The ruling alliance has amended the National Accountability Ordinance, under which, the National Accountability Bureau’s deputy chairperson will be the head in the absence of the chairman, as is the case now, and he would be appointed by the federal government instead of the President of Pakistan.

Then, an officer will have to face five years in jail if an accused is acquitted by courts on the grounds that the case was initiated with mala fide intentions or based on false or fabricated evidence. It will clearly frighten NAB officers and they would hesitate to file cases because white-collar crimes are difficult to prove even in advanced countries of the world. Also, the NAB’s conviction rate is 66pc, according to its own claim, while experts say it is below 50pc. Even if the NAB figure is accepted, 34pc of its officers will be jailed as 34pc of its accused are freed by courts. The law is also discriminatory in nature because no personnel of police or other law enforcement agencies is punished even if criminal charges against an accused do not prove in a court of law. Then, higher courts also overturn judgments of lower courts in many cases. Should judges of lower courts also be punished?

Under the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) (Amendment) Act, 2022, NAB officers have also been banned from making inquiries or investigations public – otherwise they would have to face a prison term of a year as well as a penalty of Rs1 million. The deputy of the anti-graft body would temporarily replace their retired chief. If a deputy chairperson is unavailable, some other senior official from the department would take over the temporary slot. The NAB deputy chairperson would now be appointed by the federal government instead of the President. The process of consultation for the new NAB chief would kick off two months ahead of their appointment. The consultation period would be completed within 45 days. If the prime minister and the opposition leader in the National Assembly do not reach a consensus on the nominee for the NAB top slot, the matter would be forwarded to a parliamentary committee, which would be assigned the task of finalising a name within 30 days. An individual would be appointed the NAB chairperson for a period of three years only once. Decisions related to taxes, federal and provincial cabinets, councillors as well as the State Bank of Pakistan no longer fall under the NAB purview.

In case there is no financial gain and just a procedural error, any issue of federal and provincial cabinets would not fall under the NAB jurisdiction. The NAB has also been barred from probing tax-related issues of federal and provincial governments. Besides, regulatory bodies formed under the laws of federal and provincial governments have been taken out of the domain of the anti-graft body. The changes include the abolishment of Section 14 that empowered the NAB to penalise individuals on mere suspicion. The NAB chief will be able to issue warrants in case the suspect escaped or there was adequate proof of testimonies being “wasted”.

Under the new amendments, an accountability court would have a judge appointed for three years and cases would be disposed of in a year. For the removal of an accountability court judge, consultations with the chief justice of the high court concerned would be necessary. The amendment to Section 36 says: “If the accused has been acquitted by the court on the grounds that the case was initiated with mala fide intentions or based on false or fabricated evidence, the person responsible shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to five years and shall also be liable to fine.”

Likewise, the new amendments also restrict the issuance of public statements. “No official of the NAB, in any capacity, shall make any statement in public or media regarding the person involved in any inquiry or investigation conducted by the NAB until a reference has been filed against the person,” says Section 33F. In case of giving a public statement, the NAB official could be punished with a minimum one-month jail and a fine of one million rupees. The most significant amendment was made in Section 24 of NAO 1999, which regulates the NAB chairman’s power of arrest. The NAB chairman’s power of arrest was widely misused in the past. The chairman may issue an arrest warrant during an investigation if the accused is intentionally or willfully not joining the investigation after repeated notices; the accused attempted to abscond; if there are sufficient grounds that the accused may tamper with prosecution evidence and if there is sufficient information about a repetition or continuation of an offence under the ordinance. Likewise, the NAB could detain an accused for 14 days during an investigation. Earlier, the NAB could detain an accused for 90 days. However, President Arif Alvi had declined to give his assent to the amendments, calling them “regressive” in nature.

In a significant development, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has asked the government to improve the anti-corruption institutional mechanism in the country. According to media reports, the IMF wants to make it a part of the prior actions list to revive its loan programme. However, the government has asked it to exclude the strengthening of anti-corruption institutions from the list of prior actions, arguing that it did not fall within the purview and the mandate of the Fund.

The NAB has been criticized by courts in the past. The government has changed the law, according to its needs. It is hoped that the Supreme Court of Pakistan will examine the amendments and decide the issue once and for all for an effective and unbiased accountability process in the country.