Rule of justice, not rule of law

April 5, 2020

NAB’s questionable approach to accountability extends even during a pandemic. The cases of Mir Shakil ur Rehman and Shahid Khaqan Abbasi are glaring examples of this

One of the most popular refrains of any government in Pakistan is the emphasis on ‘rule of law.’ This is fine in itself, but what governments ignore to the detriment of the broader society and polity is the even more important ‘rule of justice.’ There are good laws and there are bad laws and a narrow enforcement focus on rule of law alone translates into perpetuation of unjust provisions of a law.

Consider. The controversial accountability law allows the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) to hold suspects it intends to investigate on remand for up to 90 days even before filing a reference. On the face of it, ‘rule of law’ in this case means the NAB is within its legal remit of keeping in detention anyone without a charge for this period.

But ‘rule of justice’ in this case would mean differentiating between suspects on the basis of their cooperation with the NAB in its investigations. It is unjust for suspects presenting themselves for interrogation to not be treated differently from those resisting it. And yet the NAB distinguishes itself in selective application of invoking its legal authority.

There are at least two cases in the post-coronavirus outbreak situation where even a pandemic has failed to prevent the NAB from ignoring the principles of justice to exercise its legal authority alone, thereby demonstrating its penchant for being unjust. One is the case of Mir Shakil ur Rehman, the editor of Jang-Geo Media Group. The other is former prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi.

Both these reputable gentlemen are widely recognized, even by rivals, as leaders in the fields of media and politics. They have also distinguished themselves in terms of cooperating with the NAB in its investigation of allegations of wrongdoings against them.

Rehman was arrested by the NAB as he presented himself for questioning over a private real estate deal that dates back nearly four decades. He had been summoned a third time and had presented himself each time, fully complying with the procedures. Treating him like a criminal while he was complying as a responsible citizen and professional went beyond the remit of the spirit behind the NAB law.

Abbasi not only demonstrated a similar principled stance of cooperating with the NAB in the two references against him, he consistently refused to seek bail and insisted that the accountability judges grant a full 90-day remand in his case to the NAB to satisfy them in their interrogation.

And yet, both these gentlemen failed to appeal to the spirit of justice or convince the NAB – as did a long list of politicians and businessmen before them against whom no charges have been proven despite years of investigation and interrogation – that justice should not only be done, it should also be visible. It has only been the courts that have granted any of the relief available as fundamental rights to citizens of Pakistan accused of wrongdoing but not convicted. Even this relief has been arbitrary rather than consistent in the cases that the NAB conjures up.

In Rehman’s case, his request for temporary release on lawful bail to meet Mir Javed ur Rehman, the distinguished chairman, printer and publisher of Jang, who was fighting for his life in hospital, failed to move the NAB.

This failure of the state and its machinery to pursue rule of justice rather than merely rule of law leads to great personal suffering and even national loss. In Rehman’s case, for example, his request for temporary release on lawful bail to meet Mir Javed ur Rehman, the distinguished chairman, printer and publisher of Jang, who was fighting for his life in hospital, failed to move the NAB.

The result: an avoidable personal tragedy that the NAB chose not to prevent even when it could, especially since Shakil is merely an accused, not a convict. When despite being convicted (however controversially) through the NAB former prime minister Nawaz Sharif could be freed from jail and fly abroad for treatment, why could not Shakil be freed for even one day to meet his dying brother?

NAB’s continued coercive and questionable approach to accountability extends even during a pandemic and a national public health crisis. Rehman is just one example. Another is Abbasi who has been charged with yet another reference now after the NAB could not keep him confined after his eight months of incarceration including three months in solitary confinement. The NAB is now trying to arrest him again and seek another 90-day remand to keep him in custody. All this smacks of persecution, not accountability.

There are two problems that arise out of this. One, what passes for accountability in Pakistan is only thinly disguised persecution of politicians and media. A long line of high profile NAB cases have ended up nowhere, particularly against popular national leaders elected either as presidents or prime ministers – including against Asif Ali Zardari (who surely holds a record for being the most tried and never convicted politician on the planet), late Benazir Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif, Yousaf Raza Gilani, Raja Pervaiz Ashraf and Shahid Khaqan Abbasi. There are NAB inquiries even against Prime Minister Imran Khan. These are not being pursued now but in all probability will be after he is gone or when the need for him ‘to go’ arises.

Two, the treatment of national leaders or other accused by the Pakistani state and its legal machinery, including no less than the superior courts, is often inhumane. Bhutto was ordered hanged by court and his body was never handed back to his heirs. They were not even allowed to attend his burial. Sharif and Maryam were not allowed to stay by the side of a dying Kulsum (she eventually died when they returned home). Hundreds of ordinary people and rights activists have been forced into ‘disappearance’ without a trial or allowing them access to their families. And now Shakil will never meet his brother Javed again. Is all of this really justice?

Imagine the plight of hundreds of thousands of people across the land battling unjust laws every day in their pursuit of justice that seems forever beyond their reach, all this because rule of law is pursued blindly by the state of Pakistan. The laws are often passed under coercion from unelected forces. Rule of justice, the central tenet of a civilised state, meanwhile withers on the vine, degrading the society. This has to end.

The author is a political analyst and media development specialist. He can be reached at

Mir Shakeel-Ur-Rehman's arrest and NAB's role