Beyond amnesties

Published October 5, 2021
The writer is author of The Bhutto Dynasty: The Struggle for Power in Pakistan.
The writer is author of The Bhutto Dynasty: The Struggle for Power in Pakistan.

THE vast majority of Pakistanis would agree with these statements: people who are supposed to pay tax should do so. There is too much corruption in Pakistan. Violent jihadism has caused unjustified suffering.

And yet it is not quite as simple as it seems. For example, many liberals who strongly oppose violent jihadists and their enablers don’t pay their taxes. ‘Why should I?’ they say, ‘what does the state do for me?’ Equally, many nationalist bureaucrats who have some ideological sympathy with the violent jihadists are corrupt: ‘Why should everyone else be allowed to make money while I have to survive on a meagre salary?’ they argue.

But there is one group of people who are not really bothered by any of the three issues. Tax evaders, corrupt politicians and violent jihadists all know they can always do a deal with the hidden mechanics of Pakistan’s deep state — the men in the shadows whose capacity to cut deals enables them to engineer so much of what goes on in Pakistani society. The men who see corruption not so much as a crime but an opportunity. Because when people — especially popular politicians — are corrupt, it gives the deep state a lever. The same goes for tax evaders. And as for violent jihadists, they know full well that they can get away with murder — literally — if it serves the state’s purpose.

The recent talk of an amnesty for the TTP highlights the tendency of the Pakistan state to think that if you let people off a crime, they will see the light and mend their ways. After all, in recent years there have been amnesties for murderers (remember the NRO), corrupt politicians, tax evaders, multiple passport holders and now the organisation that fought the army and caused tens of thousands of deaths, the TTP.

The rich and powerful may go to jail but not because they’ve broken the law.

The argument against these amnesties is obvious: why would anyone obey the law if they think there is a reasonable chance that within a short period of time the government will roll over and announce an amnesty?

But in a sense these amnesties are the least of Pakistani problems. The biggest factor in undermining the rule of law on Pakistan is that even in periods when there is not an amnesty in place, laws are still not enforced. As everyone in Pakistan knows, the allocation of punishments is not determined by an individual’s degree of wrongdoing but rather on the basis of how powerful they are and how much wealth they have to distribute. That’s not to say the rich and powerful never go to prison. They do — but they do so not because they have broken the law but because they are in a power struggle with another element of the state.

Nationalist defenders of Pakistan have an answer to these arguments. They portray themselves as the victim of an unreasonable and malign information campaign. ‘Why single us out?’ they complain. ‘All legal systems are faulty.’ Actually, that’s not quite right. Most would probably say: ‘Why single us out? The West’s legal systems are also faulty’, overlooking the blindingly obvious fact that the Chinese system of justice is even more flawed than that in the West. Nonetheless, the point they are making deserves a response because however awful China’s justice system is, the fact remains that Americans who can afford good lawyers fare better than those who can’t. And these are important issues with profound implications. The nature of the justice systems in the US and China are key factors behind those countries’ economic success. And the relative lack of the rule of law in Pakistan and Afghanistan helps explain their economic problems.

So, what distinguishes the implementation of law and order in Pakis­tan and China and the US?

Perhaps the key point is this: when a powerful person in the US and China is sentenced — fairly or unfairly — they face severe punishment. True, a handful in both systems get pardons but, that notwithstanding, people who get tangled up in the courts face real jeopardy. In Pakistan, by contrast, powerful defendants face mild punishment (think of those cells with their air conditioners) until such time as the politics changes and they can secure their release.

I remember meeting a man in army custody in the Swat valley in 2010 who had beheaded eight people. I asked the army officer who was detaining him if he thought the man would ever face punishment. Ruefully, he shook his head. Why not? He didn’t want to say but we all know the reasons — the TTP who stood behind the beheader would always be capable of doing a deal.

Amnesties are, more often than not, a terrible idea. But failing to implement the law the rest of the time is even worse.

The writer is author of The Bhutto Dynasty: The Struggle for Power in Pakistan.

Published in Dawn, October 5th, 2021

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