A view of the main hall of Pakistan's Parliament House. Photo: AFP
A view of the main hall of Pakistan's Parliament House. Photo: AFP

Pakistan’s major political parties have joined hands to overthrow the country’s National Accountability Bureau (NAB), an autonomous anti-graft body that was enshrined in the constitution in 1999. They aim to replace it with a National Accountability Commission (NAC) that will have no powers of prosecution, as accountability courts will be abolished and corruption cases heard in ordinary lower courts.

With leaders from both the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) and opposition Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) facing high-profile graft cases in the NAB, the two have agreed that the new commission should only investigate federal institutions and that the country’s provinces should have their own accountability mechanism.

This last amendment is music to the PPP’s ears, with the party having made several abortive attempts in the past to have the NAB abolished in the face of persistent corruption claims against it in Sindh province, its main power base. High-profile cases involving PPP leaders include a probe against former federal minister Dr Asim Hussain in which US$4.62 billion is unaccounted for, and a US$500 million claim against Sharjeel Memon, a former provincial information minister.

The PPP had previously agreed to 53 out of a total 55 proposed changes to National Accountability Ordinance but suddenly withdrew its remaining objections on Wednesday, putting it in total agreement with the PML (N) on the way forward. It had wanted to bring judges and generals under the ambit of accountability but has dropped that demand. Other parties, namely Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), the Muttahida Qumi Movement Pakistan (MQMP) and Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) have reservations on some of the clauses of the bill and have suggested changes before it is placed before the National Assembly for approval.

The changes to the accountability ordinance also seek to shift the onus of proof from the accused to the prosecution, which would be a significant departure. Among the immediate beneficiaries will be the family of the recently disqualified PML(N) Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif. They are currently under trial in the NAB court for want of a valid “money trail” to prove that their huge assets abroad were acquired by lawful means. If the changes are passed into law, the new NAC will take over the case.

“The NAB’s under-trial cases will be moved to the proposed accountability commission as the government does not plan to close any NAB case or inquiry,” Federal Law Minister Zahid Hamid said on Wednesday while briefing a parliamentary committee.

The Supreme Court would no longer, by definition, be a Supreme Court

An angry tweet by the secretary general of Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf (PTI), Jehangir Khan Tareen, read: “After the black electoral law passed yesterday, another farce is being planned by Nawaz. A new NS-specific NAB law being drafted.”

There has indeed been a chain of what is being called “person-specific” legislation in Pakistan ever since the Supreme Court disqualified Nawaz in July following a probe into revelations contained in the so-called Panama Papers.

In October, the PML(N) forced through an Election Reform Bill that included a controversial clause that allows politicians disqualified from holding public office to lead political parties. The amendment enabled Nawaz to clinch presidency of the PML(N) despite being disqualified to hold any public office.

The PML(N) also intends to curtail the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court by tabling amendments to the constitution that grant right of appeal to respondents against the court’s decisions, with a “larger bench” being established to hear such appeals. The Supreme Court would no longer, by definition, be a Supreme Court.

National Assembly member Shireen Mazari, who is Chief Whip of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), brandished a copy of the proposed accountability legislation on a TV talk show on Thursday. She said the country’s rulers were intent on changing the spirit of the constitution and converting it into a “mafia document.”

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