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May 18, 2020

The saga of injustice

National

May 18, 2020

ISLAMABAD: Three dozen high profile individuals booked by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) during the past two years on either misuse of authority or on allegations of corruption have secured bails within weeks or months after their physical remand ended, raising skepticism about the intention and capabilities of the anti-graft body.

Such a scenario has given currency to allegations by the opposition parties that the Bureau was doing witch-hunt of politicians/ civil servants/ businessmen.

The Geo News reviewed files of 36 mega cases where almost 90pc accused after facing long ordeal of successive physical remands got bail from the courts during the past two and a half years. Each accused averagely spent at least 41 days in NAB's custody while 146 days in judicial custody (jail), revealed the official record. All accused who got bail (except Hamza Shahbaz and Khursheed Shah who are presently in jail) collectively remained nearly 5,000 days in jail while the bureauput them nearly 1,400 days under physical remand. Two businessmen were exonerated by the accountability court in seven months only while one accused died in NAB's chain while another committed suicide.

Accused Ahad Cheema spent 616 days in jail, Sharjeel Memon 606, Dr Asim 409 and Khawaja Saad Rafique 404 days in jail. Former Chief Minister Punjab Shahbaz Sharif spent 79 days in NAB's custody, Hamza Shahbaz 83, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi 68, Ahad Cheema 90 and Fawad Hassan Fawad spent 90 days, the maximum time in NAB's custody. The bureau took a minimum three months and maximum 11 years to arrest an accused while it made new history by arresting Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman at the complaint verification stage.

Official record showed that the conviction ratio in NAB’s cases dramatically dropped down in the past one year. The NAB got accused convicted from courts in 43 cases in 2019 while it (NAB) got convictions in its favour in 78 cases in 2018; official record continued to reveal that 53 accused got acquittals in 2019 and 56 accused were exonerated by the courts in 2018.

The rising trend of arresting high-profile individuals sparks a serious debate over NAB’s extended power for physical remand using it as a tool to fish for evidence by holding suspects in solitary confinement for months, independent lawyers say. The NAB prosecution teams and lawyers engaged in cases told this correspondent that these bigwigs were facing allegations of wrongdoings as well as misusing their authority, which caused losses worth Rs845 billion to the national exchequer.

The Geo News’ research revealed that superior courts have accepted the bail pleas of accused persons in 32 high profiles cases, disparaging the stance of NAB prosecution teams. Thus, it found striking similarities in the cases of former Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, ex-Finance Adviser Miftah Ismail, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Senior Minister in Punjab Aleem Khan, PTI MPA Sibtain Khan, former Chief Minister Punjab Mian Shahbaz Sharif, businessmen Iqbal Z Ahmed and Usman Javed, ex-Planning and Development Minister Ahsan Iqbal, ex-Pakistan Railways Minister Khawaja Saad Rafique and his brother Khawaja Salman Rafique, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) leader Qamar-ul-Islam, civil servants Fawad Hassan Fawad, Ahad Cheema, Tayyaba Farooq and her husband Muhammad Farooq, former Sindh Minister for Information Sharjeel Memon, ex-Petroleum Minister Dr Asim Hussain, Speaker Sindh Assembly Agha Siraj Durrani, Yousaf Abbas Sharif, ex-MD PSO Syed Imran-ul-Haq, PML-N leader Maryam Nawaz, Balochistan ex-adviser on Finance Khalid Langove and the list goes on.

The NAB’s authority for custodial remand of an accused person emanates from the provisions of Article 24(c) of NAO 1999, which reads that a suspect “…shall be liable to be detained in the custody of NAB for the purpose of inquiry and investigation for a period not exceeding 90 days [and the court may remand an accused person to custody not exceeding 15 days at a time].”

The NAB under its own SOPs first does complaint verification, which revolves around parameters to determine veracity of the complaint, then does inquiry, then investigation and finally a reference is filed. But the bureau wrote a new history by nabbing Jang Group’s CEO Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman at the complaint verification stage contrary to the Islamabad High Court’s judgment announced in March this year which called spade a spade that “NAB cannot make arrests to conduct roving inquiries.”

In a few cases like those against the former prime ministers Yousaf Raza Gillani, Raja Pervez Ashraf and Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain and Speaker Punjab Assembly, the bureau has apparently chosen not to arrest any accused even while criminal references had been filed against them before the Accountability Courts. Investigators and the accused's lawyers say around Rs31 billion (Gillani Rs7 billion, Ashraf Rs22 billion and Shujaat and Elahi jointly Rs2.26 billion) were allegedly misused under their unlawful directives.

On Dec 23, 2019, NAB arrested Ahsan Iqbal on corruption charges in the Narowal Sports City case but he was granted bail by the court on Feb 25, 2020. He remained in the bureau’s custody for 28 days and for another period of 32 days he remained in jail. The NAB claimed Rs3 billion were misused in this project under his watch.

On Oct 5, 2018, NAB arrested former Punjab chief minister Shahbaz Sharif in the assets beyond means, Ashiana Iqbal Housing Scheme and money laundering cases. He remained in NAB’s custody for 79 days (Dec 24, 2018) and then got bail after two months, Feb 14, 2019.

Shahbaz Sharif’s family is collectively facing multiple cases where investigators and lawyers disclosed that around Rs15 billion were allegedly misused or embezzled by members of the Sharif family who were then in power.

On July 18, 2019, the anti-graft body arrested ex-PM Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, who was accused of corrupt practices in the signing of LNG contracts whereby allegedly the national exchequer suffered losses worth around Rs200 billion. On Feb 25, 2020, Abbasi was granted bail by the IHC. He remained 68 days in NAB’s custody and the rest of the period was spent in Adiala Jail.

The bureau arrested PML-N leader Qamar-ul-Islam on June 26, 2018 in the Saaf Pani Company case where losses allegedly amounted to around Rs1 billion. Qamar got bail from the IHC on Jan 30, 2019. He remained 48 days in NAB’s custody and for the rest of the time he remained in the Adiala jail.

PTI Punjab Minister Aleem Khan was taken into custody by NAB Lahore on Feb 6, 2019 as investigators claimed that they arrested Khan after they found evidence of tampering in official records and embezzlement of some Rs1.2 billion in different land dealings and that his personal assets had swelled unnaturally. On May 15, 2019, Khan got bail from the Lahore High Court (LHC). He spent 28 days in NAB’s custody and rest of the time spent in Kot Lakhpat Jail, Lahore.

Babar Awan got acquittal in the Nandipur corruption case from NAB court, which, however, turned down acquittal appeals filed by former premier Raja Pervez Ashraf in the same case last year. Later on, NAB challenged Mr. Awan’s acquittal in IHC. The bureau’s appeal is pending with IHC since October last year.

The NAB arrested Khawaja Saad Rafique and his brother Khawaja Salman Rafique in the Paragon Housing Scheme scam worth Rs22 billion on Dec 11, 2018. But the Supreme Court approved their bail on March 17, 2020. Both brothers remained in NAB custody for 52 days and later the accountability court sent them to jail on Feb 2, 2019, rejecting NAB's request for an extension in physical remand. Khawaja Saad Rafique was also facing an inquiry in the Pakistan Railways corruption case.

Pakistan's former finance minister Miftah Ismail was arrested by NAB on Aug 7, 2019 in the LNG scam where investigators alleged that he was the beneficiary of around some Rs410 million in surreptitious deals. The IHC granted bail to Ismail on Dec 23, 2019. He spent 49 days in NAB’s custody and for the rest of the days remained in the Adiala Jail.

The bureau nabbed PML-N leader Maryam Nawaz in the Chaudhry Sugar Mills case on Aug 8, 2019. But she got bail from the LHC on Nov 4, 2019. She remained in NAB’s custody for 47 days and the rest of 39 days she was lodged in jail. The NAB claimed she was involved in Chaudhry Sugar Mills Ltd’s money laundering case worth billions of rupees.

The NAB arrested Sindh Assembly Speaker Agha Siraj Durrani on Feb 20, 2019 and kept him in custody for 53 days to question the accused charged with the accumulation of Rs1.6 billion assets beyond known sources of income. Then the court sent him on judicial remand on April 13, 2019 and ultimately he got bail from the SHC on Dec 14, 2019.

The NAB arrested former petroleum minister Dr. Asim Hussain in an alleged Rs460 billion corruption scam on Dec 11, 2015 and he was indicted in this case on May 7, 2016. He faced 58-day physical remand and got bail on March 29, 2017.

On Dec 22, 2018, a university professor Javed Ahmad died in chains. Image of the late professor’s corpse in handcuffs was made public and it was termed as evidence of most inhumane treatment by the bureau to accused in solitary confinement. The late professor was in the bureau’s custody after being arrested on October 9, 2018 over his alleged involvement in establishing illegal sub-campuses under public-private partnership policy. In another case, Brig (retd) Asad Munir, who was being probed by NAB, committed suicide on March 15, 2019 leaving a note that he was under stress due to bureau’s humiliating probe.

On Oct 11, 2018, the anti-graft body arrested Professor Mujahid Kamran, former VC of Punjab University, for his role in alleged irregularities in the university. But after 26 days, Professor Mujahid Kamran got bail from the LHC on Nov 7, 2018. He spent nine days in NAB’s custody and 17 days in jail.

On July 5, 2018, secretary to ex-Prime Minister, Fawad Hassan Fawad, was arrested by NAB in a case relating to acquisition of assets beyond known sources of income as well as on alleged graft charges and the court kept extending his physical remand till the exhaustion of 90 days, the maximum duration, on October 2, 2018. He got bail from the LHC on Jan 21, 2020. NAB authorities claimed that Hassan allegedly earned Rs1.4 billion illegally in different time periods.

The NAB arrested LDA's ex-DG Ahad Cheema in the AHS scam on Feb 21, 2018 and later sent him on judicial remand on May 22, 2018. Then on Jan 28, 2020, Cheema got bail from the LHC. Authorities claimed that he was accused of embezzling more than Rs2 billion.

Former president Asif Zardari got bail on “medical grounds” on Dec 11, 2019. He was arrested by NAB on June 9, 2019 in an alleged “fake accounts” case. He remained 68 days in NAB’s custody and then on judicial remand from August 17, 2019. Similarly, Zardari’s sister MPA Faryal Talpur got bail from the IHC on Dec 17, 2019 on “medical grounds” after spending 56 days in NAB’s custody and the rest of 113 days in jail. She was also arrested in the fake accounts case by NAB on June 14, 2019. Both PPP’s stalwarts were allegedly involved in Rs54 billion Fake Accounts scam.

PML-N leader Hamza Shahbaz and PPP leader Khursheed Shah are the only two politicians who are pleading their respective cases for bail before the SC. Bail applications of both the politicians have already been rejected from high courts earlier this month.

Hamza Shahbaz was arrested on June 11, 2019 and put in NAB’s custody for 83 long days and sent to jail on Sept 4, 2019 after the Lahore accountability court rejected the bureau's plea for extension in his physical remand.

PPP leader Khursheed Shah was arrested by NAB on Sept 18, 2019. The bureau had Shah in custody for 51 days in physical remand until the court sent him to jail on 14-day judicial remand on Nov 9, 2019. He is facing a case of Rs2 billion assets beyond known means.

A former special prosecutor of NAB Imran Shafiq says, "No accused was ever arrested at complaint verification stage in the bureau's recent history. Under NAO 1999, the remand period was just 15 days, but later on it was enhanced to 90 days by way of amendments."

Shafiq added: “The remand period of 90 days is too excessive, unjustified, abusive and unnatural. This needs to be curtailed. If an offence of murder, rape, money laundering (in FIA investigation) or terrorism can be investigated in less than a month, in 14 days, then why not an offence could be investigated by the NAB in this period? Such a lengthy remand period is disproportionate to the rights of accused and dignity of citizens.” The NAB prosecution teams have to review their strategy to plead high profile cases in the courts, a move to get better results against the accused, Shafiq added.

Amjad Pervez, a senior lawyer pleading the NAB cases, observed that “ninety days physical remand time is too excessive, even arrest is not desirable as most of the evidence in white collar crime cases is documentary, and is easily available and in possession of public departments.”

The Geo News approached multiple times prosecutor general Syed Asghar Haider to know the reasons as to why 90pc of the accused of cases were getting bails at early stages of investigation. He said, "I am afraid it will not be possible for me as no NAB person is permitted to talk to the media. However, you may contact the media wing of NAB if you so desire in this regard.”

NAB Spokesperson Nawazish Ali Asim did not respond to this correspondent's queries despite receiving several reminders. His response is awaited for the past two weeks.

The NAB spokesperson, talking to a private TV channel on Saturday, however, had said that the NAB establishment always acts as per law. All these authorities have been mentioned in the NAB law, and the National Accountability Ordinance 1999 is very clear on that.

He said that during the tenure of incumbent chairman as many as 600 references have been filed. The chairman’s role is exceptional. In 56 cases related to commercial firms, the CEOs who drew hefty salaries returned the amount. The accountability courts have to decide within a month. The law is equal for all, he added.