Dec 16, 2009

Only in Pakistan

By Asif Ezdi

Corruption is a world-wide phenomenon. What makes Pakistan unique is that in the last few years the state itself has been following policies that facilitate corruption by the high and mighty. It has done so by passing legislation placing the guilty outside the reach of the law and enabling them to keep their ill-gotten gains and by government actions that impede proper investigation of the crime and the efficient prosecution of those charged.

Only in Pakistan did the ruler promulgate a law giving a blanket amnesty, in the name of national reconciliation, to hundreds accused of corruption in return for their support to his staying in power. Only in Pakistan is the highest office of state held by someone who stands accused of having pocketed the highest amount of public money in the history of the country and who is now taking cover behind his official position to evade a trial. Only in Pakistan did a democratic government propose legislation that would have decriminalised graft generally only in order to enable the head of state and a few of his cronies to escape justice. Only in Pakistan is the ministry responsible for fighting crime headed by someone who is himself charged with crimes involving large-scale corruption. Only in Pakistan did a parliamentary committee approve a bill – later withdrawn – giving all parliamentarians protection from corruption proceedings without the consent of their peers. The list of government actions to condone and facilitate corruption goes on and on.

The proposed new accountability law continues the same honourable tradition. It is a huge fraud upon the nation because it seeks to weaken the existing anti-corruption legislation for the benefit the corrupt. The new law will reduce the scope of the offence; curtail the investigative powers of the state; improve the chances of the corrupt decamping with their loot while investigations are taking place; lessen the chances of their conviction; reduce penalties, if convicted; and enable those who are convicted to return to public office – and continue plundering national wealth – at an early date. In short, the country is to be made even safer for the corrupt.

Some of the above issues were raised by the opposition parties in the National Assembly's Standing Committee on Law and Justice. But the revised bill prepared by the Law Ministry introduces only a few minor changes while retaining the most objectionable parts of the bill. The opposition has only focused on one of them: the limitation period of three years after a holder of public office leaves office. After this period, he cannot be prosecuted. What this means is that while there is no time limit for the trial of a common thief, an elected representative or civil servant who steals public money goes scot-free in three years.

The opposition parties, PML-N included, have kept an eloquent silence on the other provisions of the government bill meant to benefit the corrupt.

First, the offence of corruption has been redefined to exclude the misuse of authority to seek a benefit and the possession of unexplained wealth (one of the charges against Zardari).

Second, the accountability commission will be stripped of the power to arrest the accused and to freeze his assets. Besides, corruption is to be a bailable offence and the accused will not be liable to arrest "notwithstanding anything contained in any law." This would facilitate their absconding.

Third, the investigative powers of the accountability commission will be severely restricted. The power to seek the assistance of foreign governments has also been curtailed.

Fourth, an accused will be automatically acquitted if he returns his ill-gotten gains. Even if convicted, the maximum punishment is only seven years (in place of the present 14 years) and after five years (instead of 21 years under the present law), he will be again free to hold elective office, including that of President.

Fifth, another dirty trick is that when the trials of those accused of corruption under the NAB Ordinance are resumed, they will take place under the far more lax provisions of the new law. This means, for example, that those like Zardari who are accused of owning property in excess of their lawful means will go scot-free because it will no longer be a crime.

Clearly, the new accountability law has been tailor-made for the corrupt politician. And if he happens to be the President, the law will not even apply to him because the definition of "holder of public office" does not cover a serving president. This means that Zardari will not be liable for any acts done by him while he occupies the Presidency.

As for past deeds, Zardari claims immunity under Article 248 of the Constitution. This has been endorsed by Nawaz Sharif and Aitzaz Ahsan. Both of them have called upon Ministers who were NRO beneficiaries to resign. Consistency and logic would require that they should also make the same demand to Zardari. But these are not virtues for which our politicians are famous.

By vowing last month to resign if his wife was found to have been an NRO beneficiary, Gilani suggested that ministers and others holding official positions who claim to have been acquitted under the now defunct law should resign. But they are still clinging to their posts, because they have Zardari's blessings; and there is no sign yet that their prosecution is about to be resumed. One of them, our high commissioner in London, was caught on camera in a surreptitious operation to spirit away documents allegedly linking Zardari with corruption. Besides, no investigation has been initiated into cases of graft recently reported by the media, such as the Agosta submarines case and the Islamabad land scandal involving Zardari.

There are now unmistakable signals that even Zardari's backers in Washington, on whom he depends so much, are beginning to seriously doubt his political longevity and do not buy the myth nurtured by his camp that civilian rule in Pakistan is under threat. Deputy Secretary of State Jack Lew told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on 9 December that the Obama administration was focussing on developing relationships with "institutions" rather than individuals. Petraeus similarly expressed the view that civilian rule was not threatened though Zardari himself faced "challenges."

Zardari is mistaken if he thinks he can avoid criminal cases by claiming immunity under Article 248 and hang on to the presidency. The presumption of innocence can only be claimed by those who are willing to prove it in court. The options before Zaradri are not many. The most honourable, short of resignation, would be for him to agree to an immediate repeal of the constitutional immunity given by the constitution and face trial. If he is found not guilty, he would be vindicated. But the trouble is that he himself probably does not believe in his innocence.

The transition to a post-Zardari political configuration has begun. The only question is whether it will be quick or slow, smooth or bumpy. If Gilani plays his part, it can be short and relatively trouble-free, which is what Pakistan badly needs. He is the only one who has the requisite constitutional authority to take the country out of the present muddle. If he does not rise to the occasion, the crisis will only deepen further.

In his essay "On Duties," the Roman statesman Cicero wrote 2,000 years ago: "The administration of the government, like the office of a trustee, must be conducted for the benefit of those entrusted to one's care, not of those to whom it is entrusted." Our political class knows better. For them, the first duty of those in authority is to benefit themselves. No government in Pakistan has followed this precept more assiduously than the present one and no individual more brazenly than Zardari. As long as he remains in the Presidency, the corrupt will continue to have a powerful patron.

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