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Undermining democracy?

There are as many as seven prime ministers under the NAB radar, facing inquiries for alleged corruption and misuse of authority. Is this an effort to target the political elite through selective accountability?

Undermining democracy?

Do all politicians of the country misuse their authority? The question comes to mind after seeing how the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) has been after the top politicians, including former prime ministers.

There is a general impression that these probes are politically motivated, that they are getting directions from certain quarters to undermine democracy.

At the moment, there are as many as seven — six former and one sitting — prime ministers under the NAB radar, facing inquiries for alleged corruption and misuse of authority. Almost all elected prime ministers of Pakistan from 2004 to 2018 have been facing NAB for the past several years. To this day, only one of them has been a ‘clean chit’ by this apex accountability body.

In the first week of January 2019, NAB decided to shelve an old inquiry against Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid-e-Azam (PML-Q) leader and former premier Shujaat Hussain over “lack of evidence”. The case was filed against Hussain for allegedly coercing the Lahore Development Authority (LDA) in order to give away government land and 28 plots to his alleged frontmen.

On February 14, NAB initiated another case against Shujaat Hussain for possessing assets beyond means.

In early January this year, the executive board of NAB initiated investigations into former prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi’s tenure as federal minister for petroleum in 2014-15. NAB had previously initiated an inquiry against Abbasi and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif in June 2018, over alleged misuse of power regarding a liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal project.

NAB, till now, has made probes into former prime ministers Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, Shaukat Aziz, Nawaz Sharif, Syed Yousaf Raza Gilani, Raja Pervez Ashraf, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, and sitting PM Imran Khan. Some of the cases against them are from before they had served as the chief executives of the country.

Former PM Shaukat Aziz, who is residing abroad, is currently facing an investigation for alleged illegal appointments and misuse of power. NAB recently issued his non-bailable arrest warrants for failure to cooperate and not appearing before the court. NAB had moved the above reference against Aziz in July 2018.

“NAB has become a tool for the harassment of politicians and they are operating under the fear of extra-parliamentary forces,” Dr Mohammad Waseem expresses.

In September 2018, NAB filed a corruption reference against former PM Gilani and others for allegedly misusing their authority in an illegal publicity campaign, hence causing a loss of millions of rupees to the national exchequer. His name was put on Exit Control List as a result.

Former PM Raja Pervez Ashraf is facing NAB court for the alleged misuse of authority in the Rental Power and Nandipur Power Projects. He is likely to be indicted this month.

In the references filed against former PM Nawaz Sharif, NAB managed to get him indicted in two cases. The court acquitted him in the third case. His appeals against the sentences are pending before Islamabad High Court. NAB has also initiated a couple of other investigations against former PM Sharif, again for his alleged misuse of power.

NAB initiated an investigation against the sitting prime minister Imran Khan over the unofficial use of two government helicopters for a total of 74 hours, causing a loss of Rs2.1 million to the national exchequer. The probe is on and the ruling party has criticised NAB for summoning or probing a sitting PM for this matter.

Apart from the above cases, there is a separate list of dozens of politicians including some former and sitting chief ministers, federal and provincial ministers and former legislators under NAB investigations for alleged corruption. Towards the end of 2018, NAB issued a list of 71 politicians, bureaucrats and public office holders, that are currently being investigated by the bureau.

“There are serious concerns, doubts and questions about the NAB proceedings against politicians and former premiers. Many of the inquiries against former premiers and senior politicians are pending for the past several years and they are not concluded until a particular time comes,” Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, President of PILDAT (Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency) says, adding, “The timing of NAB cases against politicians has something to do with the political situation in the country.”

He says by initiating such cases against top politicians NAB is trying to give a message that all political elite is corrupt. He maintains there are examples in the past when the NAB heads quit refusing to bend for selective accountability pushed by mighty establishment during General Musharraf era. “NAB has been pressurised in the past to act against politicians, mainly to damage the integrity of top politicians.” He says cases against Chaudhry Shujaat, Pervez Ashraf and Shaukat Aziz were investigated for years but were only finalised when a particular political situation presented itself — raising doubts and concerns about the independence of NAB.

Interestingly, NAB decided to file references or accelerate investigations only during and after the 2018 elections. “No doubt, corruption is part of the system,” political scientist Dr Mohammad Waseem says, “which means that the original purpose of NAB was to make sure that power does not remain inside the parliament, with politicians mainly to be used as an instrument to be controlled from outside. NAB has become a tool for the harassment of politicians and they are operating under the fear of extra-parliamentary forces,” he expresses.

Dr Waseem further views that the whole purpose of the creation of NAB during General Pervez Musharraf’s regime was a selective and targeted ‘accountability’ to put politicians under pressure. Another impression that this helped develop was that the political elite is corrupt. “It is basically a middle-class issue and such selected acts in the name of accountability help in getting their sympathies.”

The powers of NAB must be clipped, he adds, “rather than make it a parallel judicial system to harass political powers in a targeted pattern and anti-democratic way.”

Mehboob seconds him. “The present government should change the NAB law, end discretionary and extraordinary powers and make such inquiries time-barred to make NAB an independent body.”

Waqar Gillani

waqar gillani
The author is a staff reporter. He can be reached at [email protected]

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