Pressured by a public outcry and a media inquisition, the government has finally decided to amend controversial provisions governing plea bargains and voluntary returns in the National Accountability Ordinance (NAO) 1999. The newly proposed reform will fix many of the problems that existed in the first one – which was basically a get out of jail free card if you return some of the spoils of your corruption – but unless the National Accountability Bureau’s (NAB) changes its policy towards plea bargains and voluntary return deals, the new law will not make much of a difference either.

The new law will force some of that policy change hopefully. The ordinance promulgated by President Mamnoon Hussain is called the National Accountability (Amendment) Ordinance 2017, and the major changes it makes is that both plea bargains and voluntary return schemes require accountability court approval, bar public servants from pecuniary benefits and public office, and counts then as officially convicted for the record. The ordinance still has to make its way through standing committees and both houses of parliament, so there is some scope for change in the final version, but at least we can be assured that corrupt public servants who were caught in the act cannot get back into office ever again.

The present version covers most of the salient points requested by critics, however, the real problem is the way these schemes were used by the NAB. Instead of being used in select cases where the accused offers substantial benefit to the authorities which helps them apprehend other criminals, the schemes were struck with almost everyone who offered to return the money, presumably making the process of recovery easier for the NAB. This was so even if there existed a strong criminal case against the accused – as we say in the Balochistan finance secretary scenario.

There is still space for abuse in the new ordinance. Corrupt officials and general embezzlers could be kept out of office and declared ‘guilty’, but they could still avoid jail time which they deserve. Requiring the accountability court to sign off on this will make this more difficult, but as long as the NAB continues to do this, some will definitely be approved.

It is hoped that the parliament adds more restrictions to this process and makes it harder for these bargains to go through, or require plea bargains and voluntary returns to come with minimum prison terms. The NAB has made a travesty of its job so far, we must leave very little up to chance this time.