— Politicians, superior courts assail NAB as a tool of witch hunt that fails at prosecution
— Spokesman claims NAB’s performance ‘phenomenal’ under Justice Iqbal while facts say otherwise
ISLAMABAD: While the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) is in the news these days for its action in high-profile political cases, a delve into the performance reflects that under its chairman Justice (r) Javed Iqbal, it has failed to act as around 5,800 corruption cases involving amount of around Rs1.3 trillion embezzled by over 21,000 accused in Pakistan are still pending.
Despite tall claims, the premier anti-corruption watchdog has been under constant criticism from the superior courts for its failure to prosecute corrupt elements.
Politicians often criticise it as a government’s tool for witch hunt and victimisation of opponents. The recent example of grant of bail to former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam in Avenfield Apartments case provides impetus to such critique as the high court had termed that the accountability court’s decision may not be ‘sustainable’. The plea bargain is another example where the accused can buy freedom.
Sources in the NAB confided that the bureau has adopted a strategy of taking up high-profile cases and arrest top politicians only to attract media attention.
Questions have also been raised over the performance of NAB Chairman Justice (r) Javed Iqbal as despite taking the reins for over one year, he has been unable to bring in surgical and structural changes.
The NAB chief has also made it almost impossible to get verified data from the bureau.
The rot in the NAB could be gauged by the fact that in 2017, a scrutiny committee headed by former establishment secretary Tahir Shahbaz had served show-cause notices to over 100 senior officials of the NAB who faced removal from service due to lack of requisite experience in dealing white-collar crime.
In the notices, the officials, including some serving on the posts of director general, had been asked to submit their replies within a week’s time by the committee.
These officials, who had decided the fate of hundreds of accused in corruption cases, were facing an inquiry on the orders of the Supreme Court which formed the scrutiny committee recently.
The then establishment secretary had presented a report before the Supreme Court in March 2017 in a suo motu case on controversial appointments in NAB. The initial report presented by NAB before the committee regarding the status of about 100 officers also revealed their lack of requisite experience in the field of investigation.
According to the secretary’s report, which was made a part of the Supreme Court’s judgement issued on March 31, 2017, four director generals also did not meet the required criteria for holding the post — Husnain Ahmed (the then DG headquarters), Zahir Shah (then DG operations), Altaf Bawany (DG Karachi) and retired Brig Farooq Naser Awan (DG Khyber Pakhtunkhwa).
According to the NAB sources, action had to be taken against 83 officials of the NAB.
“Till date, 22 officials of grade-18/19 were removed from service under self-accountability. 34 officials of the same category were given a minor penalty. Now the cases of grade 20-22 are still under process,” the official said.
When contacted, NAB spokesman Nawazish Ali Asim said that under Justice Iqbal, the NAB’s performance had been ‘phenomenal’.
According to the spokesman, NAB during the past eleven months has arrested 476 accused, authorised 216 complaint verifications, ordered 238 inquiries and gave a headway for 79 investigations.
“NAB has also filed 340 corruption references in accountability courts and convicted 72 accused persons. It has recovered Rs 2,410 million,” the spokesman added.
According to the data available with Pakistan Today, the performance of the prosecution team of the NAB appears dismal during the past three years with the inclusion of former chairman Qamar Zaman Chaudhry’s tenure. According to the details, the NAB filed 733 references in accountability courts during the past three years.
In 2015, 238 references were filed out of which the NAB won decisions in 45 references. Applications under section 265-K in favour of NAB were 54 while writ petitions filed in high courts were 1,656 against the NAB. The petitions that decided in favour of NAB were 780 while appeals filed in high courts were 186. Out of these, only 34 were decided in the bureau’s favour.
The cases filed in Supreme Court during 2015 were 221 out of which 129 were decided in NAB’s favor. There were 40 plea bargains during the trials.
In 2016, 320 references were filed out of which the NAB won decisions in only 40 references. Applications under section 265-K in favour of NAB were 98 while writ petitions filed in high courts were 2381 against NAB. The petitions decided in favour of NAB were 1371 while appeals filed in high courts were 117. Out of these, only 50 were decided in favour of NAB.
The cases filed in the Supreme Court during 2016 were 92 out of which 66 were decided in NAB’s favor. There were 123 plea bargains during these trials.
In 2017, only 175 references were filed, out of which the NAB won decisions in only 56 references. Applications under section 265-K in favour of NAB were 85 while writ petitions filed in high courts were 2,066 against the NAB. The petitions decided in favour of NAB were meagerly 1,562 while appeals filed in high courts were 143. Out of these, only 52 were decided in favour of NAB.
The cases filed in Supreme Court during 2017 were 27 out of which all 27 were decided in NAB’s favour. There were 89 plea bargains during this time.
PLEA BARGAIN, VOLUNTARY RETURN:
Plea bargain and voluntary return are two of the tools available to NAB to recover looted money from the corrupt and return it to the national exchequer.
One example is quiet enough to understand how NAB officials have allegedly struck secret deals with the corrupt elements and ‘freed them’ with impunity.
Syed Masoom Shah, aka SMS who was the special assistant to former KP CM Ameer Haider Hoti, was arrested on corruption charges in August 2015. However, rather than squeezing him and getting all the money recovered, the NAB ‘struck a deal’ with the accused of only Rs258.7 million through a plea bargain.
Section 25 (a) of The National Accountability Ordinance 1999 says that if “a holder of public office or any other person, prior to the authorisation of investigation against him, voluntarily comes forward and offers to return the assets or gains”, then the NAB chairman has the authority to determine the amount. Once it has been deposited, it “discharge[s] such person from all his liability in respect of the matter or transaction in issue”.
A plea bargain, on the other hand, is treated as a conviction. Any person who avails this provision shall be “deemed to have been convicted for an offence” and will, therefore, stand disqualified to hold a public office for a period of ten years. They will also be disqualified from seeking an election or holding a job with the government.
They are also disqualified from getting a loan from a bank or some other financial institution controlled by the government for a period of ten years. In this case also, the NAB chairman is given the authority to accept an offer from the accused, discharge him of his liabilities and release him.
While NAB had been given these extensive powers to effectively combat corruption in the country, it appears that over the years, the NAB has been too eager to ‘strike deals’ with those under investigation, especially through voluntary return.
Between January 2006 and June 2015, NAB’s plea bargain and voluntary returns data shows that while 587 cases were settled on the basis of plea bargain, more than 1,700 cases were those in which the accused returned the money on a voluntary basis, which means that they were free to continue with their jobs and hold their offices, while they would also be eligible for new loans.
A pile of some 5,800 corruption cases is pending that involves around Rs1.3 trillion embezzled by over 21,000 accused in Pakistan, it has been learnt.
According to the NAB data, 179 mega corruption cases were lodged against top politicians, industrialists, traders, senior bureaucrats and prominent politicians, including former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, ex-Punjab CM Shehbaz Sharif, ex-president Asif Ali Zardari, former prime ministers Yousuf Raza Gilani and Raja Pervez Ashraf, ex-federal minister Dr Asim Hussain (a case under trial and two others under investigation), former prime minister Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, Punjab Assembly Speaker Chaudhry Pervez Elahi, former KP CM Amir Haider Khan Hoti, former Balochistan CM Aslam Raisani, former communications minister Arbab Jahangir and his wife Begum Asma Arbab, MPA Sardar Asif Nakai, MNA Syed Iftikhar Shah, former minister Murid Kazim, former chairpersons of NICL Ayaz Khan and Javed Akram and former chairman of ETPB Asif Hashim.
Among the 179 cases of mega corruption, 22 are related to financial corruption, 27 to housing societies and 71 pertain to corruption and misuse of authority by the high-ranking public officials.