December issue 2018

By | Newsbeat National | Published 8 months ago

 

When Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif came to power for the second time in 1997, after winning a two-thirds majority, those elections, too, were held amid a brouhaha over accountability. The Benazir Bhutto-led PPP government had been dissolved by President Farooq Leghari in November 1996, on the allegations of corruption and misuse of power against it. Following that, a caretaker government was formed, headed by Malik Meraj Khalid. The Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), led by Qazi Hussain Ahmed, which was at the forefront of  the agitation against the PPP, raised the slogan “Pehley ehtesab, phir intekhab,” (Accountability first, then elections) and boycotted the elections. 

 

A week before her dismissal, Benazir Bhutto had addressed parliament while introducing an anti-corruption bill (the proposed 15th Amendment). In her address, she said that she was fed up with the never-ending and unsubstantiated stories of alleged corruption involving Asif Zardari and herself, and wanted the matter  settled once and for all. However, her government was sent packing before the amendment could be approved by parliament.  

The caretaker government, with the likes of Irshad Ahmed Haqqani and Najam Sethi in the cabinet, was meant to conduct new elections, but exceeded its mandate to establish an Ehtesab Commission through a presidential ordinance. The step was criticised by political parties, but the caretaker Prime Minister defended it, saying that accountability was far more important than holding elections.

After a couple of months in office, the PML-N government endorsed the Ehtesab Commission with amendments through the Ehtesab Act 1997, which was approved by parliament. The underlying political motives were clear from the start, as the law was amended, shifting the power of investigation from the Chief Ehtesab Commissioner to an Ehtesab Cell located in the PM’s Secretariat, headed by Sharif’s close confidant, Senator Saifur Rehman. The period it covered was calculated to shield members of the party in power and tighten the noose around the opposition, as the starting date for accountability was changed from December 31, 1985, to November 6, 1990.

The law was further amended in February 1998 with a presidential ordinance, under Clause 1 of Article 87 of the constitution, when Rafiq Tarar was elected President. The name, Ehtesab ‘Cell’ was changed to Ehtesab ‘Bureau.’ The chief of the Ehtesab Bureau — or any other official designated by him — was given the same powers as an SHO for the purpose of investigation. The amended law provided indemnity to officials of the Ehtesab Bureau for acts deemed to have been done in “good faith.”

Soon, the cell earned notoriety for targeting political opponents and intimidating dissenting elements within the press. It had its entire focus on former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, her family and close associates. She was incriminated on charges of misuse of power and possession of assets beyond known means of income. Likewise, her mother, MNA Nusrat Bhutto was also alleged to have accumulated assets beyond her legal sources of income. Benazir’s husband, Asif Ali Zardari, was detained on five corruption offences and a narcotics case.

The Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) had no powers to take action against private citizens, as the agency could investigate only government employees, but it was used by the Ehtesab Bureau to detain businessmen and bankers on Saifur Rehman’s instructions. 

The US State Department, in its annual Human Rights Report for the year 1997, noted that the Accountability Commission established by the caretaker government was headed by a retired judge. In the PML-N government, it was overshadowed by an ‘Accountability Cell,’ headed by a close associate of Nawaz Sharif. This cell was accused of conducting politically motivated investigations of political rivals, senior civil servants and business figures. It went on extracting evidence and televised confessions through coercive measures. The report gave the examples of televised confessions extracted from Salman Farooqi and Ahmed Sadiq, both associates of Benazir Bhutto. 

At the time, Asif Zardari contended he had been tortured and his tongue lacerated in the custody of the Crime Investigation Agency (CIA). It was termed an attempt to force a confessional statement to implicate him and his wife in various cases. The police termed it a suicide attempt. 

The Ehtesab Bureau also turned against the media, pressurising them not to publish reports critical of the government. Income taxes cases were filed against the Jang group. The group’s newspapers and some others were threatened with sedition charges for publishing stories against the government. The office of Newsline, which had published critical articles, was raided and staff harassed by tax inspectors and personnel of security agencies. The editors of the weekly The Friday Times, too, had similar complaints.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), announced that it was conducting an investigation into a hit-list prepared by the Pakistan government that featured 35 prominent journalists. The CPJ claimed to have received reports that the federal government wanted to establish a special media cell comprising officials from the police, Intelligence Bureau (IB) and the FIA to target journalists writing against the government. Ehtesab Bureau Chairman, Senator Saifur Rehman, was to have headed the cell. It would function simultaneously in Lahore, Islamabad, Karachi and Peshawar, with its head office in Islamabad.

Asif Zardari, arrested by the caretaker government after the dismissal of the PPP government in November 1996, spent eight years in prison.  He was released on bail in 2004 under the Musharraf government. His release was termed as part of a deal, but PPP circles dismissed that speculation, saying the court released Zardari after having found no substantive evidence against him.

In 2007, when the PPP leadership and General Musharraf signed the National Accountability Ordinance (NRO) the cases were already closed, but the Supreme Court’s decision declaring the NRO null and void in 2009 resulted in reopening of these cases. However, by then, Asif Zardari was the elected president and thereby enjoyed  constitutional immunity. After his term ended in 2013, he had to face references in Cotecna, Société Générale de Surveillance (SGS), ARY Gold, Ursus tractors, Polo Ground, and the illegal assets cases.

Cases  filed by the Ehtesab Bureau and later taken up by the Musharraf-instituted  NAB  between 2014 and 2016 were quashed by the courts, and Zardari, along with all the other accused, was acquitted. The courts cited lack of evidence, while Farooq Naek, Zardari’s counsel, maintained that the cases were politically motivated and maximum punishment on those charges would have been seven years in prison, while Zardari had already spent eight years in prison. Even the PML-N’s Khawaja Asif  acknowledged  in parliament that the cases were politically motivated, and revealed that Saifur Rehman had apologised to Zardari after Rehman was arrested by the Musharraf government and came face to face with Zardari in the courtroom.

Ali Arqam main domain is Karachi: Its politics, security and law and order