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SC strikes Raja with lightning bolt

January 15, 2013

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Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf. — File photo

ISLAMABAD: The breaking news about the possible arrest of the prime minister on Tuesday proved that the Supreme Court and the prime minister’s office never let someone else hog the limelight for long in Islamabad.

An hour into Dr Tahirul Qadri’s much-awaited address came the earth-shattering news that the chief justice had ordered NAB to arrest the prime minister in the rental power projects (RPP) case.

The reaction was immediate and hysterical.

The second act of the conspiracy that had been launched with Qadri’s march had begun, claimed some. Those in favour of the SC argued it was a mere coincidence and that the court was innocent of all that it was being accused of.

The RPP case was heard by the SC earlier under which the deals had been cancelled; in March last year, the court had also ordered that NAB pursue the financial and criminal liabilities in these cases.

This meant that while the private companies had to be pursued to cough up money that they owed to the state exchequer, the government officials involved in approving these deals were to be charged and tried.

The names of the accused, which included Raja Pervez Ashraf in his role as the minister for water and power, had once earlier been placed on the ECL after the March verdict.

And then on Tuesday, in the midst of nail biting tension, came the latest apex bolt.

“We direct Additional Prosecutor General of NAB Rana Zahid Mehmood that he should undertake all the necessary steps during the course of day [italics added] and submit investigation reports to the concerned authorities and to get approved the challans/references against the accused persons and to cause their arrest… and put up report on Jan 17,” ordered the court headed by Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry.

SC-NAB friction

The orders did not come out of the blue. The tensions had been building for some time. Last week, a NAB official informed the court that he had suspended two investigating officers, Asghar Ali and Kamran Faisal, who had recommended to Director General of NAB Rawalpindi Col (retd) Subeh Sadiq that he should submit references against the accused in the two RPP cases to the NAB head office. Heeding their advice, Sadiq did so; he too was suspended.

However, the court was informed that these officials had been suspended because their performance or lack thereof was making the SC unhappy.

But it was the news of this suspension that made the SC unhappy; it did not like being made scapegoat for a decision that critics felt NAB had taken to slow down the progress in a case that could lead authorities to the Prime Minister’s House.

What added to its ire was Col (retd) Subeh Sadiq who informed the court on Tuesday that the authorities had blamed his suspension on the SC.

A visibly irritated bench ordered that NAB Chairman Admiral (retd) Fasih Bukhari appear before the court on Thursday and explain why he had falsely used the Supreme Court as pretext to remove the two investigating officers.

In its order, the court reminded the chairman that it had already issued a contempt notice against him for not complying with the March verdict in which the contracts signed between the governments and the RPPs had been rescinded.

The current case is about overseeing the RPP verdict and the proceedings are being held to supervise the progress in corruption references against the accused.

And it was in this regard that the court on Tuesday ordered that the NAB complete the investigation reports, get challans/references against the accused and then arrest them.

This paperwork has to be completed by NAB before the arrest of the prime minister will become a possibility.

The investigations and paperwork relate to two specific RPP cases which NAB has to pursue -- the 150MW RPP contract given to Techno Engineering Services (Pvt) Sahuwal, which caused a loss of Rs20.436 billion, and the Piran Ghaib Multan.

While the SC had been pushing for the investigations to be completed and the references to be filed, NAB was trying to argue that it had its own due process to complete which meant that it would hold an internal executive board meeting. The meeting, NAB said, would decide whether or not to file the references now that the investigations had been completed.

The accused in the references are: Prime Minister Ashraf, former finance secretary Salman Siddique, former water and power secretary Shahid Rafi, Pepco’s former chairman Ismail Qureshi and managing directors Munawar Baseer Ahmad and Tahir Baharat Cheema, member power Fazal Ahmad Khan, chief executive officers of NPGCL (National Power Generation Company Limited) Mohammad Anwar Khan, Rafiq Butt and Ghulam Mustafa Tunio, chief engineer (CPP) thermal Qaiser Akram, Nepra chairman Khalid Saeed, chief executive of Techno Sahuwal Abid Ali, etc.

Hysteria is premature

None of the legal experts Dawn spoke to felt that there was any likelihood that the prime minister was going to be arrested anytime soon. They said the power to order the arrest was with NAB which had so far not ordered to do so.

Law Minister Farooq H. Naek said in an interview to a television channel that if the NAB chairman felt that the case was fit for the trial he would file it before a trial court (accountability court) which then had to issue orders for the arrest of any accused before the apex court could take up the matter.

“I think that being the apex court of the country the Supreme Court will never take any such decision that deprives the rights of any individual,” he added.

Advocate Chaudhry Faisal Hussain was also of the opinion that there was no arrest warrant against the prime minister and it was the prerogative of the investigating agency and the court concerned to see whether arrest was required or not.

However, senior counsel Waqar Rana said the prime minister could be arrested without the permission of National Assembly Speaker Dr Fehmida Mirza since the assembly was not in session. The court’s order, he said, was unqualified and, therefore, the prime minister did not enjoy any immunity under Article 248(1) of the Constitution.

In a similar vein, Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira said in a TV channel that the government had not even received the SC order.

A spokesman for NAB said investigation into the case would be completed before a criminal liability was fixed. “The RPP investigation is continuing and on its completion, NAB will proceed to prosecute in the court irrespective of what position is held by individuals responsible for the scam,” he said, adding that it was not easy to fix criminal liability and NAB investigators might require more time.—with additional reporting by Syed Irfan Raza