The death of a professor of University of Sargodha in handcuffs has sparked countrywide outrage against the National Accountability Bureau (NAB). Calls are also growing for amendments to the NAB law, which does not allow politicians and the rich accused to be handcuffed, while an ordinary accused is chained even after death.
A picture of the body in handcuffs was flashed by all news channels and newspapers, which outraged people, who have seen politicians and elites appearing before courts without handcuffs, even after committing corruption, worth billions of rupees. NAB had arrested the accused in October in connection with “opening illegal campuses and minting millions from students.” Even if he had committed corruption, he was a professor and deserved better treatment from the nation. His handcuffs should have been removed when he had suffered a heart attack, on the way to hospital or even after death. The incident has once again brought NAB into the limelight, which has been under fire from opposition parties for selective accountability.
The professor’s death allowed the opposition to target NAB and the government. Senate Standing Committee for Human Rights Chairman Mustafa Nawaz took notice of the death and summoned the NAB director-general and the IG Prisons Punjab in person. “A person’s death under custody is a grave matter. It is evident that the law is being used against the weak. What sort of accountability is this, the scope of which does not extend beyond students and politicians?” he said. Even Federal Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry took a jibe at NAB and said politicians, who had plundered billions of rupees, were roaming freely but a weak person died in handcuffs.
The NAB law grants unprecedented power to its chairman, who can order the arrest of an accused even before the completion of investigations. Some accused are arrested during investigations and some not. It maligns the image of NAB. It has been investigating many ministers for some time but only leaders of opposition parties have been arrested. NAB may have some solid reason for their arrest, but it has never explained why it has arrested opposition leaders only and spared ministers, who are also facing corruption probes. According to statistics, of the 79 ongoing inquiries, investigations or prosecution of cases of politicians, the largest number, 29 or 37pc, pertains to PPP affiliates, followed by 21 or 27pc linked to the PML-N. The PTI has a share of 10 or 13pc in various stages. Among government servants and businessmen, who are facing NAB accountability or arrests, are alleged to be involved in cases primarily relating to one opposition politician or the other.
Experts say arrests by NAB raise questions of the even-handedness of the institution. Research shows a total of eight high-profile cases of politicians who continue to be in NAB custody in the July-September 2018 period and all but one case pertains to the opposition parties, with four from the PML-N and three from the PPP.
The Supreme Court of Pakistan has also found flaws in the NAB law and ordered the parliament to amend them. In its latest judgment, the court ordered an amendment to the accountability law which allows voluntary return of plundered money by February 2019, or else the court would pass an appropriate order. A Supreme Court bench, headed by Justice Sheikh Azmat Saeed, observed that it was tantamount to confession of offence if an accused voluntary returned part of ill-gotten money and that it could not undo the crime. Justice Asif Saeed Khosa said the court could strike down the voluntary return law since it was an admission of committing of an offence, adding that there was no room in the law to waive criminal liability through an executive order. Voluntary return is an option under which an accused returns plundered money during investigations before the filing of a corruption reference in an accountability court. In case of a trial, plea bargain option is used for the purpose.
Chief Justice of Pakistan Mian Saqib Nisar has also hinted at reviewing plea bargain powers of the NAB chairman. He observed the discretionary powers of the NAB chairman in plea bargain could not be unlimited. The Supreme Court has also suggested lawmakers consider amending the National Accountability Ordinance (NAO) 1999, to enable an accused person to apply for bail to an accountability court. Justice Asif Saeed Khosa also recommended revising the unrealistic timeframe of 30 days for the conclusion of a trial under the NAB law. The court has already constituted a larger bench to consider if constitutional jurisdiction to grant bail should be invoked when there is a statutory ouster of courts to grant bail pending appeal against special courts, like the accountability court, particularly in cases involving grant of bail by suspending the sentence and release on bail during pendency of the appeal.
After directions from the court, the government and the opposition have started deliberations to amend the NAB law. Under the new proposals, the physical remand period of the accused could be reduced to 14 days from three months. Besides, the accused could also be entitled to bail. A proposal is also under consideration that no accused could be arrested before the filing of a reference or a court verdict. The opposition has proposed the formation of a parliamentary committee to make decisions, in case the accused is a parliamentarian. It also proposed a special commission to view evidence against an accused and if it is satisfied, NAB could arrest the accused. The opposition also wants a timeframe for NAB to conclude a case.
Fair accountability is the foremost agenda of Prime Minister Imran Khan. He should revamp NAB under the light of court observations. It is his prime responsibility to make laws to ensure fair elections and accountability, if he wants to put Pakistan on the road to progress and prosperity.