wealth of others. In ‘Naya’ Pakistan, accountability is old wine in new bottles: it is what it has always been in this country, a political witch-hunt dressed up as a battle against corruption. The National Accountability Bureau’s actions in 2020, just like the year before, did not meet the tests of transparency or justice. In fact, they continued to fuel a toxic divide between the government and the opposition parties, and further weakened the democratic process.

A number of prominent personalities were caught in NAB’s tentacles during the year, if they were not already ensnared in them. Among these were opposition figures, such as Shehbaz Sharif, his son Hamza Sharif, Maryam Nawaz, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, Ahsan Iqbal, Miftah Ismail, Asif Zardari, etc.

A brief recounting of Abbasi’s travails should suffice to illustrate NAB’s questionable modus operandi. In February, the Islamabad High Court granted him bail in a NAB case pertaining to alleged corruption in the LNG contract: during the 200 days he was in detention, the anti-graft watchdog had not managed to bring any charges against him. The very next month, NAB filed another reference against the man, accusing him of illegal appointments in Pakistan State Oil, and issued a non-bailable arrest warrant for him. A few months later, in September, the former prime minister was indicted in the same case.

In contrast to the alacrity and persistence with which NAB proceeded to initiate legal actions against opposition figures, it dragged its feet on investigating projects involving senior PTI leaders, including Defence Minister Pervez Khattak. In November, the Peshawar High Court ordered NAB to produce records of its inquiries into the alleged irregularities and corruption in the Malam Jabba ski resort lease, the Billion Tree Afforestation Programme, and Bank of Khyber appointments. NAB Chairman Javed Iqbal had declared in December 2019 that references against those involved in the BRT Peshawar and Malam Jabba cases were “ready”. On the same occasion, he had also said that “the winds have started blowing from a different direction” and everyone will see a difference “soon”. A year on, there is still no sign of NAB taking the bull by the horns.

The courts have several times pulled up the organisation on account of its excessive and arbitrary use of power, particularly in arresting individuals even before actionable evidence has been gathered against them. On March 8, the IHC in a landmark judgement ruled that the executive power to arrest an accused under the National Accountability Ordinance is not “unfettered” and “absolute”, and could not be used to conduct roving inquires. “Deprivation of liberty must be exercised as an exceptional option for the purposes of inquiry or investigation in relation to white collar crimes”, the court held.

The strongest rebuke of NAB’s workings, however, came from the Supreme Court. In a blistering 87-page detailed verdict on the bail petition by PML-N leader Khawaja Saad Rafique and his brother in the Paragon Housing Scheme case, Justice Maqbool Baquer said: “NAB’s conduct throughout this case is a clear manifestation of their utter disregard for law, fair play, equity and propriety”.

Even more damningly, Justice Baquer held that the manner in which so-called accountability was being carried out “caused further degeneration and chaos”; the motive, he said bluntly, was to “[pressurise] political opponents into submission, subjugation and compliance, or remove them from the electoral scene at least temporarily”. In other words, the SC perceived NAB as a vehicle for political engineering, with intimidation and blackmail as its tools of trade.

The concept of accountability was further sullied, indeed perverted, by the legal proceedings against Justice Qazi Faez Isa. A saga that began with the presidential reference filed against him in 2019, spilled over into 2020 as the SC continued hearing a slew of petitions seeking for the reference to be quashed. Where truth mattered so little, and where the ends apparently justified the means no matter how many lives were ruined in the process, a plain-speaking judge was an inconvenience — even more so if he happened to be in line to be the SC chief justice around the time the next general election was due.

Justice Isa had authored some hard-hitting judgements about the state’s transgressions against people’s fundamental rights. The most recent of these was his verdict on the Faizabad sit-in in 2017 that took several political parties and the security establishment to task — and that possibly sealed his fate.

But the best-laid plans can go awry, let alone ham-handed ones. On June 19, a 10-member SC bench threw out the presidential reference, terming it “invalid” and riddled with “multiple defects”. The 174-page detailed judgement held that while its preparation and framing were not driven by malice per se, “the scale and degree of the illegalities were such that the reference was deemed to be tainted with mala fide in law and therefore quashed”. Moreover, given there was no valid authorisation for the reference, it held that the respondents had illegally accessed Justice Isa’s tax records. It was a stunning indictment of the government’s apparent attempt to taint the reputation of a Supreme Court judge. And all this happened under a government that never failed to claim accountability as the central plank of its governance.

However, the majority verdict also directed the Federal Board of Revenue to seek explanations from Justice Isa’s wife and children into the source of funding for the three properties in their name in the United Kingdom. The FBR in September submitted its 260-page report to the SC registrar, as ordered in the apex court’s verdict. It imposed a “tax liability” of Rs35 million on Mrs Isa, who was still seeking a review of the court’s majority verdict as the year ran out. Thus the story continues.

In ‘Naya’ Pakistan, the more things change, the more they remain the same.

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