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April 21, 2019

Plea bargain: shed the secrecy


April 21, 2019

The issue of plea bargains might reach a final conclusion in the honourable Supreme Court. Hearing a case on the National Accountability Bureau’s voluntary returns rule, the SC on Thursday observed that plea bargains seem to be unique to Pakistan. Instead of the accused offering to return money to reduce their sentence – as a voluntary return – here NAB itself writes letters to offer voluntary returns to the accused (as plea bargains). With the legality of plea bargains questionable, the SC had earlier asked parliament to pass a legislation making voluntary returns legal or let the SC decide in the matter on its own. With parliament appearing to not be interested in the matter, the SC has raised a number of serious questions about plea bargains. Should the court open up previous plea bargains cases? What is the procedure of returning amounts? Are there different rules for government employees? What is the division of judicial and executive powers in this matter? The hearing is now adjourned until the third week of May, and the National Assembly till then has a chance to settle the matter on its own.

What should parliament do? The fact is that plea bargains are an abomination that should not be available to those who loot and plunder the country’s resources. The SC has questioned how NAB can use plea bargains to let corruption officials off the hook. How can corrupt officials be allowed to avoid jail time and keep a big chunk of their ill-gotten money? This is a situation that simply should not be allowed to continue. Instead of combating corruption, this seems like a case of encouraging more corruption. Corrupt officials know that they can pay a small amount and keep the rest of the looted public money. From the beginning to the end, plea bargains by NAB are shrouded in secrecy. We are never told the terms of plea bargain deals; we do not know if those who were set free under plea bargain arrangements ever deposited security and how much it was if they did; if they ever cared to, or were made to, pay the agreed-upon instalments on time and regularly; and if they ever paid any instalments in the first place.

The real issue is that NAB appears incapable of conducting air-tight investigations. This means that serious changes are required in the NAB ordinance. NAB is there to root out corruption. Instead, it has become a place where the corrupt are given a clean chit to enjoy the fruits of their corruption. There is no question that there is a need for full transparency in all previous plea bargain cases and that there is no place for plea bargains of the kind that are allowed by NAB. The practice needs to end and a full investigation needs to be undertaken into how to make the fight against corruption more effective.

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