People & Society Tapestry

Pakistan's thriving culture of corruption

Updated 06 Nov, 2016 10:54am
Illustration by Mariam Ali
Illustration by Mariam Ali

Ziaullah Khan Toru has a high pitch voice which becomes even louder when he gets into an argument. In his early forties, he is both passionate and energetic — some may say a bit too passionate and little too energetic. Going by his reputation, he could have been among the 200 “honest and dedicated” people which Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) chief Imran Khan, in his October 2011 public meeting in Lahore, said he “needed to revolutionise the country.”

Khan did pick Toru to work for his party’s provincial government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in October 2013. He was working with the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) at the time. The provincial government sought his services on deputation and appointed him as a director in the industries department. Seven months later, he was made director of the Anti-Corruption Establishment.

Toru proved his appointment right. During his two-year tenure, he recovered an unprecedented amount of money from corrupt officials, government contractors and those involved in land frauds. Figures collected by the statistical branch of the Anti-Corruption Establishment in Peshawar show he took back 726.08 million rupees in cash from the corrupt in just two years. Total cash recoveries made by the department between 1970 and April 2014, in comparison, stood at 326.53 million rupees.

Toru, additionally, retrieved government land worth 859.19 million rupees from those who, through fraud, had transferred it to themselves. One of his other achievements was to make government contractors redo faulty government works worth 77.44 million rupees.

Toru’s work was acknowledged by his supervisors. His performance evaluation reports for 2014 and 2015 – issued on April 6, 2016 by the provincial establishment department – declared him a very good officer.

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Chief Minister Pervez Khattak was so impressed by Toru that he refused to send him back to the NAB which sought his return through a letter to the provincial authorities sent on August 25, 2015. Khattak wrote back to the bureau, asking for the cancellation of the letter in the “best interest of the public.” He said Toru was working very well — he had registered 205 corruption cases against 823 suspects, arrested 605 officers of the provincial government and recovered embezzled funds amounting to 1.34 billion rupees (till August 22, 2015).

Less than nine months later, many senior officers in the provincial bureaucracy wanted Toru transferred from the Anti-Corruption Establishment. On May 02, 2016, they transferred him to the Provincial Services Academy as deputy director — a relatively unimportant post.

Complaints about people having satisfied one anti-corruption agency before landing into the hands of another are common.

Syed Akhtar Hussain Shah, special secretary of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s establishment department, gives a number of reasons for the transfer. First, he cites a 2011 Supreme Court verdict that stopped the deputation of officers not recruited through the Public Service Commission – known as non-cadre officers – to those posts that by law can be occupied only by those recruited through the Public Service Commission — known as cadre officers. Toru is a non-cadre officer but director general Anti-Corruption Establishment is a cadre post, says Shah. “So, he cannot work at that post.”

Then Shah refers to a judgment issued by the Balochistan High Court on October 22, 2012 that stated that Toru (who at the time was working as a deputy director with the NAB Quetta) “is not a fit person to be assigned any inquiry or investigation.” The Balochistan High Court also ordered that he could be assigned only “a desk job at the NAB headquarters with no frequent contact with public.”

The third reason, according to Shah, is that Toru has been harassing civil servants working in grades much higher than his own grade 18. “He was humiliating and harassing officers of grade 20 and grade 21 by treating them harshly.”

The special secretary also says Toru has close family ties with Khattak who “blesses and supports” him. That, Shah says, is the reason why he was not sent back to the NAB in 2015.

Toru does not deny his relationship with Khattak but he says the provincial bureaucracy should have raised the first two points when he was posted on deputation in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa about three years ago. He says the reason for his transfer is his attempt to investigate corruption charges against those connected to senior bureaucrats.

Ishtiaq Urmar, special assistant to the chief minister on environment, complained to the Anti-Corruption Establishment in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa that Arshad Khan, a brother of the outgoing provincial chief secretary Amjad Ali Khan (recently repatriated to the Establishment Division, Islamabad), had received one million saplings for plantation under Imran Khan’s flagship Billion Tree Tsunami project whereas he should have received only 100,000 of them under the rules. (Farmers receiving and planting the saplings get six rupees per tube plant and nine rupees for a bare-rooted plant in a few instalments; the more saplings are given to them, the more money they will make.)

Shabbir Hussain, project director of the Billion Tree Tsunami Project, explains the maximum number of saplings a former can get is 100,000 but the steering committee of the project has the discretion to increase the maximum number to whatever limit it pleases. Why the committee would allow one farmer only 100,000 saplings but let someone else have one million of them is anyone’s guess. Officials at the Anti-Corruption Establishment thought it was because of the influence the party receiving more saplings had.

Pervez Khattak, Chief Minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa |
Pervez Khattak, Chief Minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa |

They raided Arshad Khan’s nursery in Peshawar to investigate complaints against him but they did not arrest him or register a case against him. That raid seems to have upset someone in a high place, believes Toru.

The business dealings of Muhammad Jawad Dayar, a brother-in-law of Amjad Ali Khan, also became the subject of an inquiry by the Anti-Corruption Establishment on April 8, 2016. The allegation against him was that he had embezzled public money in the construction of Mardan bypass. The inquiry found out that Dayar built the road as a subcontractor of a company that had originally won the contract to do so — the law does not allow that kind of subcontracting. The other finding of the committee was more damning — the cost of the project was revised upwards by 80 percent after the contract was awarded.

The last controversial inquiry was conducted in early April this year into allegations of corruption and mismanagement at Peshawar Museum. The Anti-Corruption Establishment set up a three-member team, headed by an ex-director of the National Museum of Pakistan in Karachi, Dr Makin Khan, to probe the allegations. The inquiry revealed the museum’s administration was not maintaining its records properly. Only 10 percent of the museum’s entire reserve collection was found to be documented.

The director of the museum, Dr Abdul Samad, wrote a letter against the inquiry to Azam Khan who was then secretary of the museums and archaeology department and was also holding the office of additional chief secretary. He now holds the charge of chief secretary too, after Amjad Ali Khan has been sent to Islamabad. The two are considered close to the eachother.

The establishment and administration department ordered a counter-inquiry against Toru which was one of the factors that led to his transfer to the Provincial Services Academy. Even before his transfer, the provincial bureaucracy was after him. The environment department told him in February 2016 to vacate the official bungalow allotted to him. Less than a month later, the allotment was cancelled. It was deemed “illegal in nature.”

Toru is a non-cadre officer but director general Anti-Corruption Establishment is a cadre post, says Shah. “So, he cannot work at that post.”

Toru says that allegations of harassing civil servants are also personally motivated. He has been pursuing corruption cases against many civil servants in his signature brusque and no-holds-barred manner much before his transfer. He went so far as to arrest a former secretary of the local government department in June 2015. Yet the allegation of harassing government officials was levelled only in May 2016.

Toru is facing two official inquiries now. One for his allegedly unlawful investigation into the affairs of Peshawar museum and another over a “discrepancy” of at least 80 million rupees in “cash recovery” he made.

When Toru left the Anti-Corruption Establishment early this year, the department was dealing with 146 registered cases, 2,018 inquiries and 3,723 complaints of corruption. That suggests that corruption is rampant in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, a province where an avowedly anti-corruption party – the PTI – is heading the coalition government.

Data submitted recently by the NAB to the Supreme Court seems to make the same suggestion — 943 government officials working in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have voluntarily returned the money they made through corrupt practices to the NAB. Many of them are still working — some on senior and important posts. Others have honourably retired. In comparison, only 113 government officials working in Punjab availed the facility of voluntarily returning the money they had plundered. The number of such officials stands at 466 in Sindh and at 62 in Balochistan.

The Supreme Court received these statistics on September 28, 2016 during the hearing of a case looking into the constitutional and legal status of those provisions in the NAB under which such returns are allowed. The judges are struggling to figure out how voluntary returns leave no blemish on the track record of the officers concerned and do not have any impact on their promotions.

Sajid Khan Jadoon, a senior bureaucrat in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the head of an association of provincial government officers, feels these statistics portray a flawed picture. They suggest that there is more corruption in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa – which has only 13 percent of Pakistan’s entire population – than in three other provinces combined.

In his opinion, the statistics for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are high because there are more anti-corruption institutions working in the province than in any other part of Pakistan. There is the NAB; the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA); the Anti-Corruption Establishment; the provincial ombudsman; as well as the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Ehtesab Commission.

Elsewhere in the country, there is at least one less institution — no other province has its own ehtesab (accountability) commission. The remaining institutions are also not simultaneously active — as they are in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The NAB, for instance, is hardly active in Punjab. In Sindh and Balochistan, provincial anti-corruption establishments are as good as non-existent.

Jadoon claims government officers working in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa feel harassed in these circumstances. He made the same case in front of a meeting of the provincial cabinet on August 12, 2015 and said anti-corruption institutions were hounding government officials, creating fear and resentment among them.

Syed Akhtar Hussain Shah believes the same. He says, in his roles as the secretary of the provincial benevolent fund, he started working on a scheme to provide residential plots to the families of those government servants who died on job. “But when I came to know about the way anti-corruption agencies in the province treat civil servants, I simply dropped the idea,” he says. “During 25 years of my services, I have never witnessed such ignominy.”

There is certainly a surfeit of anti-graft institutions in Pakistan, some former and working officials at the highest level of some of these institutions concede. Less is more, as far as institutions for fighting against corruption are concerned, they say.

Lieutenant General (retd) Mohammed Hamid Khan, who worked as the first director general of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Ehtesab Commission when it was founded in 2014, is known to have such opinions. He was upset that the Anti-Corruption Establishment continued to exist even after the accountability commission was formed. When he resigned from his post early this year, he highlighted in his resignation those legal provisions under which the Anti-Corruption Establishment should have become a part of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Ehtesab Commission. “ … but [the law] was later changed.” He, similarly, wanted the NAB’s jurisdiction confined only to the federal departments working in the province.

Shahzad Saleem, director general of the NAB in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, also feels there is no justification for creating multiple institutions for doing the same job. Like Hamid, he wants all other institutions to dissolve and become a part of his own department.

Elsewhere in the country, there is at least one less institution — no other province has its own ehtesab (accountability) commission. The remaining institutions are also not simultaneously active.

When the NAB was set up, all anti-corruption departments existing at the time should have been merged in it, he says. Similarly, he says, no new departments should be set up to fight graft when a national-level institution for the purpose already exists.

“It was in this spirit that anti-corruption and economic crime wings of the FIA were handed over to the NAB in August 2004,” Saleem says. Four years later, the two wings were given back to the FIA.

He says different agencies working against corruption have concurrent jurisdictions. They can initiate simultaneous inquiries and investigations into the same allegations and against the same people.

Complaints about people having satisfied one anti-corruption agency before landing into the hands of another are common. So are allegations of misuse of authority against the officials of these agencies.

Jadoon says he was at the receiving end of such misuse after he argued during a cabinet meeting that Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Ehtesab Commission needed to be reformed. When the provincial government did that in February 2016 and issued an ordinance to dilute the powers of the commission to order arrests, its chief Hamid Khan instantly resigned.

A few days later, on August 25, 2015, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Ehtesab Commission issued Jadoon’s arrest warrants, accusing him of misappropriating government funds and committing irregularities in purchasing weapons, wirelesses, bulletproof jackets etc for the excise department. When a corruption reference was finally filed against him, none of these allegations appeared on the charge sheet. He was, instead, accused of getting an additional plot in a government housing scheme without legal entitlement.

This is clearly an instance of an institution tumbling over due to its own overdrive.

Ghulam Mustafa Loond’s case offers the instance of an institution too lenient on graft.

He was working as district accounts officer in Jamshoro, Sindh, when the NAB arrested him in March this year. He had stolen 370 million rupees of the government’s money. Television channels highlighted his arrest as the NAB’s major achievement.

Six months later, there is no update in the media on what happened to him next. According to a NAB official, his case was never investigated; let alone taken to trial. A week after his arrest, Loond offered to return all the money he had plundered — the NAB does not refuse such offers.

The case against Loond was closed and he returned to serve on the same post from where he was arrested. He still holds that position. His department took no disciplinary action against him even though he had confessed to his crime by agreeing to pay back the money he had made through corruption, says a NAB official associated with the case.

Illustration by ZC
Illustration by ZC

Loond’s case is not an exception. According to figures provided by the NAB to the Supreme Court, 1,584 civil servants have voluntary returned 2.022 billion rupees they had made through corruption. Out of these officers, 165 were employees of the federal government and 1,419 were working with provincial governments, a report in daily The Nation says.

Judges hearing the case were alarmed. “Suppose the police arrest a thief and after taking back looted money from him, they thank him and release [him without booking him in a case],” Chief Justice Anwar Zaheer Jamali is reported by the newspaper to have remarked after receiving the numbers. Another judge is reported to have said that voluntary returns made it easy for a person to be corrupt.

At an earlier hearing, on September 2 this year, the judges observed that “frequent exercise” by the NAB of its “voluntary return power” was multiplying corruption. According to a report published by daily The News, the judges said voluntary returns defeated the purpose of the NAB law “which was promulgated to eliminate corruption.”

Some NAB officers in Karachi argue there is nothing that they can do about it since “the practice [of voluntary returns] is built into” the NAB law. Their boss, NAB Chairman Qamar Zaman Chaudhry, also defended voluntary returns in a speech he delivered in September 2015 in Lahore. “For the sake of clarification, I want to say that NAB [law] … emphasises recovery of looted money if an accused is willing to return it,” daily Dawn reported him as saying. “If the accused is willing to pay the principal amount plus [a] mark-up, he is within his rights under the law to do so,” he said.

Chaudhry also acknowledged that the practice of voluntary returns did not always work smoothly. In some cases, he said, the NAB has accepted “amounts lower than the determined” amount of corruption money.

On paper, the bureau only does what the law mandates it to do and by doing so it secures an almost perfect track record: it managed to secure conviction in 77.7 percent of cases it prosecuted during the first half of 2016, say media reports about a NAB meeting held in Islamabad in late July. On the whole, according to a NAB report issued in May 2016, the conviction rate since the organisation was formed has been 51 percent — which is exceptionally high compared to what other law enforcement agencies such as the police manage to achieve.

In reality, these figures include voluntary returns (which involve no trial) and plea bargains (which essentially mean an out-of-court settlement). In cases involving voluntary returns or plea bargains, the accused do not get any punishment other than having to return the money obtained by corrupt means.

Adil Gilani, chairman of Transparency International Pakistan, wants that distinction made clearly in the bureau’s performance report. “The conviction rate is less than two percent if we exclude all the plea bargains and voluntary returns,” he says.

Plea bargains – besides voluntary returns – remain the most controversial aspect of the NAB’s operations, and not just in terms of conviction rates. Data shows that NAB prosecutors have so far closed down 418 cases of corruption and corrupt practices under plea bargains.

One of the most recent cases in this category is that of Lieutenant General (retd) Zahid Ali Akbar. A chairman of the Water and Power Development Authority (Wapda) and the Pakistan Cricket Board in the early 1990s, he was accused of corruption and owning assets beyond his known sources of income. In February this year, the 91-year-old former army officer was arrested through Interpol when he was entering Bosnia from Croatia. He was taken to Britain – because he is a British citizen – for his repatriation to Pakistan.

Former premier Yousuf Raza Gilani at the Supreme Court in Islamabad in April 2012 | Tanvir Shahzad, White Star
Former premier Yousuf Raza Gilani at the Supreme Court in Islamabad in April 2012 | Tanvir Shahzad, White Star

Akbar then decided to opt for the plea bargain and wrote a confessional statement, addressed to the NAB, in addition to returning the 200 million rupees he had made through corruption. In return, the bureau has recommended the removal of his name from the Exit Control List (ECL) so that he can travel to and from Pakistan. He no longer needs to face a trial or suffer conviction and punishment.

Another recent example comes from Balochistan. Bismillah Kakar, a former chairman of the Balochistan Development Authority, and three of his accomplices took away 340 million rupees from public funds but then entered into a plea bargain with the NAB and got away without any punishment. “What matters, at present, is that we have recovered the money,” says Mohammad Irfan, an additional director at the NAB Quetta.

Plea bargains are a ‘get out of jail free’ card for the corrupt. The money they have to return does not belong to them in the first place. “Plea bargains, like voluntary returns, have given boost to corruption in the country,” says Gilani. People indulge in corruption but avoid getting punished when they are caught because of these provisions, he says.

Senior officials at the bureau disagree with the notion that plea bargain is a concession to the corrupt. Chaudhry, the NAB chairman, in his Lahore address explained that accepting guilt means conviction under the NAB law. That is why those who benefit from a plea bargain are “barred” from government jobs and public offices. If they are businessmen, they cannot “obtain a loan from banks for 10 years.”

This is what happened to Sharmila Farooqi, a Karachi-based leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). She entered into a plea bargain after the NAB filed a reference against her in 2005 for holding “illegal assets in Sindh and Punjab.” In July this year, the NAB Karachi wrote a letter to chief minister Sindh, among others, declaring that she was ineligible to hold a public office.

Farooqi was among the aspirants for a slot in Sindh cabinet when Murad Ali Shah replaced Qaim Ali Shah as the chief minister of the province. The NAB letter put an end to her aspirations and she was left out of the cabinet.

A scandal in the distribution of army pensions surfaced recently after the NAB investigated the affairs of the General Post Office (GPO), Peshawar over a period of six months. “Due to the NAB investigations, the number of pensioners at the GPO Peshawar dipped from 35,000 to 13,000,” says a post on the bureau’s website. Decrease in the number of pensioners resulted in the saving of 94.5 million rupees, the post adds.

The case prompted the NAB to carry out investigations into all 82 offices of Pakistan Post that distribute army pensions. After those investigations, the bureau advised the Prime Minister’s Secretariat to digitise all pension records. The secretariat agreed and handed over the task to the bureau itself. “Out of 82 GPOs, the computerisation of military pension payment systems of 78 GPOs has been completed,” says a NAB report.

Plea bargains – besides voluntary returns – remain the most controversial aspect of the NAB’s operations.

That sounds like a great achievement but it leaves important questions unanswered. Who were the people benefiting from ghost pensioners? Did the bureau take any action against anyone?

For answers, one has to look elsewhere. When a corruption case directly or indirectly involves the army and its personnel, the NAB either avoids taking it up or finds itself utterly helpless to do anything.

Consider this: Bosses of the National Logistics Cell (NLC) — an army-run trucking and goods transport company, decided in 2004 to invest public money in the stock exchange. They used the company’s pension fund for this purpose and then, in order to increase investment, they borrowed money on behalf of the company from commercial banks at a high interest rate. They received a heavy commission from stock brokers for ensuring a total investment of about four billion rupees. The net outcome of the investment was that the NLC lost 1.8 billion rupees.

In February 2012, the NAB’s executive board decided to form a joint inquiry team to investigate the case involving three former generals — Major General (retd) Khalid Zaheer Akhtar, Lieutenant General (retd) Muhammad Afzal Muzaffar and Lieutenant General (retd) Khalid Munir Khan.

In the next four years, the bureau tried multiple times to obtain documents pertaining to the case from the army’s General Headquarters (GHQ) — all to no avail.

In January 2016, the NAB chairman formed a committee comprising the bureau’s Rawalpindi director general and its director general operations, and gave them the task to meet the relevant officials in the GHQ and convince them to hand over the record. The committee has not been able to meet anyone in the army headquarters so far. “We have not received any record though we have read new reports saying that GHQ has decided to hand over that to NAB,” says a senior NAB official in Islamabad.

The army believes it does not have to deal with civilian anti-graft institutions because it has its own system of checking corruption within its ranks. In several internal memos issued for the same reason, the NAB officials have been informed that they need not indulge in investigations against any serving army officer, even if the officer is serving in a civilian department. “Repeatedly, we have been told that the armed forces have their own mechanisms of accountability and it is not within the jurisdiction of the NAB to investigate corruptions charges against serving army officers,” says a NAB official on the condition of anonymity.

NAB Chairman Qaman Zaman Chaudhry | Reuters
NAB Chairman Qaman Zaman Chaudhry | Reuters

The army, after conducting its own probe into the case, found two generals guilty of misappropriation of public funds (the third one was acquitted of all charges) but it did not award them any imprisonment. Akhtar was “dismissed” from service, resulting in the forfeiture of his rank, decorations, medals, honours, awards, as well as the seizure of pensions and cancellation of service along with medical benefits. Muzaffar was awarded “severe displeasure (recordable)”, a mere disciplinary rebuke.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was furious. Talking to journalists in Lahore in February 2016, he said “officers are afraid of taking decisions because of the NAB’s harassment.”

Sharif added that the bureau’s officials entered the houses and offices of “innocent people” without verifying the authenticity of corruption charges against them. “I have brought the matter to the notice of the NAB chairman a couple of times. He should take notice. Otherwise, the government will take legal action in this regard.”

Though he is the highest political office holder in the country to criticise the bureau, Sharif is not alone in this. Two main opposition parties – the PTI and the PPP – both have been critical of the NAB. The first of the two has been upset that the bureau has failed to tackle corruption in the country, especially in the cases committed by those whose names have appeared in the Panama Papers as the owners of offshore companies — and that includes Sharif’s two sons and a daughter. The party’s government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa went to the extent of setting up its own accountability commission, mainly in response to what it saw as the NAB’s failure to carry out accountability independently and fairly.

Complaints by the PPP against the NAB go all the way back to the early 2000s when, its members allege, Pervez Musharraf used the bureau to politically punish the party and its senior leaders — including Benazir Bhutto and Asif Ali Zardari. They also accuse Musharraf of using the bureau to create a split in the PPP by inducting some of its leaders into the federal cabinet in 2002 after helping them to get out of the NAB’s grip. The most prominent among them were Faisal Saleh Hayat and Aftab Sherpao who quit the PPP and became federal ministers.

When a corruption case directly or indirectly involves the army and its personnel, the NAB either avoids taking it up or finds itself utterly helpless to do anything.

It was for these reasons that the PPP and the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PMLN) – which also had similar complaints against the NAB’s activities in the 2000s – appointed Chaudhry as the bureau’s chairman after mutual consultation. They did so under a law that gives the leader of the house (prime minister) and the leader of the opposition in the National Assembly the prerogative to select the chairman by mutual consent.

The two parties have also toyed with the idea of bringing a new law to either restructure the NAB by changing its powers and jurisdiction or getting rid of it entirely and form a new anti-corruption institution. There have been other similar efforts too.

Senior PPP Senator Taj Haider, for example, tabled a bill in the Senate in the third week of July this year to bar the bureau from intervening in the affairs of the provinces. This was mainly in response to the prolonged detention of a PPP-era federal minister for petroleum, Dr Asim Hussain, under corruption charges, among others.

The bill was a clear signal that the PPP did not like the bureau’s activities in Sindh, particularly in Karachi. Zardari is reported to have accused the ruling PMLN of stabbing him in the back by allowing federal agencies such as the FIA and the NAB file cases against the PPP leaders and members – Dr Asim Hussain, in particular – and keeping them in detention without evidence. (The government appears helpless in the case since paramilitary rangers deployed in Karachi seem adamant to shake up the senior most leadership of the PPP through Dr Asim Hussain. The rangers are not willing to free him from detention, letting different agencies such as the NAB file charges against him, and thereby keep him in custody.)

Haider’s bill was narrowly defeated but it pushed the government to offer the PPP negotiations over the issue. Federal law minister Zahid Hamid is reported to have contacted senators belonging to opposition parties, asking them to come to the negotiation table if they wanted to bring about changes in the NAB law. He suggested the government and the opposition form a joint parliamentary committee to review the provisions of that law.

The impact of these moves on the bureau has been predictable.

Asif Ali Zardari in 1990, signing documents to file a defamation case against three opposition leaders and five newspapers for leveling corruption charges against him | Hasan Bozai, White Star
Asif Ali Zardari in 1990, signing documents to file a defamation case against three opposition leaders and five newspapers for leveling corruption charges against him | Hasan Bozai, White Star

It was pursuing cases against politicians rather vigorously until early 2016, including more than 150 mega scams that date back to the early 2000s, some even to the 1990s. It was also very active in pursuing corruption cases against senior members of the previous PPP regime, including two former prime ministers, Yousuf Raza Gilani and Raja Pervaiz Ashraf.

After being reprimanded and castigated by political parties, it seems the NAB is now only going through procedural and judicial motions in most of these cases.

Many in the PTI also believe that the bureau is treating Sharif and his PMLN with kid’s gloves. Several old corruption references against the prime minister and the members of his family have been either dropped or are not being pursued as vigorously as they should have been, says the PTI. One reference that alleges that Finance Minister Ishaq Dar facilitated money laundering by Sharif and his family has been pending investigation and trial for more than 15 years.

After the PTI kept demanding investigations into corruption allegedly committed by the Sharifs, the NAB made a feeble attempt in the middle of 2014 to revive a paper mill corruption reference against them, as well as one over their sprawling estate near Raiwind. The Lahore High Court, however, rejected the bureau’s pleas for the revival of these cases.

A senior NAB official puts the blame for the failure on lack of preparations by his department. “There was no serious homework done,” he says.

Lieutenant Colonel (retd) Khalid Rasheed is a real estate agent in Rawalpindi. He, according to the daily Dawn, purchased 1,600 kanals of land from farmers and private landowners back in 2004 in a village called Takht Pari, on the outskirts of Rawalpindi city. That land, subsequently, became a bone of contention between him and Bahria Town, Pakistan’s largest private developer and builder.

Rasheed filed a complaint with the Anti-Corruption Establishment, Punjab, which in 2011 recommended action against some officials of the revenue department in Rawalpindi for allegedly favouring Bahria Town in the land dispute. The latter responded to the recommendation by filing a complaint with the NAB against Rasheed.

That led to the case being transferred from the Anti-Corruption Establishment to the NAB. And amid this transfer, a role reversal took place in 2013. Rasheed, the original complainant in the case, became an accused and a reference was filed against him at an accountability court in Rawalpindi.

He challenged the reference at the Supreme Court which ruled in his favour, directing the bureau to probe its officers who had turned him into an accused from a complainant. The accountability court also acquitted him later.

After being reprimanded and castigated by political parties, it seems the NAB is now only going through procedural and judicial motions in most of these cases.

Subsequent investigations proved him right and the NAB filed a reference on April 1, 2016 against three of its former officers – Khursheed Anwar Bhinder, Colonel (retd) Subha Sadiq and Mirza Shafiq – on the charges of misuse of authority. Bhinder was working as director general in the NAB Rawalpindi when the case first surfaced. Sadiq succeeded him in the same post while Shafiq was investigating officer in the case.

Rasheed is only partially happy. “NAB is still reluctant to file a reference against Bahria Town which is the real beneficiary of this misuse of authority,” he says. He has filed a petition at the Supreme Court, seeking the filing of a corruption reference against Bahria Town.

The case is emblematic of how the bureau is increasingly becoming involved in land scams, related to smaller players in the real estate market. The case of the Gulshan Dost Muhammad Housing Foundation, Pattoki, a small town near Lahore, further proves that point.

Jawwad S Khawaja, hearing the cases as a senior judge of the Supreme Court in February 2015, declared there was a state of lawlessness inside the NAB. He said the bureau’s officials were deliberately not arresting the main accused involved in a scam of collecting 80 million rupees from a large number of people in the name of the foundation.

These cases show that the direction of the NAB’s operations is changing — from corruption in high places to graft at a much smaller level. When it is not dealing with land scams, it targets petty criminals. In Quetta, for instance, the bureau has been pursuing the publishers of fake advertisements in newspapers.

With the shift in the bureau’s focus, progress in many important corruption cases appears to have stalled. The most vivid example of this is a corruption case in Quetta where anti-corruption authorities recovered 730 million rupees from the residence of then provincial finance secretary Balochistan, Mushtaq Ahmed Raisani, in May this year. One of the co-accused in the case is then provincial advisor on finance, Mir Khalid Langov.

Later, during a joint operation of the NAB in Quetta and Karachi, a number of properties were found in the Defence Housing Authority registered under either Raisani’s name or those of his front men. Some of the latter were also arrested.

Police escort former Balochistan finance secretary Mushtaq Ahmed Raisani after a recent hearing in Accountability Court, Quetta | INP
Police escort former Balochistan finance secretary Mushtaq Ahmed Raisani after a recent hearing in Accountability Court, Quetta | INP

Over the last five months, the case has seen little progress except some preliminary court hearings to seek the custody of the accused for investigation. When asked about it, Mohammad Irfan, additional director in the NAB Quetta, says “it is a sensitive case to speak about at present.”

The situation in Sindh is hardly different — in spite of a semblance of activity in corruption cases against Dr Asim Hussain and some other PPP members such as Sharjeel Memon, former provincial information minister. The list of pending cases at the NAB’s Karachi office includes some that involve corruption worth billions of rupees. Land usurped by Bahria Town and a contract awarded by the Karachi Port Trust officials for dredging and reclamation work to a Chinese company are just two of these.

One major case in which some progress is visible is that of Anwar Ahmed Zai who has been involved in massive corruption while working as chairman of the Board of Secondary Education, Karachi. He is under arrest and investigations are ongoing into his corrupt practices. The other case showing a similar kind of progress involves Ghulam Hyder Jamali, a former chief of the Sindh Police. He is being investigated for embezzlement of funds allocated for the provincial police during his tenure.

Officers at the NAB Quetta and Karachi say a number of procedural issues impede progress in corruption cases. “Our internal communication takes time,” says Irfan. Preparing the cases is also time-consuming, he says. For instance, he adds, it takes about 90 days to ascertain if the complaint filed against an accused is genuine. From then onwards, there is a lot of back and forth in sending and receiving documents to and from departments concerned with the case. One of the most difficult challenges is to find witnesses, he says. In most cases involving influential people, witnesses are extremely reluctant to come forward, he adds.

An officer at the Karachi office highlights another problem: Pakistan does not have a whistleblower law. As a result, the bureau relies mainly on leaks and tip-offs, he says.

The furore over the Panama Papers, made public in May this year, suggests it is not always the lack of evidence that hinders the NAB’s working. There is, obviously, no need for a whistleblower in this case. The initial evidence to start a corruption reference against those Pakistanis whose names appear in the papers does not need more investigating.

Yet, the bureau has taken no action. Imran Khan and his party allege that this is because of pressure from the government which does not want investigations into allegations that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif laundered money and sent it abroad illegally so that his children could use it to set up offshore companies and own offshore assets.

Dr. Asim Hussain | White Star
Dr. Asim Hussain | White Star

Indeed, the NAB is not the only institution that has not taken any action over the Panama Papers. The State Bank of Pakistan is reported to have said that it does not have the legal authority to probe the owners of offshore companies. The Public Accounts Committee of the National Assembly is also told by the law department officials that it has no power to deal with the issue. The Federal Board of Revenue has made a limp attempt to tackle the problem by sending out notices to the owners of offshore companies. The owners – including the prime minister’s children – have conveniently disregarded those notices.

So, what must Pakistan do to get rid of corruption?

Ashis Nandy, an Indian political psychologist, social theorist, and critic, believes there is not much that can be done. He does not feel that corrupt practices can be put to an end altogether. In a phone interview from Delhi, he says setting up anti-corruption boards or anti-corruption commissions is not a solution to the menace of corruption. Once these are set up, their officials will also start taking bribes after a while because they will become very important, he says. “This will open up a new [chapter] of corruption.”

Anti-corruption institutions, according to him, are not effective because they, too, are open to influence. “They are also open to nepotism [and] all kinds of wheeling and dealing.”

Nandy – who made headlines when he upset a low-caste Hindu leader in Rajasthan with his remarks at the Jaipur Literature Festival that corruption is a means for social and economic mobility among members of the poorer sections of society – wonders how many layers of institutions a government may require to check corruption. One day “you will have a super commission to supervise all the boards and commission” set up earlier, he says.

Nandy sees the prevalence of corruption in third world countries such as India and Pakistan as a by-product of electoral and democratic processes, which are empowering previously underprivileged sections of the society. These sections, he says, then seek their share of the pie and grab it illegally if they cannot have it through lawful means.

The second factor that promotes corruption is primordial affiliations. When someone makes it big in our part of the world, he wants to spread the benefits of his status to his family, to his village, to his caste, Nandy says.

That can only be possible through corruption, and through bending the rules.

This article was originally published in the Herald's October 2016 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.

Saher Baloch is a journalist and works for daily Dawn.

Umer Farooq is a journalist and works for DAWN TV.

Additional reporting done by Anum Sulaiman.