A farce gone too far by Zahid Hussain

THE latest Supreme Court ruling is a damning indictment of the National Accountability Bureau’s (NAB) conduct and the ongoing political witch-hunt. The country’s top anti-graft watchdog is accused not only of trampling on human rights, freedom and human dignity but also of becoming an instrument of political engineering.

It is a devastating blow to the image of the organisation whose credibility was already in question. The allegations of its high-handedness and partisan approach are not new but the latest ruling by a two-member bench of the apex court raises broader questions about a system that props up such corrupted institutions.

There has never been any illusion regarding the claim of NAB being an autonomous body but even the veneer of impartiality has now been blown off. Since its formation by Gen Musharraf’s military government, it has been used as a tool for political blackmailing and manipulation.

Remember how graft charges were used to buy the loyalties of politicians? Charges of corruption were dropped when loyalties shifted and those previously accused were overnight inducted into the cabinet. Musharraf had declared that NAB had been established to put the fear of God in the hearts of the corrupt. But it was never to be.

It is rare for an anti-graft body to have such wide-ranging powers.

Such practices may have continued under successive governments, but NAB’s partisanship and what Justice Maqbool Baqar in his ruling has described as the “capricious exercise of the power to arrest” is unprecedented. It’s not a coincidence that almost every opposition leader who matters is being investigated by NAB; many of them have already spent several months in detention without being formally charged.

Yet there has hardly been any instance of anyone from the ruling coalition being meted out the same treatment despite the fact that many of them have held public office under successive dispensations and have been accused of not having a clean record. They are declared kosher once they join the ruling clique. As Justice Baqar pointed out, “The bureau seems reluctant in proceeding against people on one side of the political divide even in respect of financial scams of massive proportion”.

Such arbitrary use of sweeping powers of arrest is now being effectively used not only against opposition political leaders but also against bureaucrats, businessmen, and even mediapersons. It is apparent, and as the court in its ruling noted, the bureau has been operating beyond its mandate of investigating only those holders of public office who have been accused of graft thus allowing the body to operate above the law. It is rare for an anti-graft body to have such wide-ranging powers.

Perhaps the biggest nightmare of every civil servant is a call by NAB. It is not exclusively about graft; any decision taken by them can put them in trouble. There are many senior civil servants who have been in NAB’s detention for months without any charge. There have been many instances of officials being hounded even after having been retired for more than a decade.

Vice chancellors of state universities have actually been detained for decisions pertaining to the hiring of lower staff. Surely, there have been some cases of wrongdoing and corruption involving bureaucrats, but questioning every civil servant for decisions they take in their official capacity makes everyone nervous.

But the real question is what makes NAB such a dreaded organisation and where does it derive its power from. In recent years, it has extended its area of operation; that could not have been possible without the encouragement of some other powerful institutions.

Surely NAB has turned into an effective weapon in the PTI government’s armoury in its battle against the opposition. But the allegation that it is being deployed as an instrument of political engineering has much deeper connotations. Such an inference is generally directed at the all-powerful security agencies that have often been blamed for political manipulation.

It is quite significant what Justice Baqar stated in his ruling: “We have come to this unfortunate pass, in most part, because of the repeated direct unconstitutional interventions, and manipulations by undemocratic forces.” That raises questions about the alleged nexus between the anti-graft body and “undemocratic” forces. The recent actions taken by NAB reinforce the perception of its being used for political engineering. It is an extremely damaging image for an organisation responsible for fighting corruption.

Intriguingly, the bureau is still functioning under an ordinance after two decades of its formation; there has not been any effort by successive elected governments to legislate a framework under which NAB should function. The sweeping powers of arrest and detention, without any formal charge, are a travesty of justice that needs to be struck down.

In fact, there is a need to revisit all NAB provisos that violate the basic norms of justice, making the body controversial. Although NAB is supposed to be an autonomous body, in effect it has never been so. The Supreme Court ruling rightly pointed out that the “principle of trichotomy of power and the concept of devolution have been trampled with contempt”.

Therefore, it is imperative to overhaul the bureau, make it independent of political pressure, and remove its inhuman face. One of the most crucial aspects where NAB fails modern legal standards rests in the structure of the organisation. The NAB chair has been vested with unprecedented powers that can easily be misused. It is equally important to ensure that the head of the organisation is a person of integrity with high ethical standards.

However, the main question is whether the government is interested in reforming the bureau, which, as a consequence of extremely short-sighted thinking, the rulers seek to use as a political weapon against their opponents. This weapon can be used against those in government now, once they are out of power, or even to oust the government through political engineering. The opposition parties have learnt their lessons the hard way. There is no denial that corruption is a major problem affecting the political and democratic process in the country, and therefore there is a greater need for a strong accountability process. But NAB with its dubious practices cannot play that role. It is a farce that has gone too far.

The writer is an author and journalist.

zhussain100@yahoo.com

Twitter: @hidhussain

Published in Dawn, July 22nd, 2020

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