The ousted prime minister Nawaz Sharif has now been convicted and punished by an accountability court in the Avenfield Flats Reference. In addition to imposing a hefty pecuniary penalty, the court sentenced PML-N supremo to 10 years rigorous imprisonment for owning assets beyond his known income. His daughter Maryam has been awarded 7-year imprisonment for “aiding, assisting and abetting” him. His son-in-law retired Captain Safdar has also been given one year jail term. Maryam Nawaz, who is Nawaz Sharif’s political heir apparent, is also ineligible to contest the upcoming polls. This corruption reference was one of the four references filed against Nawaz Sharif and other members of Sharif family in the accountability court by NAB in compliance with the Panama case verdict delivered by the apex court last year. The apex court had directed the accountability court to conclude these references within six months. However, it took the court almost one year to finally decide this reference.

This verdict will certainly add to the troubles of embattled PML-N on the eve of general elections. This truncated party appears to be in no position of making any significant breakthrough in these polls. However, it is good thing that PML-N, despite all odds, has decided to actively contest the general elections rather than boycotting them. Moreover, PML-N supremo Nawaz Sharif has also announced that he would arrive in Pakistan on Friday. So he would surrender to the concerned legal authorities in the country. Indeed, both of these decisions will help save the ailing political party from an instant collapse.

Besides various PML-N leaders, many others are currently trying to give an impression that the accountability court has exonerated Nawaz Sharif from the corruption charges by not convicting him under Section 9(a)(iv) of National Accountability Ordinance (NAO) 1999. This clause applies if a person obtains or seeks any property or pecuniary advantage through corrupt, dishonest and illegal means. This is one of the several forms of ‘corruption’ and ‘corrupt practices’ provided under Section 9 of NAO 1999. In this case, Nawaz Sharif has been convicted under Section 9(a)(v) of NAO 1999. Under this clause, a person is said to have committed the offence of corruption and corrupt practices if he or any of his dependent owns or possesses assets disproportionate to his known sources of income. In fact, establishing the ownership or possession of assets beyond one’s income is an important tool to prove a white-collar crime against individuals, especially the public office holders, worldwide. The Panama case against Nawaz Sharif was primarily a typical ‘assets beyond means’ case. And he miserably failed in plausibly reconciling the expensive London properties owned by his children to his known sources of income. This certainly gave rise to a strong legal presumption that he had been involved in the corrupt practices.

At present, a lot of people are viewing the Panama case, and the recent conviction against Nawaz Sharif by an accountability court, a dawn of a rigorous accountability derive against the corrupt but powerful individuals in Pakistan. But to many, these moves are mere a tool of ‘political engineering’ to make PML-N politically inactive and irrelevant in the country. As a matter of fact, the word ‘accountability’ has been one of the most popular political slogans in Pakistan since its inception. However, most of the accountability drives in the country have more been the typical witch-hunting exercises – victimising one’s political opponents for obvious reasons. Therefore, in the absence of political will and required resolution on the part of their formulators, all the accountability regimes have been failing to give rise to some vibrant accountability institutions in Pakistan.

General (r) Pervez Musharraf announced his so-called seven-point agenda soon after coming to power in 1999. Ensuring swift and across-the-board accountability in Pakistan was an essential part of this agenda. For this purpose, replacing the Ehtesab Act, 1997, he readily promulgated his much-trumpeted NAB Ordinance, 1999 in the country. However, this law too – like its predecessor – failed to effectively curb corruption. Political pragmatism and expediency instantly overshadowed his entire accountability drive as soon as he decided to promulgate the notorious the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) in 2007. His policy of political reconciliation was also equally pursued by all succeeding political regimes afterwards.

Section 25 of the NAB Ordinance, 1999 contains the ‘Plea Bargain’ and ‘Voluntary Return’ provisions. These provisions empowers the chairman NAB to release, before or after the commencement of trial, any person accused of any offence under this ordinance if he returns the assets or gains acquired through corruption or corrupt practices. At the same time, under section 10 of this ordinance, a person who commits the offence of corruption can also be punished with imprisonment up to 14 years, with or without fine. However, it became a common practice with NAB that once any person accused of corruption returns a portion of ill-gotten money under a plea bargain; he is hardly punished by an accountability court.

It is a fact that our judicial system as well as the accountability institutions is too inefficient and weak to apprehend and rigorously punish individuals involved in the corrupt practices. There are also some inherent flaws in the NAO 1999. This is the reason corrupt individuals have been going scot-free in the country most of the time. It is indeed a paradoxical situation that the very judicial-cum-accountability regime, which has already utterly failed in punishing the ordinary criminals (Allah Dittas), becomes instantly strong and efficient enough to dislodge, disqualify and punish a serving prime minister. This instant resurrection of the dilapidated judicial structure in Pakistan raised many eyebrows. The apex court exercised its controversial extraordinary jurisdiction to oust Nawaz Sharif. It was also quite an unusual thing to form a JIT, comprising individuals from various intelligence and investigative agencies, to probe multiple corruption allegations against Nawaz Sharif in Panama case. The Avenfield Reference is the very first corruption case which has yet been proved against Nawaz Sharif. But he was not only removed from premiership but also disqualified for life by the apex court even much earlier.

Noticeably, the entire accountability process in Pakistan is currently just revolving around PML-N and its various leaders. PPP, another status quo party looks absolutely immune to this wave of accountability. The last PPP government has been identified as the most corrupt regime in the history of the country. Internationally, it was referred to as a ‘Kleptocracy’. In 2012, Transparency International claimed that Pakistan had lost more than Rs8.5 trillion in corruption, tax evasion and bad governance during PPP’s five year rule (2008-2013). Similarly, in 2012, the then chairman NAB revealed the starting figure of daily corruption in Pakistan which just hovered around Rs12 billion. In this way, the annual figure simply touches Rs4000 billion to Rs5000 billion. During this period, the unique stories of corruption and plunder of national wealth have constantly been surfacing one after the other. The media brought to light many mega-corruption scandals like the Rental Power Projects scam, NICL scam, Hajj corruption scandal, Pakistan steel Mills scam, LPG quota scam, Ephedrine case, BOP scam, OGRA scam etc.Regrettably, our accountability institutions never seriously attempted to look into these scams.

Justifiably or otherwise, the Panama case has just set the accountability ball in Pakistan rolling. Now this process shouldn’t stop here. Politicos from other political parties, especially PPP and PML-Q, should also be scanned through this ‘accountability model’. Similar ‘assets beyond means’ cases should be filed in the apex court against these politicians too. Similar JITs should be formed to thoroughly scrutinize the details of the properties owned by these politicians no matter they are part of any popular or pro-change political party like PTI. If this accountability derive doesn’t extend beyond PML-N, and beyond July 25; it will simply be reckoned and remembered as another tricky tool of political engineering in Pakistan.

 

The writer is a lawyer and columnist based in Lahore.

mohsinraza.malik@ymail.com

@MohsinRazaMalik