Friday June 21, 2024

Amending NAB

By Editorial Board
May 19, 2022

The government is looking to alter the powers of the National Accountability Bureau – a source of immense controversy over the past three and a half years. A meeting of the federal cabinet has proposed a committee, headed by the law minister, to look into amendments in the NAB laws – which are seen as having largely been used for political victimization and harassment of government officials and business owners. Since the NAB Ordinance expires on June 2, NAB Chairman Justice (r) Javed Iqbal will lose his post at this point while a new framework for NAB is worked out by the committee.

Ever since its inception during the Pervez Musharraf era, NAB has been mired in one controversy after the other. It was originally seen, with some justification, as a tool for a military regime to exact revenge on its opponents. This was followed by nearly every opposition party believing NAB was being used to victimize them. During the PTI regime, both the PML-N and the PPP pointed to the cases against them as evidence of their claim of an accountability witch-hunt. Under the PTI government, the accountability watchdog became trigger-happy with cases – often indulging in arbitrary arrests based on flimsy cases. Opposition politicians, media owners, business owners, even political allies were not spared. There were also reports on how the bureaucracy was sitting on files after what had happened to Fawad Hasan Fawad, Ahad Cheema and some others. Bureaucrats were fearful of signing files and approving projects lest it led to cases against them by the next government.

None of this went unnoticed and there are ample judicial observations on NAB serving as a potent tool to arm-twist political opponents. In an 87-page ruling by Justice Maqbool Baqar on a bail petition filed by PML-N leaders Khawaja Saad Rafique and Khawaja Salman Rafique back in 2020, the court said that NAB’s ‘conduct throughout this case is a clear manifestation of their utter disregard for law, fair play, equity and propriety’. On the National Accountability Ordinance 1999, the judgement added: ‘...these laws and the manner in which they were enforced ... were framed and applied with an oblique motive of arm twisting and pressurizing political opponents into submission, subjugation and compliance, or remove them from the electoral scene at least temporarily’.

With reports suggesting that the government has proposed 31 amendments in NAB law, it is important to note that – while there is little doubt that NAB’s powers need to be rethought – this step will also be used by the PTI to build a narrative that the government is trying to get rid of its cases and giving itself an NRO. This is something the government should be ready to face. Already, the Supreme Court has taken suo-motu notice of ‘perceived interference in the independence of the prosecution branch in performance of its powers and duties for the investigation and prosecution of pending criminal matters involving persons in authority in the government today.’ Any amendment will need to be made as per law and transparency, but NAB as it stands right now does need an intervention. A law that empowers an authority to use accountability as a ruse to suppress dissenting voices, arrest critics and opponents, harass the business community, and put fear in the hearts of government officials for doing their jobs is not a democratic law. This and other amendments will change the nature of NAB to some degree. But the primary concern regarding accountability remains in place. While the PML-N, the PTI and the PPP are to meet to discuss the issue according to cabinet suggestions, the problem is that time and again accountability bodies have transformed into entities used for vengeance or to punish dissidents and opponents. If we are to ever have a Pakistan which is at least relatively free of corruption, there must be accountability of all institutions in an open and transparent manner – while being mindful of the difference between an accountability process and a vengeful witch-hunt campaign.