Sighted justice

January 08, 2023

Recent accountability law amendments have serious implications for investigations into alleged corruption

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ince its creation in 1947, the accountability process in Pakistan has been frequently used as a tool for political victimisation and manipulation. Over the years, Pakistan has had at least 11 accountability laws, three federal accountability institutions and other similar mechanisms and departments. However, there is also a history of abuse of these laws. Weakness in the country’s accountability system and a lack of meritocracy in government hinder the development of a strong and stable democracy.

Rulers have often used ‘accountability’ as a means of silencing and suppressing opponents. In 1999, the National Accountability Ordinance was introduced. This, eventually, led to the creation of the National Accountability Bureau. Since then, ruling parties have frequently tried to manipulate accountability laws in order to eliminate their opponents.

For several decades, courts in Pakistan have had a political role in addition to their legal responsibilities. Considering opposition parties often appeal to superior courts to advance their agendas, the courts may continue to play a significant role in future politics. Over the past 15 years, the superior courts have gone beyond simply arbitrating political disputes and have taken on a guardian role in the political system. Opponents of the government, both in opposition parties and other state institutions, have regularly turned to the increasingly assertive courts to challenge both civilian and military governments. However, when courts are involved in resolving major political issues, they risk losing some of their credibility and legitimacy in certain constituencies when their decisions do not align with the expectations.

Reputations and legitimacy of the Judiciary are now being tested by political cases coming before the courts in the current complicated and contested transition. There have already been legal proceedings involving the chief minister and the governor of the Punjab.

It has been alleged that some political parties have a strategy of pressuring judges through social media. This is similar to bar associations trying to name and shame judges when they act against the interests of some bar leaders. The current leaders of most high court bar associations oppose the practice of political parties using social media to exert pressure on judges. The increased visibility of judges in electronic and social media has made them more vulnerable to reputational pressures.

While former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his family faced an unprecedented investigation under the supervision of the Supreme Court in the high-profile Panama case, several ‘electable’ politicians changed sides to join the main opposition party, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf, seeing it as the party of the future.

Why are all institutions, including the establishment and judiciary, not accountable to parliament? The question has been raised in the Public Accounts Committee meetings. However, there has been little progress on this issue.

Somehow, joining a new party immediately gets one labelled as “Mr or Ms Clean.” The reaction from the party they have left, too is predictable. Former colleagues start accusing such a person of wrongdoing. This is one of the reasons why some people are losing faith in the system and their leaders. How someone who has changed loyalties multiple times can be effectively “dry-cleaned,” is an interesting question.

In the past, a political turncoats was called a “lota.” The usage has now been replaced with the term “dry cleaned.” A report published by The News International stating that about 19 MNAs and MPAs from the PTI were about to join the PML-N indicated that the ruling party too had diversified into a “dry clean” business. The PPP too has welcomed many anti-Bhutto and anti-PPP leaders in Sindh into its fold.

Intelligence agencies have also been accused of “dry-cleaning” MQM leaders and legislators as part of a new political order.

Soon after the Panama case, the Supreme Court was expected to reach a final decision on one of the country’s most blatant cases of institutionalised corruption, the Asghar Khan case. However, the court did not constitute a JIT in this case.

A veteran bureaucrat told The News on Sunday that the idea behind allotting plots to senior officers in Islamabad and elsewhere was to prevent them from engaging in corruption. However, the strategy had failed and they had become became even more corrupt.

The state also fostered corruption through secret funds in various ministries and through discretionary powers vested in presidents, prime ministers, chief ministers and governors. For the first time in the country’s history, the Supreme Court has ordered the elimination of the secret fund in the Ministry of Information (following a petition filed by journalists Hamid Mir and Absar Alam).

Why are all institutions of the state, including the establishment and the judiciary, not accountable to parliament? The question has been raised during Public Accounts Committee meetings, but little progress has been made on this issue.

Expectations from the judiciary were raised after it gained ‘independence’ following a popular movement. However, during the tenure of former Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, the PPP-led government accused him of victimising people in the name of accountability. The court even removed the premier, Yusuf Raza Gilani, for refusing to write a letter to Swiss authorities when ordered.

The country’s intelligence agencies were used during martial laws to level allegations of corruption against politicians to force them to join the king’s party. In Pakistan, there is a history of politicians being “cleansed” of corruption after the dismissal of their governments. This occurred in 1985 with the dismissal of Junejo’s government, in 1990 with the dismissal of Benazir’s government, and in 1993 with the dismissal of Nawaz Sharif’s government. However, in most cases, several ministers and leaders of the dismissed government were included in the new government. The practice continued with the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf.

As long as ‘dry-clean’ shops continue to operate, the dream of across-the-board accountability will remain a dream. The corrupt must face accountability, not get sheltered.

The writer is an advocate of the High Court and a PhD scholar. He can be reached at Advocate.

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