The question of accountability

The NAB issue looms large in government’s dynamic with the Oppositon

Differences between the Treasury and Opposition benches over the proposed amendments to the National Accountability Ordinance are increasing, with both sides accusing the other of watching their selfish interests.

The amendments proposed by the government are not acceptable in toto to the Opposition. It is a point worth noting that seven members of this committee have NAB cases against them. While there are those who back their inclusion in the committee for a having firsthand experience of dealing with the NAB, others disapprove of their inclusion, calling it a conflict of interest. Their argument is that they will support amendments that save them and others like them from arrest and trial by the NAB.

If we look at the amendments proposed by the government, one finds these are mainly meant to protect bureaucrats and businessmen and talk about a provision to extend the tenures of the chairperson, deputy chairperson and prosecutor general of the NAB. The amendments also propose immunity for something done in good faith by government representatives.

The proposal to allow extension to the NAB chairperson has been criticised by many. They think the sitting prime minister wants to save himself from the hassle of consulting with the leader of the opposition for appointment of a new chairperson once the incumbent’s tenure expires this year.

On the other hand, the amendments proposed by the Opposition are not acceptable to the government. Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi has claimed that the Opposition has suggested that the NAB should be allowed only to take up cases involving corruption in excess of Rs 1 billion. Besides, it wants the Bureau not to have powers to take up cases reported before November 1999. It says the NAB must only take notice of corruption cases reported over the last five years. NAB’s powers to take up cases of willful default and loan write-offs shall also be withdrawn as per the proposals put forward by the Opposition.

The other proposed amendments include shifting of all inquiries and investigations on taxation, levies and imposts to the relevant institutions which administer the laws pertaining to the same, transferring of trials from accountability courts to courts which deal with such offences, elaborate explanation of the term “misuse of authority” and evaluation of assets by district collector or the federal board of revenue instead of the NAB.

The NAB chairperson’s power to arrest people without conviction, the courts’ lack of power to grant bail to the accused, months-long detention without a right to get bail, the inability to recover embezzled amounts from detainees etc have invited criticism against the corruption watchdog from several quarters. The NAB is also accused of political engineering. The critics say it hardly touches anyone in the government camp while springing into action against those who stand up to challenge the ruling set-up.

There is also a lot of local and international pressure for reform in the NAB law. In a recent statement, the Human Rights Watch (HRW) has said that Pakistan’s parliament should carry out urgent reforms to make the anti-corruption body independent. A European Commission report too has criticised the NAB for showing bias and pointed out that very few cases against the ruling party ministers and politicians have been pursued since the 2018 elections.

Salman Abid, a political analyst and critic, says that accountability in Pakistan has always been an issue and mechanisms to ensure it have been mired in controversy. He says the politicians are also responsible for the mess and an example of this is the inability of both the PML-N and the PPP to do away with the NAB in its current form. “It would have been better if they had made make the reforms themselves,” he says.

Abid says that both had agreed to make the accountability process transparent but despite enjoying full terms, they had failed to fulfill this commitment.

The PM had announced that his party would not take anybody facing NAB cases in his cabinet but today Aleem Khan is holding the position of senior minister. Babar Awan and Pervez Khattak are two other examples and both are in the parliamentary committee on amendments in the NAO.

Shamim ur Rehman, secretary of the Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA), says that there are some structural issues that need to be resolved. For example, he says, “the power to arrest anybody without proof should be withdrawn and the time of detention should not be unlimited. The accountability law should be exemplary and we should be able to cite it with pride; this hasn’t been the case so far”, he says.

The author is a staffer and can be contacted at [email protected]

The question of accountability