The Pulse | Politics | South Asia

Pakistan: How ‘Accountability’ Became a Tool for Political Oppression

Pakistan’s judiciary acknowledges the political victimization of the opposition, backed by military agencies.

By Abdul Rehman for
Pakistan: How ‘Accountability’ Became a Tool for Political Oppression

Shehbaz Sharif, center, brother of Pakistani former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif leaves from Lahore High court after the hearing of a petition, in Lahore, Pakistan, Saturday, Nov. 16, 2019.

Credit: AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary

In a recent verdict regarding the bail plea of a Pakistani opposition leader, Justice Chaudhry Mushtaq Ahamad of the Lahore High Court acknowledged that “Political victimization in our country is an open secret.” The case saw Rana Sanaullah Khan, a leader of ex-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s party who often criticizes government policies, accused of drug trafficking and was filed by the military-controlled Anti Narcotics Force, which is headed by a serving general. Khan had denied the charges and maintained that the case was a targeted attack against him due to his vocal political stances.

In 2018, Justice Shaukat Siddiqui of the Islamabad High Court openly gave his account of being pressured by officials from ISI, the main military intelligence agency of Pakistan, to give a verdict against Nawaz Sharif and keep him in jail on graft charges. Siddiqui also alleged that those officials pushed the chief justice to make favorable court benches for the cases of their interest. He was later removed from his post by a high-level reference.

Last year, Justice Qazi Faez Isa of the Supreme Court criticized the role of ISI in his verdict on an earlier political sit-in, which crippled the capital for 21 days and caused acute troubles for the government of Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). The charges given in the verdict were denied and the judge had to face a reference for “misconduct.” Understandably, such backlash marks the reason why normally judges avoid criticizing the powerful military directly.

Most cases against the opposition are prepared by National Accountability Bureau (NAB), the powerful anti-graft agency constituted by General Pervez Musharraf and still dominated by the military. The control of the powerful military establishment over the NAB is evident from the fact that, although it is seemingly headed by a retired judge, most of its key positions remain occupied by retired army or intelligence officers, thus enabling the military to selectively chase politicians. One of the earlier chairmen of the NAB, who was also a close affiliate of Musharraf, openly admitted that the general used to manipulate the cases being investigated, as per his (or the military’s) desires.

In spite of the NAB’s claims of unbiased accountability, higher courts have been finding otherwise and thus openly criticized the NAB for specifically victimizing major political figures. In the earlier Hudaibia Mills case, the Supreme Court concluded that the only motive was to pressure the Sharif family. In another case against Shehbaz Sharif of same family, the Lahore High Court also observed that it was selectively picked up by the NAB with the intention of targeting him.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Additionally, the major courts have also been showing concern over the NAB’s biased attitude in general. About a year back, Supreme Court judges admonished the NAB for having double-standards and being politicized in its treatment of cases, where some are pursued forcefully and others are very conveniently delayed. In another comment a couple of years back, the Supreme Court had censured the NAB and blamed it for destroying the country through its policies.

Some disturbing evidence of accountability judges being pressured to obtain verdicts against opposition figures has also surfaced. Maryam Nawaz Sharif, the daughter of Nawaz Sharif, recently released a video evidence showing the judge who convicted Sharif apparently admitting that he had been blackmailed to give a guilty verdict against the accused. Even with such evidence, Nawaz Sharif was not given any relief from the conviction.

Recently, another case of judiciary manipulation surfaced when judges on the same Rana Sanaullah narcotics case were abruptly transferred, while one was allegedly close to giving a verdict. In addition the head of the powerful Federal Investigation Agency had to resign, as he was being forced to coin new cases against unwanted opposition leaders.

Many political figures in the country have slammed the NAB for political victimization and there is a general consensus that the opposition is being targeted. Nawaz Sharif has repeatedly said that it is victimization in the guise of accountability. His brother Shehbaz Sharif, who had been more cautious in his word selection earlier, now blasts this recent campaign as emerging from an “unholy alliance“ between the ruling party and the NAB, who seem to be working in tandem.

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari from the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), whose father and aunt have been jailed for many months, is more expressive. He openly declares that the institution of the NAB was formulated by Musharraf with the purpose of “political engineering“ or manipulation by the military establishment. Attributing all these recent cases to behind-the-scene military masters, Zardari and Maryam Nawaz are very vocal in calling Prime Minister Imran Khan as a “selected PM” or a mere “puppet.” Though not as blunt, most opposition leaders feel similarly.

The focus of the NAB and the accountability process on the opposition leaders alone is clearly evident. Nawaz Sharif is serving a seven-year jail term on graft charges with his appeal pending, while his conviction in another case has been overturned by the high court. Although he has faced NAB cases since the beginning of the Musharraf era about 20 years back, the drive picked up after the famous Panama Leaks. He was first removed from the office of prime minister and then was arrested before the last general elections.

Alongside him, his daughter Maryam Nawaz has also faced multiple charges and jail terms since the last elections. While currently out on bail, she was arrested by the NAB in early August on account of graft charges. Nawaz Sharif’s brother Shehbaz, who has served multiple terms as chief minister of Punjab, has also faced legal charges through the years. In the recent campaign he was arrested in a housing scheme case; he is on bail with the case ongoing.

This volley of NAB cases during the current regime of Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) is not limited to the Sharif family. It has also involved cases against most of the active leaders of the major opposition parties, namely the PML-N and PPP. Ex-president of Pakistan and co-chairman of the PPP Asif Ali Zardari has been accused of money laundering in a fake accounts case by the NAB and recently got bail after waiting for six months in jail without being convicted. The only son of Zardari and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, PPP chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, is also a co-accused in the same case and has been called by the NAB multiple times.

On the other hand, the NAB’s treatment of those affiliated with the ruling PTI is much different and most of the case files against them are closed. Critical cases against the PTI, including allegations of the party receiving illegal foreign funding and maintaining secret bank accounts, have effectively been pushed under the carpet. A case against Imran Khan himself for the alleged misuse of official helicopters has also been silenced. Proof of undisclosed properties owned by Imran’s sister Aleema Khan surfaced and were accepted by her too, but she was allowed to go free. Similarly, probes against some other major PTI players like Pervez Khattak lie conveniently suspended.

This recent accountability drive against the Sharif family was sparked by the Panama Leaks, which listed the names of Nawaz’s sons as owners of offshore companies. But the great irony in the Panama case is that the leaks contained names of more than 400 Pakistanis, yet none have been pursued by the NAB other than Nawaz Sharif. Some of them, including Zulfi Bukhari and Aleem Khan, are among the close affiliates of Imran Khan himself, but they are seemingly enjoying complete immunity from the so-called on-going accountability drive.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Another irritating fact about this accountability push is its alleged use to incentive horse-trading or switching loyalties, as the opposition often complains. Apparently, some cases are vigorously pursued against certain figures, but are put to pending status if the accused join, or agree to join, the “favorite” PTI. Information Minister Fidous Aashiq Awan from the PPP was facing such charges, which were dropped around the time she joined PTI. More visible is the Nandipur Power Plant case filed against some of the PPP leaders — the recent verdict absolved the main accused, Babar Awan, who is now in the PTI, but indicted his other fellows.

Another disturbing reality in both of Nawaz Sharif’s convictions by the Accountability Court is that no corruption against him could be established. The punishment was based on “assets beyond means,” a preposterous charge in the case of a long-time wealthy industrialist. Due to this, the verdicts have been duly condemned from within the legal fraternity too, including from some eminent lawyers and a Supreme Court judge admitting disparity in different accountability decisions. Also important to note is that Interpol, when asked for the repatriation of Nawaz’s sons to Pakistan this year, declared the proofs in the case to be “insufficient” and refused to act on them.

The one-sided nature of accountability is even admitted by the chairman of the NAB who, in a May 2019 interview to eminent journalist Javed Chaudhry, himself admitted to not arresting government affiliates in order to avoid instability. After an uproar about it from the opposition, an NAB spokesman later denied it. But the chairman was not alone in that comment. Recently Senior Minister Fawad Chaudhry has also boastingly admitted that it is the PTI, and not the NAB, who is in control of this accountability drive.

Although most of the ruling cabinet members keep repeating their rant about the opposition’s corruption, some do open up otherwise. Current Interior Minister Brigadier General (ret.) Ijaz Shah, having the earlier fame of being pointed out by the late Benazir Bhutto herself as her potential killer, has admitted the “benefits” of arresting the opposition leaders for getting rid of unwanted dissent and any ensuing demonstrations. At the same time, this transformation of accountability into a more familiar oppressive campaign against the opposition has also been noticed by the international community and has been pointed out as such too.

A rather disturbing irony of this accountability drive is its contrast with the internationally compiled on-the-ground data. Global watchdog Transparency International, in its report on the three previous regimes, has concluded that Musharraf’s era was the worst in terms of corruption and Nawaz’s was the best, and also that corruption normally drops when the PML-N comes to power. But here, in total disregard to all this, the maximum thrust of accountability is focused on the same PMLN. Musharraf’s close affiliates are not only immune to this, but many are enjoying government positions once again.

Considering all the hidden painful facts behind the much-touted slogans of unbiased accountability, the political victimization of opposition is evident — as acknowledged by the higher courts also. It can only be hoped that this unjustified campaign does get the attention it deserves from international human rights and justice organizations.

Abdul Rehman is a writer and activist from Islamabad, Pakistan.