NAB’s ongoing investigations into the alleged corruption by some key politicians question the huge and centralised powers of this anti-graft body.
NAB gives vast powers to its chairman, which is considered the head of investigation and serves a four-year term. NAB’s sitting chairman, Justice (r) Javed Iqbal, is the ninth chief of this bureau. He was appointed in October 2017.
According to NAB ordinance, chairman NAB is to be appointed by the President in consultation with the Leader of the House and the Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly for a [non-extendable] period of four years on such terms and conditions as may be determined by the President and shall not be removed except on the grounds of removal of Judge of Supreme Court of Pakistan.
It is clear from the NAB Ordinance that all powers, directly or through the court, move around its chairman. According to the law, NAB’s chairman or the court is competent to order freezing of movable or immovable property. The chairman has full authority to file a reference; it has vast powers to call for information from any person during inquiry/investigation in connection with the provisions of the Ordinance. The head of the body may inquire/investigate any suspected offence in conjunction with any other agency or with any person.
The chairman has the power to direct the accused to be arrested during investigation of the case. The Chairman NAB (or an officer of NAB authorised by him) may submit a reference before the court. The chairman is authorised to order custody of any person for the purposes of inquiry and investigation for a period not exceeding 90 days; and the chairman has the authority to declare and notify any place as a police station or a sub-jail at his discretion.
The Chairman NAB at any stage of investigation is empowered to tender full or conditional pardon to any accused with a view to obtain evidence of such person who is supposed to have been directly or indirectly concerned in or privy to the offence.
“Chairman NAB has very wide powers, particularly, to arrest someone. And there is no check and balance mechanism within NAB,” says Barrister Ali Zafar, former law minister, adding, “The previous government did not review the wide powers of chairman NAB because they were using this body against their political opponents. And nobody thought to review such vast powers.” He thinks such use of these powers is also harassing the business community and bureaucracy. He suggests “there is a need to redefine legal parameters regarding use of this power.”
Before October 2016, chairman NAB had the power to approve voluntary return of money by an accused who admitted to corruption. However, the top court stopped NAB from accepting voluntary return of ill-gotten money or using the option of plea bargain.
The then chief justice of the Supreme Court, Anwar Zaheer Jamali, had taken suo motu notice of the issue and revoked these powers of the chairman, concluding that such powers were meant to tell the criminals that they could pay and get rid of their cases. The court observed that such sections of the law were meant to increase corruption.
Recently, a committee under the federal law minister, Farogh Nasim, has started deliberations and sought proposals from NAB, law and interior ministries about the changes needed in the NAB law and to limit the powers of chairman NAB to arrest a person.
In the National Assembly session on October 17, where former Punjab chief minister Shahbaz Sharif who is the Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly, and is under arrest by NAB, was produced to attend the session and speak, federal minister for information Fawad Hussain Ch also invited the opposition parties to give suggestions and sit together if they think some changes were needed in the NAB law.
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“NAB chairman enjoys excessive powers, especially his discretion to arrest any person. This has raised questions in the past, too,” says Shah Khawar, former attorney general and judge of the high court.
“Since the introduction of NAB, this body has not been able to make its rules and regulations regarding its functioning, which it was supposed to do,” he says, adding that sometimes NAB acts in such matters which can be dealt according to disciplinary rules of different department and government cadres. He believes parliament is the right forum to discuss this issue and bring in consensus to make NAB a transparent body, acting according to defined parameters. At the moment, a grade17 investigator of NAB investigates a grade-21 officer, which does not happen in other government departments.