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Web Desk
August 6, 2020

HRW slams govt for using NAB's 'draconian, arbitrary' powers to harass opponents


Web Desk
Thu, Aug 06, 2020
HRW says government should follow up on the 87-page detailed verdict of the Supreme Court of Pakistan in the Khawaja brothers bail petition case. Photo: File

A rights watchdog on Thursday slammed the "draconian and arbitrary" powers given to the "dictatorship-era body", referring to the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), and urged the Pakistani government to stop using the institution to harass and intimidate opponents.

In a statement, the rights organisation said that the government should follow up on the 87-page detailed verdict of the Supreme Court of Pakistan on the Khawaja brothers case to rein in the anti-graft body.

"The court granted the men bail and criticised the NAB for showing 'utter disregard to the law, fair play, equity and propriety,' ruling that the 'case was a classic example of trampling of fundamental rights [and] unlawful deprivation of freedom'," read a statement from the HRW.

Referring to the judgment, Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said that the apex court's decision "is just the latest indictment of the NAB’s unlawful behaviour".

Parliament should carry out 'urgent reforms' on NAB

Pakistan’s parliament should carry out urgent reforms to make the anti-corruption body independent, the Human Rights Watch said.

"In its decision, the Supreme Court also expressed concern about the use of the NAB as an instrument to target government opponents," read the statement by the HRW. "The court cited a February report by the European Commission that criticized the NAB for bias, noting that 'very few cases of the ruling party ministers and politicians have been pursued since the 2018 elections, which is considered to be a reflection of NAB's partiality,'" it added.

The rights organisation quoted the Supreme Court Bar Association and the Pakistan Bar Council who had welcomed the top court’s decision and criticized the NAB as “a tool for arm-twisting of political opponents.”

"In February, both bodies said they 'strongly condemn' the summons issued to an opposition leader, Bilawal Bhutto, calling it an 'act of political victimisation,' said the HRW. "In March, the chief justice of the Islamabad High Court ruled that the NAB had made arbitrary use of its arrest powers," it added.

The rights organisation pointed out that NAB was created by an ordinance during the General (retd) Musharraf era and that it gave the anti-graft body "unchecked powers of arrest, investigation, and prosecution". It pointed out how, as per the ordinance, authorities may detain people arrested for up to 90 days without charge.

It quoted the Supreme Court's comments on NAB’s arbitrary use of powers of arrest, noting that an arrest “has to be justified.… The power of arrest should not be deployed as a tool of oppression and harassment.”

The HRW mentioned the illegal arrest and detention of veteran journalist Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman by NAB, who is in the anti-graft body's custody since March.

"The National Accountability Bureau arrested Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman, editor-in-chief of the Jang group, the largest media group in Pakistan, in Lahore on March 12 on charges relating to a 34-year-old property transaction. He has remained in the agency’s custody ever since," said the human rights organisation.

The international NGO spoke of former president Asif Ali Zardari, who had to appear in person after the anti-graft body denied his request to record a statement through a video link because of his ill-health and the prevalent COVID-19 situation in the country.

"Zardari previously spent 11 years in prison – more than half in NAB custody – without a conviction," it said.

The HRW cited the example of Mian Javed Ahmed, a professor of the University of Sargodha, who died in NAB’s custody in December 2018. It quoted Dr. Mujahid Kamran, the former vice-chancellor of the Punjab University, who was also arrested by NAB on allegations of illegal appointments at the university, saying that NAB's detention centres were like torture cells.

In the concluding statement, Adams called on the government to either amend or repeal the NAB ordinance to ensure principles of fair trial, due process and transparency were not compromised.

“Pakistani authorities should uphold the government’s human rights obligations,” Adams said. “Pakistan’s parliament should amend or repeal the NAB ordinance to ensure that the principles of fair trial, due process, and transparency are not compromised on the pretext of accountability.”