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October 5, 2019

NAB: what accountability?

Opinion

October 5, 2019

Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, Miftah Ismail and Maryam Nawaz have all been sent to jail after being kept in NAB custody for reasonable time periods. Whether they should have been arrested and kept in NAB custody in the first place is another matter.

Shahid Khaqan and Miftah Ismail were arrested regarding the LNG terminal case while Maryam Nawaz was arrested in connection with the Ramzan Sugar Mills case. The arrests of the PMLN leadership have once again raised fundamental questions over how NAB has been operating over the last year or so.

All three were arrested at the time when the initial investigation was being undertaken. There is no evidence that any of them was not cooperating with the NAB authorities. All of them were already on the ECL; meaning there was no chance that they could have run away from the country.

Why then the need for arrest? NAB has suddenly become the most dreaded organization in the country for the manner in which opposition politicians have been targeted.

It has rightly come under frequent criticism for its poor handling of cases, especially those relating to politicians belonging to the PML-N and the PPP. The NAB Ordinance was always considered bad but its application and implementation is the point of dispute.

Shahid Khaqan Abbasi was sent to jail after remaining in NAB custody for more than two months. During this entire period, there was hardly any investigation conducted by the NAB authorities. After every 15 days, NAB authorities would ask for further extension even though they failed to explain why no investigation was done in the previous 15 days. Details requested by NAB from Shahid Khaqan included expenses and income for the last 20 years. This included details about his spending on telephone bills, food, travel, utility bills, school fee paid for his children and details about his business associates etc.

Where in the world are such details requested – and that too for 20 years, failing which one is described as corrupt. Is NAB the competent authority to undertake such a detailed investigation for a period going back 20 years? Who in the world can provide the minutest details of their expenses and income over 20 years? Why can’t the same information be taken from the FBR or the SECP where individual and company records are available? The same has been the case with Miftah Ismail where no specific investigation was ever conducted.

As former prime minister and former finance minister, Shahid Khaqan and Miftah Ismail respectively never asked for any special treatment. What they consistently requested was for NAB to conduct the investigation in a proper and meaningful manner, ensuring that the requirements of justice were fully met. But NAB would have none of it. The organisation has shown itself not just professionally incompetent but biased as well. The process so far has given credence to the widely-held view that it is politically motivated.

Also caught in the crossfire is former Engro executive Imran ul Haq. One of the best corporate executives, Imran has no political affiliation and yet has been arrested in the LNG case. There is not even a hint of evidence that would link Imran with any corruption or wilful negligence. On the contrary, he is credited with completing the project in a world record time of 11 months, setting the stage for Pakistan to overcome power shortages.

Engro is one of Pakistan’s best corporate companies, and has an outstanding system to ensure 100 percent transparency in any government or non-government contracts. The who’s who of the corporate world sits on its board and approves all such contracts. To expect that Imran ul Haq on his own would have approved such a major contract is beyond comprehension.

We still do not understand what corruption took place in this project. What wrong was committed by Shahid Khaqan or Miftah Ismail? From the government side, the project was approved by the Economic Coordination Committee of the Cabinet (ECC) which is the highest financial decision-making body of the federal government. Headed by the finance minister, it includes all the federal economy related ministers, ministers of state, governor of the State Bank, chairman of the SECP, chairman of the Board of Investment, privatisation chairman and all related secretaries. It was subsequently approved by the federal cabinet. Once the ECC and the cabinet approve the decision, no individual can be blamed unless it is later revealed that the facts of the case were wrongly presented at the highest forum.

Almost everyone agrees that Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and Miftah Ismail are both innocent. Nothing has so far been presented by NAB that implicates anyone in corruption or misuse of office. On the contrary, there’s a general perception that the contract relating to the Engro terminal has gone a long way in helping Pakistan overcome its energy shortages.

The case relating to Maryam Nawaz is even weaker. Maryam has never held public office; as such there is no question of public funds being misused or misappropriated. Why NAB is even investigating this is beyond comprehension.

NAB has not even identified any breach of law or which corporate governance rules were broken, nor has it clarified why it has taken upon itself to investigate someone who has never held public office. If at all, it should have been the SECP or FBR undertaking such a probe – although after 11 years, the law limits any such probe. Throughout the period Maryam was held in NAB custody, there was hardly any investigation on the charges relating to the Chaudhry sugar mills.

Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, Miftah Ismail and Maryam Nawaz are all languishing in jail for crimes still not known to anyone. As a result, the entire judicial process has come under renewed scrutiny. Even the chief justice of the Supreme Court has voiced his apprehension about the accountability process.

If and when the references are filed, we will know the specific charges. Till that time, we will only consider that these are politically motivated cases, as rightly pointed out by Shahid Khaqan in his recently released letter.

NAB’s intent is very clear. The idea to arrest the opposition political leadership before the references is simple – political engineering. In simple terminology, to exercise enough pressure so that the politicians arrested either agree to disengage completely from politics or agree to join the favourite political party. So far, this strategy has completely backfired since none of the arrested political leaders has submitted to such pressure or blackmail. This is nothing less than a miracle considering Pakistan’s political history where political loyalties were changed with much less pressure.

Is there anyone in this country, including the superior judiciary and the government party, who believes that NAB is providing justice with due process and in an unbiased manner? NAB is not above the law. Its ordinance needs serious improvement – but till that happens it must conduct itself in a manner that satisfies all major stakeholders.

The writer is former governor Sindh and former minister for privatisation.

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