A POLITICALLY significant trial opened in Paris yesterday. Former French prime minister Edouard Balladur is in the dock on charges that he used ‘retro commissions’ from arms deals to fund his presidential bid in 1995. Along with his then defence minister, Mr Balladur was charged in 2017 with “complicity in the misuse of corporate assets” over the sale of frigates to Saudi Arabia and the Agosta submarines to Pakistan.

The suicide bombing on May 8, 2002, outside the Sheraton hotel in Karachi that killed 13 French naval engineers visiting Pakistan to assist in building the submarines was a seminal moment in the saga. It turned what was until then a tale of financial wrongdoing into one about a possible act of revenge. Initially, coming as it did less than a year after 9/11 and only a few months following Daniel Pearl’s horrific murder in Karachi, the attack seemed most likely to have been perpetrated by religious extremists.

Soon however, French investigators began to focus on the possibility that the attack was engineered by elements in Pakistan as reprisal after President Jacques Chirac suspended the commission payments when the practice was criminalised in 2000. (Although in the 1990s the giving of such ‘gifts’ was legal in France, ‘retro commissions’ — in which the money was re-routed back to France through money laundering — were always illegal.) What became known as ‘l’affaire Karachi’ implicated not only prominent French politicians but also some individuals in the Pakistani military and political elite.

The deal for the sale of three Agosta military submarines to Pakistan was worth around $1bn; of this, some $50m were set aside for kickbacks, of which $2m were found to be ‘retro commissions’. The point to note here is that although the investigators’ efforts were thwarted time and again by interested parties using their clout, they continued to painstakingly build their case over nearly a quarter of a century. In June last year, six people were convicted by a Paris court and sentenced to prison for their role in the scandal. Now it is the turn of the former premier and the ex-defence minister to face the music.

In Pakistan however, aside from former naval chief Mansurul Haq, who was forced into early retirement and later had to return some of his ill-gotten gains in a plea bargain with NAB, virtually no one has been held to account. Some other naval officials were also apprehended, but a likely cover-up by Gen Musharraf’s military government prevented all those culpable from being proceeded against. And they will probably go scot free — unless there is some advantage to be achieved in prosecuting them. Sadly, that is how accountability is in Pakistan, a handmaiden of political opportunism, something that can be twisted into whatever those in power want it to be.

Published in Dawn, January 21st, 2021

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