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September 2, 2019

Opposition wants solid changes in NAB law

Top Story

September 2, 2019

ISLAMABAD: The major opposition parties have taken the likely amendments proposed by the federal law minister with a pinch of salt and say they will mull over the changes only after they will be formally laid before them for discussion.

“A mere patchwork in the National Accountability Ordinance (NAO) will be inconsequential to carry out an across-the-board accountability of all segments of society,” former Senate chairman and senior Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) leader Raza Rabbani told The News when contacted for comments on the reported amendments. He said that there has to be one law, one court, one agency and uniform trial to deal with cases of corruption and corrupt practices. This entire process can be given any nomenclature.

Rabbani said that if the peers were empowered to carry out accountability of their colleagues in bureaucracy, judiciary and other institutions, why not a parliamentary committee should do this job when it comes to the complaints against the members of parliament. “Why should there be a discretionary and preferential treatment to them alone?”

Since long, the senior politician said, the government is talking about making changes in the NAO and has discussed them with the opposition but in a half-hearted manner. “Not only I but the opposition as a whole will be in a position to give their response only after the amendments will be presented to us in a concrete form. Now when the government itself is feeling the heat of the NAO, it wants to make changes of its choice without taking the opposition on board.”

He said that it was known to all and sundry that the ruling coalition was in no position to get the changes in the NAO passed from the parliament particularly the Senate because it has no numerical strength and it has to talk to the opposition to evolve a consensus otherwise its effort would prove to be a futility. “If a presidential ordinance was issued as indicated by the law minister, it will be short-lived.”

Rabbani disbelieved the law minister’s sincerity in erasing the draconian clauses of the NAO and said he has to prove with solid actions and proposals that he actually wants to make this statute a normal law.

When approached, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) Secretary General Ahsan Iqbal told The News that the government has so far not contacted the opposition for discussion on the changes in the NAO. He also stressed that there should be an all-embracing accountability and no particular class should be targeted for political considerations.

He said it would have to be seen whether or not the government has inserted the amendments suggested by the opposition during the talks, aborted since long. “In the fresh deliberations between the two sides, if held, it would be stressed that the opposition’s proposals should be incorporated in the package to make the NAO an acceptable law instead of a tool to hammer the political rivals.” Ahsan Iqbal said that regardless of his category every accused equally has the constitutionally guaranteed fundamentals rights, which can’t be denied. “If civil servants are being excluded from the purview of the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), why not politicians as well?”

However, the PML-N leader approved the raising of the threshold to Rs500m of the alleged corruption involved that the NAB can take up for investigation. “Record shows that the NAB has been getting into petty cases of malpractices.”

He rejected the proposal of formation of a committee by the prime minister to approve the voluntary return or plea bargain and said if such a forum was to be introduced the leader of the opposition should also be involved in the process. “Giving this power to the premier alone will enable the government to use it for its own objectives.”

Ahsan Iqbal said that the proposed reduction in the physical remand to 45 days from 90 days should be further cut down to bring it on par with other offences. “Why should the NAB be allowed to keep the accused in its custody for an exceedingly long duration to extract what he has not committed?” The PML-N leader said that the opposition would not accept any piecemeal solution and would prefer a comprehensive review and revision of the NAO so that it becomes a modern day law.

He said that the NAB chairman should not have wide discretionary powers and the one-man show has to be dispensed with. He said that as suggested by the opposition earlier, a committee comprising different officials should take decisions of arrest, initiation of investigation and filing of references instead of only the chairman.

The reported draft of amendments proposed by the law ministry says an accused will be released on bail if an inquiry under the NAO is not concluded within a period of three months; accountability courts will be conferred the power of entertaining and deciding pre-arrest and after-arrest bail applications of the accused; and the acceptance of a plea bargain and voluntary return will lead to disqualification of public office holder to hold office or employment for a period of 10 years or any other period.

According to the draft, private citizens or entities, which are directly and indirectly unconnected with a public office holder, will be excluded from the purview of NAO; and a threshold of Rs500 million may be introduced, and the valuation of immovable properties will be reckoned either as per the DC [Deputy Commissioner] rate or the Federal Board of Revenue (FBR) rate, whichever is higher.

The draft says civil servants’ lapses will not be categorised as offences and the NAB will not take cognizance of offences based on procedural slips unless there is evidence corroborating that the officer has materially benefited from such a decision or lapse; an underlying criminal intent and action resulting in an illegal or unjustifiable increase in the assets of a government servant will be cognizable; a bureaucrat’s assets will not be frozen solely on account of a belief that he committed an offence and his property will be frozen once the officer has been convicted by the court; and NAB’s jurisdiction on tax matters and stock markets will be undone.