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NAB Amendment Ordinance Is Imran Khan’s Most Enlightened U-Turn

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Awais Babar writes that the government did nothing to amend the NAB law despite complaints from several individuals who accused the accountability body of mistreatment, but it was finally amended after Imran Khan noticed stagnation in the economic sphere due to NAB’s shenanigans. 

Brigadier Asad Munir (late) gave away his life, countless government officers suffered behind the bars, some even escaped into their villages awaiting their natural death, all imploring for justice from the draconian NAB law. No one heard their cries and the people who were indirectly suffering until the affairs of the state came to a standstill were ignored. Finally, the law has been softened, but to whose advantage?

The government has been reacting to every challenge, but not meeting it. The recent change in the NAB law is also one such reaction; although it is being deemed as something ‘good’ for the country and it might very well be. Nonetheless, the intentions behind bringing this ordinance are being doubted. It is being alleged that these changes are brought with the intention to subdue the prospective inquiries awaiting various members of the government. Is that so?

There is a background to this scenario. Not too long ago, the NAB Chairman voiced that now the anti-graft body will look into the possible investigations pertaining to government, “winds are changing direction”. This ordinance seems like an antidote to the possible threat whirled by the Chairman. It must also not be forgotten that in what appears to be a grand scheme, NAB was half incapacitated when its Chairman was apparently being blackmailed on his scandal with a woman into following orders.

Apprehending the threat which seemed real, the NAB Chairman approached Javed Chaudhry and met him in a hope to get his version in advance through an OP-ED by a credible journalist Javed Chaudhry. The article by Javed Chaudhry transpired at the very least that the Chairman feels threatened by the government and that his arm was being twisted.

With the article published, everyone was anticipating something to come up against the Chairman and it did. A controversial video of the Chairman with a woman who herself was an accused in NAB proceedings erupted. Obviously when one video of a scandal gets out, in all probability there exist more than one as the relationship in a scandal, which ironically is based on trust, is long enough to produce more damaging material to parties once the scandal is over.

Keeping that, apathy could quite clearly be seen in the body language of NAB Chairman since the release of his video and the breaking of that news on a private TV Channel the owner of whom at the time happened to be the advisor to PM on media affairs. Hence the impression that NAB has been made a ‘toothless’ body.

All in all, disregarding the benefit the government or opposition both may relish upon, the recent amendments in NAB law are good for the country and will have a positive impact overall for the reasons mentioned hereinafter.

The question is that what was so wrong about the NAB law that there was a hue and cry about changing it? Up until these amendments, legally speaking, the most powerful man in Pakistan was not the Prime Minister nor the Army Chief but it was the NAB Chairman.

Since the Chairman was powerful, the crown that he wore vicariously gave unfettered power to all its employees. Whatever information NAB sought from any department with respect to any person or institution on any matter whatsoever was readily provided to them due to the formidable body language that was explicit in its personnel. A NAB Chairman could arrest anyone he wanted or could empower anyone on his behalf to arrest anyone as long as the Chairman even ‘thought’ that ‘hey, I can smell some corruption here’; ‘Let us start digging’.

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Many people who would ordinarily go to courts to make their claims against an adversary, had started to look up to NAB for a quick outcome or even to come back at their foes with a stronger response. (I will write to NAB against you if you did not do this or that!) Initially, it started with anonymous letters against different businesses and government officers and out of nowhere one would suddenly receive a notice from NAB.

Usually, after an appearance or two, NAB would suddenly arrest the accused right in their headquarters. Whoever came to accompany the accused had no idea until late in the evening as to what may have been happening inside. The guy, a driver, a son, a brother would approach the police personnel deputed for security and inquire them as to how longer would the questions and answers take, it has been hours. This encounter would send vibes to officers in various departments that an officer Mr. X has been arrested because he signed so and so money bill and it is being presumed that he did so to acquire financial gain for himself. Naturally, other officers saw themselves in the officer behind the bar and would strategize a safer career from thence onwards.

It is my comprehension that PTI finally comprehended what Asif Ali Zardari said that NAB and economy cannot go parallel together and therefore their primary reason to bring in the amendments more likely seems the stagnation in the economic sphere not the fear of NAB.

For those who are terming it as another U-turn by Imran Khan and his party, I tend to agree with them. However, in my opinion, this is the most enlightened U-turn PTI may have taken thus far. No one is advocating that the accountability drive should be halted. Nevertheless, the way NAB was structured it was highly unlikely to yield any outcome in this matter. Most of the money NAB has recovered from various accused was under duress; the accused would rather go home than keep the money no matter how it was gotten.

Aside from the impact that the arrests of politicians created, the real negative impact had occurred at the governmental level as every decision encountered by a government official was screened in their mind through the NAB fear.

Provided that the law is ultimately promulgated, it will take away the power of arrest from Chairman NAB. For the protection of bureaucrats, a six-member scrutiny committee comprising the NAB chairman, cabinet and establishment secretaries, chairmen of the Federal Board of Revenue (FBR) and the Securities and Exchange Commission of Pakistan and a representative of law and justice division is formed and without its prior approval NAB cannot conduct any inquiry, investigation or arrest a government servant.

This is a very constructive development as now the government officers can somehow feel a bit guarded as there will be at least some discussion on a higher level if there is a need to arrest or not. It will also give the opportunity to NAB to go after real culprits and avoid the embarrassment of not having been able to prove the case before the court. In the longer run this step will make NAB more effective and less controversial.

Moreover, after the amendment, NAB shall not be able to take cognisance of matters where the alleged value of corruption is less than Rs.500 million. This substitution is efficacious to say the least as it will give countless officers breathing space to run the machinery of government since majority of them had a significantly lower budget to work with and yet NAB was found to be sniffing around.

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In the name of a broad term ‘corruption’, NAB had destined it upon itself to ferret something out of any individual or organisation, whether public office holder or not and all the more the onus was put on the accused to prove his innocence in the matter. Recent amendments will curtail this immoderate approach, a curtailment which was much needed as NAB, instead of cultivating the looted money, ended up cultivating the fear in people; that too in the people with the money.

Henceforth, only the matters strictly adhered to corruption in the sense of material gain shall be prosecuted and that too with respect to public office holders only. NAB shall not enjoy a parallel jurisdiction in the affairs which are more suitable for investigation by FBR, FIA and Securities and Exchange Commission of Pakistan; all these departments have an inherent system of complaints and punishments and/or fines appropriate to their customers.

It is certainly worth mentioning that a Bill was moved in Senate for amendment in NAB Ordinance in September, 2019 by Senator Farooq H Naek, a representative of Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). Looking at both the Bill and the amendment drafted by PTI in the form of an ordinance, one cannot help but notice that PTI has copied and pasted all the Bill in its amended ordinance.

It would have been a lot better for the PTI politically had it had recourse to the legislation already presented in the Senate and which is completely identical in essence to the desired outcome of amending the law. Doing so would have saved PTI from the criticism that the real intentions behind bringing forth these amendments was to save its own skin from possible investigations in the future of mega developmental projects such as BRT Peshawar. It would also have been a monumental opportunity for the government to enact a law with the consensus of all parties and revise its relationship with the opposition.

All in all, the amendments are likely to be good for the economy notwithstanding that they may also be advantageous for the PTI, perhaps even condemnatory for opposition parties and bureaucrats. Having said that, my reasons to appraise this development are neither economy nor the fear in bureaucracy. In my view, these developments are good for the justice system and will give an accused a fair opportunity to defend himself provided that the amendments are incorporated in the system practically.

Now that these amendments have come, after innumerable innocent people and their families have suffered and many years have gone by behind bars, it seems selfish to me personally that as a society we would even do good things for pecuniary benefits-economy. We would not do it for justice and rule of law. That is why I submit that the amendments in NAB law are good but for the wrong reasons.

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