Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Business Recorder editorial March 7, 2017

Accountability regime The Parliamentary Committee on National Accountability Law on March 6 arrived at a consensus that any person or office holder convicted for corruption would have a lifetime ban imposed on holding any public or government office. The committee unanimously approved three sections, 19, 20 and 21, related to punishment for corruption, disqualification, voluntary return and cognizance of offences under the provisions of the proposed accountability bill. The bill was originally framed by the previous PPP-led government. It is a reflection of the importance given the issue by the present government as well as the pace of functioning of parliament and its committees that it has taken the present incumbents more than three years to bring the matter to this pass. And interestingly, in answer to a request from Senate Chairman Raza Rabbani, Federal Minister for Law and Justice Zahid Hamid sought more time to withdraw the bill for proposed amendments to the National Accountability Ordinance 1999 so that the report of the parliamentary panel could be presented in the house. While the government makes haste slowly, the committee also agreed by consensus that the minimum punishment for any person convicted of corrupt practices would be seven years imprisonment and the maximum 14 years. The lifetime ban on such persons would apply irrespective of whether they had returned the embezzled amount through the voluntary return process or plea bargain. The committee is still waiting for the Law Minister to brief it on the proposed structure of the National Accountability Commission (NAC), which would replace the existing National Accountability Bureau. Whether the mere change of nomenclature would bring about the desired change in the manner of functioning and efficacy of the NAC only time will tell. According to the proposed draft of the bill, the chairman NAC, deputy chairman and members would be appointed by the prime minister in consultation with the Leader of the Opposition and such appointments would have to be confirmed by a parliamentary committee having equal representation of the treasury and opposition benches. Under the proposed law, a functionally and financially independent Accountability and Investigation Agency would be established. The tenure of the NAC chairman and deputy chairman would be three years, with no extension. The chairman and deputy chairman would only be removable during their tenures by a reference to the Supreme Judicial Council. The present parliamentary committee seized of the proposed changes in the accountability regime comprises 13 MNAs and seven Senators and is charged with revisiting the National Accountability Ordinance 1999 and submitting its report within three months. Accountability entered the political domain years ago with the public expectation that the perceived endemic corruption afflicting government and national life needed addressing. Unfortunately though, successive governments reduced this national endeavour to purely partisan political purposes. Opponents of incumbent governments were targeted, sometimes on spurious and unsustainable charges that could not withstand the light of scrutiny or time. The most notorious of these efforts were the cases brought by Nawaz Sharif’s second government against his PPP leadership rivals, cases that Ehtesab Commission head Saifur Rehman tearfully renounced after that government had been overthrown by the military coup of 1999. Musharraf’s Ordinance and the Bureau brought into existence under it did not escape similar criticism, this time ironically the target being the overthrown PML-N. Justified or not, the public perception is that National Accountability Bureau chairmen, including the present holder of that office, have tended to be favoured appointees of the party in power and therefore unable to act against perceived or actual corruption allegations against the incumbents. All these shenanigans over the years have by now eroded the credibility of the accountability regime, which arguably has never stood lower than at present. In the light of this, the proposals for consensual appointments to the new NAC appear positive, although it is not clear what would happen if such consensus is unattainable. Parliament’s role generally, and in this case in particular, should be further strengthened to become the ultimate confirmatory institution for appointments to the NAC, and its committee should be permanently charged with oversight of the accountability regime to overcome the lacunae and partisan failings of the past.

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