Pakistan’s opposition leaders arrested as part of government’s ‘accountability drive’
Islamabad: Former President Asif Ali Zardari was arrested in fake accounts and money laundering cases after the Islamabad High Court (IHC) rejected the appeal for an extension of pre-arrest bail of Zardari and his sister Faryal Talpur. The security forces and National Accountability Bureau (NAB) officials, however, arrested only the former president from his residence in Islamabad.
The PML-N has accused the PTI of influencing the accountability process since taking over the reins of the government, which the opposition parties allege was done at the behest of the all-powerful military establishment, but sources within the ruling Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) have revealed that Prime Minister Imran Khan has been unhappy with the NAB chairman for a while.
In 2015, the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) started an investigation in fake accounts case in Summit Bank, Sindh Bank and United Bank Limited (UBL) following a tip-off. Zardari and Talpur are allegedly involved in money laundering of Rs 150 million through fake accounts.
Initially, the FIA nominated ten individuals, including Zardari and Talpur of laundering money through fake accounts. Later, the apex court took suo moto notice of delay in the case and formed a Joint Investigation Team (JIT) to probe the matter. The JIT found another 33 suspicious accounts, involving 170 individuals.
The PML-N leader Hamza Shehbaz, the son of party president Shehbaz Sharif and nephew of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, was arrested by the NAB in Ramzan Sugar Mills and possessing assets beyond the means, after the Lahore High Court (LHC) rejected his interim bail in the cases.
The Punjab Assembly opposition leader was investigated by NAB alongside his father Shehbaz Sharif. On April 5, NAB failed to arrest Hamza, after facing strong resistance from Hamza’s bodyguards and PML-N supporters. The next day, April 6, the monetary watchdog was once again embarrassed, when it could not arrest the junior Sharif from his residence after a lengthy standoff with PML-N supporters and bodyguards. The standoff ended when a Lahore High Court (LHC) bench granted protective bail to Hamza Shehbaz.
Arrests part of PM Khan’s promise?
The ruling party celebrated the arrests calling them a ‘promise fulfilled’ by Prime Minister Imran Khan. A vow of Khan’s election campaign was ‘accountability against corrupt’.
PM Imran Khan has announced the formulation of a high-powered commission to investigate the loans being taken by former governments in last decade. The commission will include officials of the Intelligence Bureau (IB), Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Securities and Exchange Commission of Pakistan (SECP), Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), and Federal Board of Revenue (FBR).
“After putting to rest the initial focus on stabilising the economy, my focus will be towards bringing the ones to task who brought the country to such plight,” PM Khan said in a national address televised late on Tuesday night.
The opposition parties are dubbing the move an act of political revenge and a stunt designed to distract the masses from the multi-pronged economic crisis. The arrests have further unified the opposition parties after the top leadership of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-F), Awami National Party (ANP) and Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) had sat together on May 19, to initiate a protest movement against the government.
“NAB is dancing to the tunes of the puppet prime minister. Those who do this have never able to save themselves from the wrath of history in the past, and same will happen now,” tweeted PML-N Vice President Maryam Nawaz, the daughter of Nawaz Sharif. In another tweet, she asked Hamza Shehbaz to stay strong and “keep his head high”.
The PPP leadership maintains that the party has a history of being targeted by authoritarian regimes, with its leaders being regularly imprisoned.
“NAB is working under the instruction of this government and is not an independent institution at all. PTI leaders like Usman Dar themselves have stated that he has seen files of opposition leaders like Khawaja Asif. This shows the low credibility of this institution,” said PPP leader Naz Baloch.
The PML-N has accused the PTI of influencing the accountability process since taking over the reins of the government, which the opposition parties allege was done at the behest of the all-powerful military establishment.
Nawaz Sharif, the PML-N supreme leader and three-time prime minister, had accused the military establishment of being responsible for his ouster as the PM in July 2017, when Sharif was disqualified as the premier following the Panama Papers investigation. Nawaz Sharif is currently in Lahore’s Kot Lakhpat Jail serving a seven-year sentence in the Al-Azizia Steel Mills case.
Meanwhile, the government has rejected the oppositions’ allegations of being military-backed, and of influencing the accountability process. The PTI leadership has also touted the alliance between the PPP and the PML-N as being designed to dodge the cases of corruption, which the government maintains is largely responsible for the economic crisis in the country.
“Those who have been trying to sideline the PM are those who have been sidelines themselves owing to their actions. The government won’t compromise on ridding the country of corrupt people,” maintained Firdous Ashiq Awan, the Special Assistant to Prime Minister on Information.
PML-N leader, and former spokesperson of the Punjab government, Malik Ahmad Khan condemned the recent arrests.
“I’m not surprised by the arrests at all. The entire plan was revealed by the NAB chairman himself in a recent interview. This is nothing but political revenge, which will not be accepted by PML-N or other opposition parties,” he said.
However, the government is adamant that NAB’s actions aren’t pushed by the government, and that the bureau is working independently to probe corruption cases across the country.
“There was a two-party system and these two parties [the PML-N and the PPP] used to take turns to loot Pakistan. The current government will not let that happen. This is exactly what the Prime Minister wants, but the NAB is an independent institute acting in accordance with its policies, not taking orders from anyone,” said PTI leader and Minister for Water Resources Faisal Vawda.
NAB, not free from controversy
Even NAB has seen its fair shares of controversy and criticism when a video leaked by a local TV channel last month, showing the chairman of NAB’s Justice (R) Javed Iqbal conversing inappropriately with a woman, added more scepticism to the ongoing accountability drive in the country.
The woman, who is seen and heard interacting with Justice Iqbal in the video, alleged that the NAB chairman threatened to initiate accountability inquiries against her if she didn’t fulfil his desires.
The NAB rejected the video, maintaining that it was fabricated to target the chairman. It has also booked the woman, Tayyaba Gul, and accomplice Farooq Nol as leaders of a blackmailing ring that had made PKR 24.4 million out of similar fraud.
News One, the channel that aired the video initially, on May 23, retracted the footage later the same day, with Taher A Khan, the channel’s owner, issuing an apology immediately. However, the timing of the video’s release has generated speculation.
PM Khan believed that the NAB chairman has been lenient in dealing with leaders of the opposition parties the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), with the latter’s president, Shehbaz Sharif, even being allowed to go to the UK.
Furthermore, PM Khan has not been pleased with the NAB going after the PTI’s leaders in the ongoing accountability drive. Recently, the NAB has initiated proceedings against Defence Minister Pervez Khattak.
Earlier this year, Justice Iqbal said that even ‘Imran Khan does not enjoy immunity from proceedings’. Khan has also publicly expressed his displeasure with Justice Iqbal over NAB officials dealings in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, a province that the PTI has governed since 2013.