On the eve ofAugust 14, 2012, when the nation was celebrating the heroic defence ofPakistanin face of an Indian imposed war, it was rather unbelievable to see via media a blitz of uninformed derogatory remarks streaming out of the National Assembly that targeted the armed forces.

A member of the National Assembly called upon the House to intervene and stop the army from trying the three retired officers, allegedly involved in the National Logistics Cell (NLC) scam, in the military courts. He insisted that if the ends of justice were to be served, then they ought to have been arraigned before the civil judiciary, rather than tried under the military law.

It was an unkind cut, indeed, reflecting a lamentable trend, whereby the NLC affair has become a rallying point for vested quarters to malign the army by resorting to a baseless and malicious slandering campaign. The law, military law in this case, has to take its due course. Jumping the gun, nevertheless, many ignore the immutable legal aspects that govern the conduct of legal proceedings invoked against personnel of the armed forces, irrespective of the ranks involved. But let’s first analyse the functions of the NLC and the army’s association with it.

The NLC was created in 1978, as a crisis management organisation of the federal government, to provide a logistic capability to the nation for quickly and reliably moving large volumes of essential commodities and goods from theKarachiPortto the hinterland. This was essential to ease the flow of logistics from the bottleneck ofKarachi, particularly during national crises or emergencies. Hence, it would be wrong to assume that it is an exclusive organ of the army, since it is managed by the National Logistics Board (NLB), headed by the Minister of Planning and Development (P&D) and includes Federal Secretaries of P&D, Finance, Communication and Railway Divisions and Deputy Chairman Planning Commission as its members. Also, a serving Major General of the army, appointed by the GHQ, acts as Secretary NLB.

The army’s association with NLC is governed by the fact that it provides the bulk of employed drivers, as well as managerial officer cadre, who serve the organisation on a deputation of two to three years. Its association is considered essential to inject an element of professional expertise, discipline, accountability and compulsions arising out of the need to switch onto the defence-oriented responsibilities in times of emergency. This is a gross contortion of the facts, for some to say that instead of being a national asset, the NLC is an inappropriate commercial venture indulged in by the army to tend to its corporate interests.      

The mismanagement of official funds, especially in the NLC case, by those entrusted their trusteeship, whether in a military or civilian organisation, is a serious offense; and committing it, by commission or omission, calls for bearing responsibility and facing accountability. For a person in uniform, the accountability is ensured through the application of the Pakistan Army Act (PAA), unless the chain of command, under empowerment of the Act, decides otherwise. This legal caveat is not peculiar to military service inPakistanalone, as some misinformed critiques are wont to make us believe, but rather a universal practice.

It might be noted that the PAA draws legitimacy and authority from an act of Parliament and does not fall in the genre of a departmental law. So, if the offending officers are being dealt with under the PAA, it would be grossly wrong to assume that they are being wilfully and gratuitously exempted from scrutiny or accountability of the civilian law and investigations by the anti-corruption establishment. If the guilt is proven, then the offenders will be meted out with punishment accordingly. But it is half-cocked at the moment to exploit the NLC issue for vested ends, as it is a legal case in progress.

The assertions that the retired officers are being reinstated in service for undergoing trial under the PAA by bending the rules, and through extending wilful privileges, is misplaced to the extreme. The accused officers had earlier retired and have been taken on strength of the army in deference to the PAA’s provisions. They have neither been rehired, nor reinstated, and are not entitled to any pay or privileges due to their rank. Their recall to service is to face justice under the military law and nothing else!

Another aspect that needs to be comprehended is that under the PAA, financial irregularities are not time barred and entail recall of the offending individuals back from retirement for trial by the military authorities. A major reason for this misunderstanding is, perhaps, caused by the fact that it is for the first time that retired army officers have been recalled and subjected to thorough investigations.

Again, it is wrong to assume that the army has been unduly dragging its feet in bringing the accused to justice. The court of inquiry conducted by a three-star general was ordered in November 2010 and completed within a span of three months. The law authorised the COAS to summarily dispose it off by awarding punishment to the offenders, in accordance with the powers conferred by law, or adopt the course for resorting to further formal investigations called ‘recording of the summary of evidence’. The awarding of the punishment would have entailed exercise of discretionary powers, creating an opportunity for critics to cry foul, and the option was rightly foregone to make the investigations fair and transparent.

Now when the evidence has been finally collated and brought on record, can the decision about initiating further legal proceedings in a military court be taken? The charges, if required, will be framed and evidence presented and evaluated through cross questioning by the prosecution and the defence counsels before a decision is taken. Those having exposure to this methodology know well that the truth will emerge and justice served.

The profession of arms demands utmost integrity and exercise of highest code of conduct by its officers’ corps. Any allegation of financial irregularities constitutes a conduct unbecoming of an officer and a gentleman. Needless to say, military traditions demand that the reported irregularities in maintaining the NLC funds by uniformed officers be thoroughly investigated and brought to logical conclusion by punishing the guilty in line with the dictates of military law.

The process of serving justice is in progress and till it is brought to conclusion, the episode should not be used to launch a smear campaign against the army, which is locked in a gruelling fight with forces of terrorism with honour, devotion and immeasurable sacrifice. Certainly, not on the eve of the Defence Day of Pakistan!

 The writer is a freelance columnist.