Once the most popular political slogan in the country, the word ‘accountability’ is now rapidly becoming irrelevant in the political discourse of the state. In the absence of the rule of law and democratic political culture, the political ruling class has become quite habitual of running the affairs of the ‘republic’ in a monarchical fashion. This may be the reason now people at the helm of state affairs have started considering it quite expedient to marginalize the already-decaying accountability institutions in the country in the name of reforms.

It is unfortunate that the chief executive of the country, who is supposed to ensure an efficient anti-graft regime, is somehow becoming instrumental in undermining the authority of country’s premier anti-graft body- the National Accountability Bureau (NAB). Therefore, the recent remarks made by PM Nawaz Sharif regarding the ‘high-handedness’ of NAB are widely being viewed as inappropriate and absolutely uncalled for. However, these remarks have instantly triggered the typical status-and-role debate vis-a-vis the NAB in Pakistan. Now, perhaps inspired by the recently-promulgated KP Ehtesab Commission (Amendment) Ordinance 2016, the federal government is desirous of forming an ‘independent commission’ to oversee the functioning of the NAB.

Despite their political differences and mutual antagonism, there is a perfect consensus among all major political parties as far as the scorch issue of accountability is concerned. They are equally convinced to let accountability institutions not flourish in the country. For all practical purposes, the NAB remained in-operational since the post of Chairman NAB lied vacant most of the time during PPP’s five year rule (2008-2013). Transparency International has claimed that Pakistan had lost more than Rs8.5 trillion in corruption, tax evasion and bad governance during this period alone. Ever since the arrest and detention of former petroleum advisor Dr. Asim Hussain by the Sindh Rangers over terror-financing charges last year, the PPP has been severely and openly criticizing NAB and the Federal Investigation Agency. Now, as soon as the NAB started inquiring into some high-profile corruption cases involving government functionaries in Punjab, the PML-N has also readily jumped on the anti-Nab bandwagon.

Keeping in view the current anti-corruption stance of PTI-led KPK government, PTI’s tall claims of initiating a rigorous accountability derive in Pakistan look nothing beyond mere another political rhetoric. Dissatisfied with the form and functioning of NAB in the province, the KPK government decided to establish another anti-graft body in the province by enacting the KP Ehtesab Commission Act, 2014. However, in the absence of required degree of political resolution to enforce this Act in letter and spirit, the KP Ehtesab Commission has also utterly failed to effectively curb the menace of corruption in the province. Instead, this law somehow became instrumental in giving rise to a constant conflict between the KPEC and the NAB over certain legal and jurisdictional issues in the province.

Reportedly, once the KPEC tightened the noose around the necks of some provincial ministers and senior bureaucrats allegedly involved in the corrupt practices, the provincial government instantly decided to clip KPEC’s wings by hurriedly promulgating an Ordinance. Under the Ordinance, now the KPEC cannot arrest any legislators without the prior intimation to the speakers of National or provincial assemblies or the Chairman Senate, as the case may. Similarly, before arresting a civil servant, the KPEC has to intimate the Chief Secretary of the province. Besides this, the approval of five-member Ehtesab Commission has been made mandatory for the arrest of a suspect, and to refer a case to the court in the form of a reference. Consequently, expressing his ‘frustrations’ over this undesirable development, the DG KPEC has also resigned in protest.

The very form and functioning of the NAB have become a hot topic of media debate following the ‘warning’ issued by PM Nawaz Sharif to the NAB against harassing government functionaries while addressing a gathering of his party works in Bahawalpur last week. Now, recommendations are being made regarding introducing some structural and functional reforms in the organization. Some PML-N leaders have also hinted at devising the new administrative mechanism in the form of an ‘Independent commission’ to watch this watchdog. However, this so-called independent commission will most likely undermine the independent, autonomous and impartial character of the apex anti-corruption organization.

According to its SOP’s, the NAB generally conduct a thorough preliminary inquiry after receiving a complaint against any person. At inquiry stage, instead of making an arresting, it only summons such person requiring him to join the inquiry proceedings. After finding sufficient grounds for further proceeding against any person, it formally investigates into an alleged act of corruption later. And finally, after collecting credible and actionable evidence, it decides to prosecute a person by referring the matter to Accountability Court in the form a reference. At trial stage, it is not the NAB, but the court which make critical decisions regarding the detention or release of an accused person during the pendency of trial. Again, it is the court which either eventually convicts or acquits an accused person at the conclusion of trial.

Under the criminal law of the land, an SHO of the police can misuse his legal authority more conveniently and freely than does even the NAB Chairmen. He can arrest any person at will after simply registering an FIR without making any preliminary inquiry. In fact, the pre-trial detention is a contentious issue worldwide. In Pakistan, various investigating authorities are also frequently criticized for wrongfully and unjustifiably detaining the individuals in their custody. In order to exercise checks on the unfettered powers of an investigation agency, an effective judicial supervision or control is generally recommended. Therefore, instead of confusingly forming another so-called independent commission to oversee the operations of the NAB, it is advisable to exercise certain necessary checks on the organization through existing Accountability Courts and other Superior Courts in the country. The Accountability courts are also already exercising control over the NAB investigators and prosecutors in some way.

As matter of fact, it is not the highhandedness or misuse of authority by the NAB officials which is the real trouble with the organization, but simply the inaction and lack of initiative on the part of its officials to proactively take up the corruption cases. There is a common perception that the current pace of the organization is observably incompatible with the state and magnitude of corruption in Pakistan. Therefore, Instead of rendering NAB a toothless entity by imposing unnecessary restrictions on its independent functioning, the focus of the intended reform agenda should be on adequately empowering the organization to deal with high-profile corruption cases by making the anti-graft laws in Pakistan even stricter and tougher. The ‘voluntary return’ and ‘plea bargain’ provisions provided under Section 25 of NAB Ordinance, 1999 should seriously be revisited. Obviously, these provisions are not in line with the recognized principles of criminal jurisprudence as well as the spirit of so-called zero tolerance policy against corruption in the country.

In fact, the underlying current problems faced by the country, ranging from poverty and unemployment to the chronic energy crisis, are very closely related to phenomenon of corruption in Pakistan in one way or the other. Keeping in view the magnitude and its adverse effects upon the society, the corruption is by no means less heinous offence than the terrorism. Terrorism is adversely affecting lives of the masses at the moment, but our succeeding generations will have to collectively suffer the consequences of the ongoing corrupt practices in the country. Ironically, we have established military trial courts to curb terrorism but, on the other hand, we have badly failed to devise basic legal modalities, and establish efficient anti-graft bodies to effectively combat corruption so far. Presently we need to tackle corruption on par with the issue of terrorism in the country.

The writer is a lawyer and columnist based in Lahore.