A tradition of exclusion

January 10, 2021

All efforts in the history of the country to establish a permanent accountability process appear to have come down to political victimisation and exclusion

Photo by Rahat Dar

In 2001, two former federal ministers, Makhdoom Faisal Saleh Hayat and Anwar Saifullah and the former Punjab chief minister Manzoor Ahmad Wattoo were investigated by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB). A few years down the lane, they were again in the cabinet. The NAB was unable to prove them guilty as charged. The cases against them were widely dismissed as politically motivated. The investigation and prosecution was seen as tactical i.e. meant only to suppress political opposition.

Starting in January 1949, the governments in Pakistan have devised many accountability mechanisms. The first prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, promulgated the Public Representative Offices Disqualification Act (PRODA) with effect from August 14, 1947. Under the PRODA, any public representative could face disqualification for 10 years. The then Punjab chief minister Nawab Iftikhar Mamdot and his counsel, Hosain Shaheed Sohrawardi were prominent among its victims. Sohrawardi later became prime minister and the PRODA is remembered mostly as a black law to target the opposition. Another major victim of the PRODA was the 1948 chief minister of Sindh who was disqualified for six years on charges of corruption. Several leaders from East Pakistan also fell victim to it when AK Fazlul Haq was dismissed in 1954.

Gen Ayub Khan was clear that the PRODA was a ‘black law’. It was therefore replaced by a new Act: the Public Offices Disqualification Order (PODO). Shortly afterwards, the PODO morphed into the Elective Bodies Disqualification Order (EBDO). Over 70 political opponents of Gen Ayub Khan, including Sohrawardi and Qayyum Khan, faced corruption charges and were barred from contesting elections till 1966. However, they were never convicted. Ayub Khan’s purge also took a toll on 3,000 civil servants who were dismissed following trials for misconduct in special tribunals working under retired judges. Thousands of other civil servants narrowly escaped convictions. Gen Yayha Khan showed a similar zeal and dismissed over 300 functionaries of the state.

Following suit, in 1976 then prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, established the Holders of Representative Offices Act (HPOA) and the Parliament and Provincial Assemblies (Disqualification for Membership) Act. Unlike the accountability laws passed before, not a single case was registered under these Acts. A spate of anti-corruption laws was put in effect under the military government of Gen Zia-ul-Haq. In 1990, Benazir Bhutto was deposed as prime minister by then president, Ghulam Ishaq Khan, on corruption charges. Khan also filed 20 corruption cases against Bhutto and her spouse, Asif Ali Zardari. Interestingly, when the president similarly ousted Nawaz Sharif from power in 1992, Asif Zardari took oath as a caretaker federal minister in Mir Balkh SherMazari’s caretaker cabinet. Following a similar pattern, the second time Benazir Bhutto came to power in 1993, dozens of cases were registered against Nawaz Sharif and his family members. On fresh charges of corruption in the year 1996, Bhutto’s government was dismissed by then president Farooq Leghari. Leghari also pledged to conduct an accountability process from 1985. He established the Ehtesab (Accountability) Ordinance and set up an Ehtesab Commission with a retired chief justice of the Lahore High Court, Ghulam Mujaddid Mirza as the Chief Ehtesab Commissioner.

The accountability process became more controversial in 1997 when Nawaz Sharif came into power for the second time and enacted the Ehtesab Act 1997. Under this law, he curtailed the powers of the Ehtesab Commissioner and established the Ehtesab Cell which took orders from Sharif’s close aide Saifur Rehman. In 1998, the Ehtesab Cell was renamed as Ehtesab Bureau. It specifically targeted Benazir Bhutto, her spouse and close advisors. In 2003, an audio tape was released by the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) in which Saifur Rehman was heard telling Malik Qayum, a judge of the Lahore High Court to award maximum punishment to Bhutto and Zardari in a money laundering case. Bhutto and Zardari were sentenced to five years in prison. In 2002, the Supreme Court dismissed the judgment and Saifur Rehman apologised to Zardari in an accountability court.

In stark contrast with the opposition, leaders and allies of the PTI — likes of Aleem Khan, Jehangir Tareen, Khusrow Bakhtiar, Pervaiz Khattak, Chaudhry Parvez Elahi and Monis Elahi, who were similarly accused of corruption and have cases pending before the NAB — were handled with a different yardstick.

The current structure of the National Accountability Bureau was set up by Gen Pervez Musharraf, who issued the National Accountability Bureau Ordinance to replace the Ehtesab Act of 1997. Gen Musharraf gave immense powers to the NAB. These powers included 90 days of custody vwithout producing the arrested person in any court of law. The accused could only apply for bail after 90 days. The ordinance was ruthlessly misused against politicians and some leading industrialists, especially ahead of the 2002 general elections. In October 2007, Gen Pervez Musharraf, issued the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO), to grant amnesty to a number of politicians and bureaucrats. However, the Supreme Court declared the NRO unconstitutional on December 16, 2009. The coalition government of 2008 ordered the NAB to halt inquiries against 60 politicians. Under this coalition, during 2008-2013, the PPP tried to persuade Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) to amend the accountability laws but the latter did not agree to lend its support.

After Nawaz Sharif was elected as prime minister for the third time in 2013, the Panama Leaks surfaced and led to his disqualification. Later, an accountability court sentenced him to seven years in jail and a fine of Rs 1.5 billion in the Al Azizia Steel Mill Case. His sentence became extremely controversial after a video of the presiding judge was released by Maryam Nawaz Sharif. It showed Malik declaring that he had been under immense pressure to convict and sentence Sharif. Malik was later dismissed by Lahore High Court for misconduct.

Prime Minister Imran Khan, after taking oath in July 2018, pledged across-the-board ‘merciless’ accountability through the NAB. He appointed Barrister Shahzad Akbar as his special assistant on accountability. Asif Zardari, FaryalTalpur, Nawaz Sharif, Shahbaz Sharif, Hamza Shahbaz, Maryam Nawaz, Muhammad Safdar, and Khurshid Shah are some of the bigwigs of the PPP and the PML-N who were arrested by the NAB under Imran Khan’s government. In stark contrast, leaders and allies of the ruling PTI – the likes of Aleem Khan, Jehangir Tareen, Khusrow Bakhtiar, Pervaiz Khattak, Chaudhry Parvez Elahi and Monis Elahi, similarly accused of corruption and having cases pending before the NAB - were handled with a different yardstick. This is in line with the longstanding history of the institution being used for political victimisation. Independence and autonomy of the NAB became even more questionable when Shahzad Akbar met the NAB Chief, shortly after which NAB galvanized into action against the opposition parties.

Dr Mehdi Hasan, the former Human Rights Commission of Pakistan chairman, told TNS, “People of Pakistan should not dream about free and fair across-the-board accountability because it is feature of a true democracy.” He is of the opinion that “a true democracy cannot flourish in a confessional state. On a similar note, Senator Farhatullah Babar, a PPP stalwart, told TNS, “Accountability means accountability for all those who take salaries from the national exchequer. It cannot be fair unless all public office holders, including judges and generals, are held accountable under the same laws.”

Despite promises of uniform and merciless accountability, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf government has failed to alter the long-standing tradition of the NAB of employing accountability mechanisms under influence of ruling party preferences.

The writer is a senior journalist, teacher of     journalism, writer and researcher. He tweets at @BukhariMubasher.

A tradition of exclusion