Controversial plea bargain settlements

"There is a general perception that the NAB takes action against only small fish. Unless and until some notable big names from all segments who are proven guilty of corruption are put behind bars, no one will be convinced of NAB's impartiality"

The plea bargain or the out-of-court settlement is being used as a remedy for providing some relief to fraud victims. The law has come into the limelight after the recent development in the Eden Housing Scheme scam when an accountability court allowed an Rs16 billion plea bargain to the owners of Eden Housing Society in a National Accountability (NAB) reference.

The scam victims, who have been struggling for justice for more than a decade, have rejected the deal and want recovery of their hard-earned money according to the current market value of their properties.

The law of plea bargain was introduced keeping in view the faulty justice system of the country to provide some relief to the victims at the earliest to avoid lengthy trials. A plea bargain or out-of-court settlement are always considered options on the table, especially in white-collar crimes.

The law was enshrined in the National Accountability Ordinance promulgated in 1999. Some jurists and politicians have come down hard on the controversial plea bargain settlement between the NAB and the corrupt elements in society.

Controversies surround the matters related to plea bargain settlements and cases against corruption. For instance, final decisions about the plea bargain amount are taken by the officials of the watchdog organisation. It is not even clear whether these plea bargains are approved by or presented in a court of law.

If the law is to be upheld in these corruption cases and justice is to be served, the operations of NAB must be transparent and in accordance with the law. NAB should not have the sole authority of judging corruption cases or striking plea bargain deals without the approval of a court because that lies within the jurisdiction of the judiciary. Transparency is needed in such matters. Such settlements must be finalised after the approval of a sitting judge or else by a competent authority. All matters need to be scrutinised and audited.

Principled arguments in favour of accountability aside, it is also useful to be mindful of the reality and history of NAB and other accountability drives in Pakistan. The entire concept of accountability is tainted by a history of political targeting and score-settling. White-collar crimes involving billions of rupees occur with the connivance of corrupt regulators, who make prosecution an uphill task.

In the developed world, where the rule of law prevails, state prosecutors after thorough investigations select a foolproof case to indict criminals. It is an unfortunate fact that despite the creation of NAB, corruption in Pakistan has not been eradicated yet. If terrorism is an engine, then corruption serves as its fuel to drive this demon that threatens national security.

Another challenge for the NAB is the timely disposal of cases. Justice delayed is justice denied. In our country, it is becoming a rare occurrence that an aggrieved person gets justice in his lifetime. The NAB has to go a long way in removing all hurdles to the timely dissemination of justice.

NAB has always been considered to be under the influence of the rulers of the day. Reports suggest that cases were not pursued or further probe was dropped at the behest of high-ups. There is a general perception that the NAB takes action against only small fish. Unless and until some notable big names from all segments who are proven guilty of corruption are put behind bars, no one will be convinced of NAB’s impartiality.

In order to get away from its tainted past, the NAB needs to take up mega corruption cases on a priority basis. While pursuing these cases, there should not be any discrimination. Another aspect of accountability in our country is the absence of across-the-board action. There are certain powerful institutions whose personnel remain unscathed. The concept that only civilians commit corruption while those holding offices in the establishment and the judiciary are angels is not acceptable.

An accountability drive should also be launched against those corrupt persons who belong to the powerful institutions in the country. Real accountability can be achieved through impartial action against all those who are found involved in corrupt practices without any discrimination.

Because of the enfeeblement of judicial commissions to carry out a thorough and fair probe, and the inability of courts to prove any allegation beyond doubt, most high-profile (alleged) culprits of corruption go scot-free in Pakistan. That, in turn, keeps the vicious cycle of taxpayers’ money being stolen by those in power in constant motion, and despite a constant refrain of Pakistan being debilitated by this relentless process of corruption, not a rupee of government treasury is retrieved.

That is one of the reasons why Pakistan, despite its potential and resources, has failed to make its economy vibrant. And corruption remains one of the biggest malaises that is gnawing on the very fibre of Pakistan’s structural, infrastructural, governmental, administrative and moral edifice.

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