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Above: Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan/Photo: UNI

Pakistan’s political establishment has always used it to settle scores, but its roguish behaviour towards the accused has led to protests and anger over Imran Khan’s anti-corruption drive

By Asif Ullah Khan

The recent suicide of a Pakistan defence analyst, Brigadier (Retd) Asad Munir, over alleged harassment by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) has raised questions about Prime Minister Imran Khan’s anti-corruption drive and the functioning of the Bureau.

In his suicide note, addressed to the chief justice of Pakistan, Brig Munir said that a false case of restoring a plot in Islamabad (when he was member of Islamabad’s Capital Development Authority) was filed against him by the NAB. He further wrote that he had only recommended the restoration but the final decision was taken by the CDA chairman. But the NAB initiated three cases and two inquiries against him over charges of corrupt practices. In bold letters in his suicide note, Brig Munir wrote: “I am committing suicide to avoid the humiliation, being handcuffed and paraded in front of the media. I request you, the honourable chief justice, to take note of NAB’s officials’ conduct so that other government officials are not convicted for the crimes  they have not committed.”

This is not the first time that the NAB’s roguish behaviour has tainted the Khan government’s accountability and anti-corruption drive. The first incident of the NAB’s high-handedness which shocked Pakistan was in October 2018, when former vice-chancellor of Punjab University Dr Mujahid Kamran along with five ex-registrars was brought to Lahore’s NAB court in handcuffs and chains. They were accused of illegal appointments during their tenure. Enraged at the way former professors were humiliated, then Chief Justice of Pakistan Mian Saqib Nisar took suo motu notice and summoned Saleem Shehzad, NAB director-general of Lahore and DIG, operations. Commenting on the incident, Justice Nisar said: “It is like death for a professor if he is handcuffed as the impression cannot be undone for the rest of his life.” The NAB official admitted that it was a mistake and he was ashamed of what had happened. The Supreme Court let him off after a written apology.

Despite the Court reprimand, the NAB did not change its style of functioning. A month later, another shocking picture appeared in the media, that of the former CEO of the University of Sargodha, Lahore sub-campus, Mian Javed, lying dead in jail in handcuffs and chains. He was under judicial remand for alleged involvement in corruption related to illegal sub-campuses of the varsity. The 45-year-old died of a heart attack, claimed Lahore District Jail authorities.

But more was to come and in January, popular TV anchor and analyst Dr Shahid Masood was produced before a court in handcuffs. He faces charges of embezzling Rs 38 million when he was managing director of PTV.

Senior Pakistan analyst and editor-in-chief of Naya Daur Media, Raza Rumi, told India Legal that the NAB was established by General Pervez Musharraf, ostensibly with good intentions. But soon the original mandate was abandoned in favour of political engineering through accountability. Since then, the NAB has been a convenient platform to manipulate political loyalties. Mahir Ali, senior Pakistani journalist and Dawn columnist, said: “Even during Gen Zia-ul Haq’s time, people were humiliated for political reasons, not for corruption. I agree with rights activists—there is absolutely no reason for public humiliation for allegations of corruption. It makes one wonder whether NAB is pursuing personal vendettas on behalf of someone else. It certainly does look like abuse of power.”

However, Mohammed Rizwan, senior research associate, Pragmora Institute Toronto, told India Legal that there was no civilian institution or department left in Pakistan that can be called “independent” or “autonomous”. Interestingly, he said that the powerful military establishment had become a fragmented and multi-polar institution unlike the past. “So, it has become very complicated to understand what is happening and who is pulling who’s strings,” Rizwan added.

“Take NAB for example. Its chairman, Justice (retd) Javed Iqbal, is the military’s favourite boy, but sometimes his own provincial chiefs don’t listen to him. He is the same person who ‘investigated’ the Osama bin Laden raid in Abbottabad in 2011 and later, cases of missing persons in Balochistan. But he protected the military in both cases. He is the one who started an inquiry against Nawaz Sharif on a ridiculous charge of transferring Rs 450 billion to India. So much for NAB and its independence,” he added.

He said that currently there is a turf war within the military’s pro-US and pro-China factions and their civilian proxies. It is believed that the pro-US faction led by army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa and PM Khan is pushing back those aligned with former Punjab CM Shahbaz Sharif and the earlier political dispensation. This power struggle is basically all about settling scores.

It is no secret that despite having problems with Nawaz Sharif, the military establishment always had good relations with his brother Shahbaz. Rizwan said: “Shahbaz is China’s point person in Pakistan and the most influential player backed by a huge pro-China faction of the military. He wielded the real power in the PML-N. Nawaz was only a face and vote collector. It’s true that Nawaz was politically different from Shahbaz, but at that time, the politics suited them both.”

Rizwan’s assertion can be substantiated by the fact that although Nawaz has been convicted in two cases of corruption and disqualified from politics, the more severe crackdown is on Shahbaz. He was called for questioning in one housing scam and was immediately arrested for failing to give answers to questions put to him. Before him, Ahad Cheema and Fawad Hassan Fawad, senior Punjab bureaucrats and close aides of Shahbaz, were also arrested by the NAB in the same scam case.

“The professors who were handcuffed were totally political as they belonged to the Shahbaz Sharif camp. They were publicly humiliated to settle old scores,” Rizwan said. A purge by Bajwa-Imran is going on and if it is successful, then Asif Ali Zardari, his son,  Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, and Nawaz Sharif would also be jailed or sent to exile after they have paid for the “loot”. So, this is a military-driven purge of institutions and intelligence agencies.

Zarrar Khuhro, a senior Pakistani journalist, was quoted as saying that the NAB has become another Frankenstein and its style of functioning was becoming more questionable because of the way accused were treated. Given the political uncertainties of Pakistani politics, one never knows when this monster will turn upon Imran Khan.

—The writer is a former deputy managing editor of The Brunei Times

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