Opinion: Accountability – still a far cry?

WEB DESK: Federal and Punjab governments’ blocking of all roads leading to Islamabad and Rawalpindi, bashing of PTI and AML activists by Punjab Police, and siege of Banigala prevented the ‘lockdown’ of Islamabad; this afforded the PPP and other parties the opportunity to label Imran Khan a coward, compromiser, and a leader who deserted his supporters in testing times.

But the fact is that by preventing unarmed protestors from reaching Islamabad the PML-N regime tarnished its image and created the environment wherein fulfilling the PTI and AML demand for investigating the Panama Leaks became imperative. PPP’s unadmitted regret is that credit for this success has gone to PTI and AML.

The Supreme Court’s (SC) decision to speedily probe the Panama Leaks, which the other concerned state authorities opted not to do for over seven months citing their ‘inabilities’, manifests the success of those (not the PPP that despite demanding the same didn’t join the November 1 and 2 protests) earnestly demanding this probe.

In the April 27 session of the Senate’s Standing Committee on Finance, Deputy Governor of the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) admitted SBP’s incapacity to probe the Panama Leaks, and a SECP Commissioner admitted that Pakistanis are investing in offshore companies as a “routine matter”, and offshore companies had invested in 192 companies in Pakistan.

During the National Assembly’s August 10 session, the FBR disclosed that it is collecting data on the Panama Leaks. Once received, that data would be matched with taxpayers’ record available with FBR, and if a person “has filed income tax returns and that information matches the declared particulars of his/her income, no further action will be taken”.

“But if that’s not so, he/she will be issued a notice under Sec. 114 of the Income Tax Ordinance-2001 to file income tax returns”, and in Finance Minister’s view, by filing tax returns for the period wherein tax was evaded the culprit could be forgiven under the Protection of Economic Reforms Act-1992 (legacy of an earlier PML-N regime) that shields the committers of flight of capital.

An example of how the concerned state authorities ignored flight of capital was the prolonged advertising campaign in the newspapers as well as on TV channels back in 2014 inviting Pakistanis to invest millions in properties in the UAE and Saudi Arabia, but the SBP, NAB, and media owners/editors ignored all requests for stopping this campaign.

Mounting pressure for prosecuting the entities named in Panama Leaks has exposed nominal progress in the 170 mega corruption cases being investigated by NAB – authority possessing much of the requisite evidence and tasked with investing and punishing financial misconduct, especially by public officeholders. As for FIA, it insists that as per the FIA Act-1974, it can’t initiate legal action against public officeholders.

FBR informed the SC that during the post-Panama Leaks 7-month-period, it couldn’t nab any of the named entities because, while notices were issued to 336 of them, details about the nature of their assets abroad, quantum of wealth invested, and their bank accounts weren’t unavailable. FBR investigators were therefore tasked with gathering this data from different sources.

FBR also admitted before the SC that even postal addresses of 108 entities weren’t available and efforts were underway for tracing all critical details. Of the 336 entities contacted thus far, only 133 had responded to the notices, and a large number thereof had challenged the legal grounds for initiation of inquiries about their investments abroad.

Once sufficient data is collected, FBR will proceed against these entities as per the provisions of Income Tax Ordinance-2001. In mid-October, during a meeting of senior officers of the SBP, FBR and SECP, the Finance Minister had asked them to contact the governments of known tax havens through the Foreign Ministry to obtain necessary data and documentary evidence.

The most amazing FBR admission was that it is “waiting for the outcome of political dialogue on constitution of a judicial commission or stipulation of the ToRs by the SC.” Impliedly, if the ToRs remain a controversial issue, FBR may not push harder for gathering the data connecting the entities named in the Panama Leaks with flight of capital and money-laundering.

The SC appears committed to investigating the Panama Leaks, as manifested by its decision to form an inquiry commission having the powers of the SC under Article 190 of the constitution, and its resolve to draft the ToRs for this commission if the government and the opposition fail (as done thus far) to draft mutually agreed ToRs. Above all is the SC’s resolve to speedily complete this investigation.

In the November 3 hearing of the petitions for investigating the Panama Leaks, the Chief Justice referred to media focus on these proceedings and warned that if this case is adjourned the media may conclude that the state is being “given time”. Thereafter he promised that the SC won’t let the investigation drag on, but political tactics for dragging this probe have begun.

The PPP leadership – as scared of accountability as PML-N’s – insists that the SC cannot draft the ToRs because that’s the prerogative of the parliament, ignoring the fact that had the parliament legislated unbiasedly on the issue of financial crimes, and not hindered investigations thereon, there won’t be any cases of money laundering pending against both PPP and PML-N leaderships.

The other factor that may drag this inquest is the “commitment” of the NAB, FIA, SBP, and SECP to ensuring the success of this effort partly due to lack of supportive legislation and partly because of the political pressure under which they have functioned during the last three decades – fruits of self-serving legislation courtesy the “supremacy” of our parliament.

Advocate Hamid Khan of the PTI filed what seemed credible evidence against the Prime Minister (PM) and his accused family members, and posed difficult questions based thereon to the respondents forcing the PM’s accused family members to seek more time yet again for failing their response – an image-damaging request that should have been avoided.

Challenges facing the PML-N over accountability of its leadership worry the PPP about likely accountability of its leadership on the cases pending with NAB, and the protests beginning November 7 promised by the PPP won’t be blocked the way were the protests by PTI and AML – a tactic to slow down, in fact block the belated process of accountability.

A scenario wherein future of Pakistan’s top-ranking political parties is at stake due to their abhorrence for accountability mandates cleansing Pakistan’s democracy to make it a true democracy. Ironically, by refusing to cleanse their rank and file – action that could revive the masses’ faith in them – these parties are tarnishing democracy’s image and endangering its future in Pakistan.

Source: Business Recorder