NationalVOLUME 15 ISSUE # 20

From lockdown to lockup

Most politicians are in self-isolation as the country faces the Covid-19 pandemic, though they never miss a chance to score points on the disease. They have locked themselves down to avoid catching the virus but the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) has decided to accelerate its efforts and many top politicians may end up in lockups.

According to Railways Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmad, the NAB will complete its task before July 31. He predicted that all politicians, who are on bail on health grounds in the wake of the pandemic, would be arrested. The NAB swoop will intensify political friction in the country. The opposition accuses the government of coercion to silence its leaders through the NAB, while the government says it is an independent and autonomous institution, which is free to act against any person. The opposition has been demanding the abolishment of the NAB since the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) government has come to power. It is the only issue on which it is willing to cooperate with the government. However, if the government abolishes or defangs the NAB, it will malign its image as it has come to power on the slogan of strict accountability in the country.

Even some allies of the government are not happy with the NAB. The Chaudhrys of Gujrat, whose party is an important ally of the ruling party in the Punjab, threatened to quit the government after the NAB started an inquiry against them in a 20-year-old case. However, Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid leaders Shujaat Hussain and Pervez Elahi have approached the Lahore High Court against the inquiry into alleged misuse of authority, assets beyond means and wilful default under National Accountability Ordinance 1999. Like the opposition, they have also questioned the credibility and partiality of the NAB and alleged it was being used for political engineering. The NAB investigation against the Chaudhrys has also created doubts about the survival of the Punjab government of Chief Minister Usman Buzdar. Some say the probe aims at reducing their nuisance value and undermining their “blackmailing” position.

On the other hand, the NAB has finalised another corruption reference against former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, his brother Shahbaz Sharif and daughter Maryam Nawaz for money laundering and assets beyond means. It has also opened an investigation against the Sharif family for “illegally acquiring” hundreds of acres of land in Raiwind. The government also claimed to have found fresh evidence against opposition leader Shahbaz Sharif and his sons. They allegedly established several fake companies in the names of their employees, which were used for “unlawful transactions” to whiten black money. The source of their income were telegraphic transfers (TTs) sent to them by poor employees of their companies. Nisar Gill and Ali Ahmed, close friends and class-fellows of Salman Shahbaz, were appointed directors in the Chief Minister’s Office, and were involved in the illegal activities. A company used for illegal transactions was Nisar Trading Concern, registered in the name of Rashid Karamat, an employee of Sharif Feed Mills, while another company, Khan Traders, was registered in the name of the father of Shakeel, an employee of the Ramzan Sugar Mills of the Sharifs. As per documentary proof, Rashid Karamat, the resident of a slum near Gulberg, Lahore, was a procurement assistant earning Rs 18,000 per month. Two employees of Shahbaz Sharif, Masroor Anwar and Shoaib Qamar, transferred big amounts from the accounts of Nisar Trading Concern and Khan Traders to the personal accounts of Shahbaz Sharif and Hamza, and copies of their CNICs (Computerized National Identity Cards) were available with the bank branches concerned.

According to investigations, assets of Shahbaz Sharif grew 70 times while that of his son 8,000 times in the last 10 years, when he was the chief minister of the largest province of the country. Over Rs16 million was deposited in the account of Shahbaz, who then transferred the money to his wife Tehmina Durrani, and the amount was used for purchasing property in Whispering Pines Villas. Another amount was transferred to an account of Hamza Shahbaz, who transferred it to the account of his wife and used the money to purchase properties in Johar Town, Lahore.

It appears Shahbaz Sharif will be arrested soon. However, Railways Minister Sheikh Rashid has claimed that Shahbaz could avoid the arrest by changing his “software.” His remarks have made the accountability process more doubtful.

PPP Co-chairperson Asif Ali Zardari, who is on bail on medical grounds, could also be arrested over allegations of money laundering and corruption. Zardari, his sister Faryal Talpur and others face charges of corruption through fake bank accounts and embezzlement. Zardari was under detention on charges of money laundering.

Despite the fresh action, people have lost trust in the accountability process and NAB’s ability to recover money from accused. Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is a glaring example. He was let off the hook even after he had been convicted by court. However, speculation is rife that he had paid money before leaving the country. An analyst told his viewers in a live show that Nawaz Sharif had left the country after paying Rs500b but refused to pay another Rs500b after reaching London. However, Shahbaz Sharif has rubbished the report. Former President Asif Ali Zardari is also said to have entered into a plea bargain after almost all co-accused in the mega fake accounts case have agreed to return the ill-gotten money. There are also rumours that the younger Sharif is also in the process of entering into a secret deal with the government, under which he will pay a handsome amount. Some say he has already struck a deal to save his political heir, Hamza Shahbaz.

It is a fact that people are fed up with the accountability mantra and demand resolution to their problems. Instead of empty rhetoric, the government should focus on practical measures to resolve their issues.