There’s a new sheriff in town. Justice (retd) Javed Iqbal, a former judge of the Supreme Court, has taken charge of the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) at a time when all eyes are on the country’s top anti-graft body to take corrupt politicians to task, a job seen best suited for serving and retired judges as well as soldiers. Iqbal replaces Qamar Zaman Chaudhry, a retired major of the army.
The new NAB chief has many fish to fry, the biggest of whom is the Sharif family. With multiple corruption references against Nawaz Sharif, his children, son-in-law and co-father-in-law Ishaq Dar, Iqbal and his team are already under immense pressure from at least one part of the opposition, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). His name was approved after a consensus between the prime minister and leader of the opposition as is mandated in its ordinance. But the PTI is unhappy over what it sees to be an act of collusion between the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). Fortunately for Iqbal, he is used to skirting pressure.
He briefly served as the chief justice of the Balochistan High Court before being elevated to the Supreme Court in 2004. He also served as the acting chief justice of the apex court following the suspension of Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry by General (retd) Pervez Musharraf in March 2007. Iqbal did not, however, take oath under Musharraf’s controversial Provisional Constitutional Order and was only reinstated by the subsequent government led by PPP.
Iqbal has been at the helm of two important commissions after his retirement from the Supreme Court in 2011. He is presently heading the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances, a task he says he will relinquish once he has submitted the latest report his team has compiled. Previously, he headed the commission formed to investigate the American raid that led to the death of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad in 2011 — its report was leaked by an international media organisation but was never officially made public.
Though Iqbal has held many important positions in his career, he has also managed to remain uncontroversial. None of his court judgements are known to be particularly radical. Even the final Abbottabad Commission Report is said to be a ‘watered-down version’ of its earlier drafts, leaving out some of the ‘aggressive’ remarks against the military.
His latest charge, NAB, itself can be seen as an aide of the status quo. It was formed in 1999 by Pervez Musharraf, ostensibly to punish those found to have their hands in the national kitty, but in practice to keep certain people out of politics and bring certain others in. In many a judgment, the Supreme Court has castigated NAB for its lackadaisical performance, particularly in the Panama Papers case. Its mechanisms of plea bargain and voluntary return, which enables perpetrators to get away by returning plundered money, have also faced severe criticism.
There is also the matter of jurisdiction. Following the 18th amendment, corruption has been devolved to a provincial subject. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has already established its own accountability commission while Sindh tried to repeal the NAB ordinance but was blocked by the Sindh High Court. Provincial autonomy to tackle corruption leaves NAB, a federal body, even more controversial. It is also unclear what will happen to NAB and Javed Iqbal in the event that political parties succeed in reaching a consensus on a new accountability law to replace the existing ordinance.
In one of his first statements after being appointed as NAB’s chairman, Iqbal vowed to bring “across the board accountability”. Judges and generals, however, remain out of NAB’s purview. They insist on internal accountability devices and vehemently resist any attempt to bring them under civilian control. This then leaves only politicians to face the music — in this case a dissonant cacophony of selective justice.
This article was published in the Herald's November 2017 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.