After returning unsigned a bill seeking to reverse the changes made in election laws by the former PTI government, President Dr Arif Alvi on Monday did the same with another piece of legislation seeking to clip the vast powers of the National Accountability Bureau (NAB).
The two bills were passed by the National Assembly and Senate last month and were subsequently sent to the president for approval. However, Alvi sent them back on June 4, following which the government convened a joint sitting of the parliament on June 9 to pass the bills — which were cleared the same day.
Procedurally, after bills are passed by the joint sitting, they are presented to the president for his assent. If the president does not give his approval within 10 days, it will be deemed to have been given.
However, President Alvi sent back the election reforms bill unsigned on Sunday a second time, doing the same with the NAB bill on Monday.
According to a statement issued by the Presidency, Dr Alvi said that he believed the bill to be "regressive in nature", adding that it would "promote corruption by ensuring that the long arm of the law is crippled".
The president said the bill also sent a message to the corrupt, who he claimed had amassed tremendous wealth, that they were not accountable and were free to continue to plunder the country.
"The president lamented that the small man will be caught for petty crimes while the corrupt rich will remain free to continue with their blood-sucking abhorrent practices. Having weak accountability is against the basic rights of the people of Pakistan [...] it is also against the fundamentals of our Constitution," the statement quoted the president as saying.
The president said that he was aware of the fact that the NAB bill would be enacted into law even if he did not sign the bill. Elaborating on the reasons behind not signing the bill, President Alvi said it had been observed that there were flaws in the implementation of the NAB Ordinance.
"This law, like all other laws vesting authority in the executive, was abused for political exigencies by those in power. Because of this reason, along with the role of vested interests, the accountability process in Pakistan became quite ineffective. While the public clamoured for the return of looted wealth, the long judicial processes involved and ineffective prosecution actually made it very difficult to expose, prevent and eliminate corruption," the president said.
He went on to say that a strong effort for improvement was desperately needed.
"Our experiences of the last few decades should have guided us; to modify the law, avoid its miscarriage, close the glaring loopholes and make it stronger. What was least expected was that the efforts of some previous governments were dumped and the principle of accountability, though upheld, was weakened beyond recognition," he said.
President Alvi said that rather than structurally improving the institution, the enactment of the amendments promulgated was akin to "demolishing the process of accountability without an alternate system being in place".
"Weak laws, such as this one, create a facade of justice that blatantly hides a corrupt elite capture, and nations that accommodate such laws ensure very damaging exploitation of the common man perpetuating an unjust society," he stated, adding that his conscience did not allow him to sign the bill.
The NAB (Second Amendment) Bill 2021 states that the bureau’s deputy chairman, to be appointed by the federal government, would become the acting chairman following the completion of the chairman’s tenure.
The bill has also reduced the four-year term of the NAB chairman and prosecutor general to three years. After approval of the bill, the NAB will not be able to act on federal, provincial or local tax matters. Moreover, regulatory bodies have also been removed from the bureau’s domain.
It says “all pending inquiries, investigations, trials or proceedings under this ordinance, relating to persons or transactions … shall stand transferred to the authorities, departments and courts concerned under the respective laws”.
It has also set a three-year term for judges of the accountability courts and is set to make it binding upon the courts to decide a case within a year. Under the bill, it has been made binding upon the NAB to ensure the availability of evidence against a suspect prior to his or her arrest.
According to one of the key amendments, the Act “shall be deemed to have taken effect on and from the commencement of the National Accountability Ordinance (NAO) 1999”. The chairman will be appointed by the federal government after consultation between the leaders of the house and the opposition in the National Assembly.
Some legal experts and former officials said that changes in the NAB law would have retrospective effect — from the date of promulgation of the original NAO 1999.
“Since the original NAO went into effect in January 1985, therefore, all the changes made to the law will be effective from that date. More than 90 per cent of NAB cases, whether at inquiry, investigation or trial stage, will benefit from these amendments,” a retired NAB official said.
“Accountability of the corrupt elite is now next to impossible. Why should the government allocate billions of rupees in the budget for NAB when it has brought about changes to ensure billions of rupees looted by the corrupt cannot be recovered... RIP (rest in peace) accountability,” remarked former NAB Punjab director retired Brig Farooq Hameed.
According to a former NAB prosecutor, the most glaring change made in the NAB law was allowing a suspect to get away with the wealth he/she had amassed through whichever means, as the burden of proof had been shifted to the one who reports the matter to the bureau.