The inevitable has happened with a sense of resigned inevitability. V for vendetta?
One of these days, in one of these cases under one of these circumstances, Shehbaz Sharif was bound to make a one-way trip to the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) Headquarters in Lahore. You could hear the sharpening of those metaphorical knives inside the NAB office from miles away; you could see the sparks from the blades as they ground against the honing stone lighting up the sky above. The ‘if’ about his arrest had been buried long before, the ‘when’ was wrapped inside the sandpaper of imminence.
But what about the ‘why’? Ay, there’s the rub! The chatter says:
- Because he has been implicated in the Ashiana Case
Fair enough. Official reason this may be, but it begs a few questions (including those tweeted by famed lawyer Babar Sattar) that someone or the other from the arresting authorities should answer. For instance: (a) Was he arrested because he was not cooperating? He seems to have gone to the NAB office every time he was summoned. (b) Was he arrested because NAB feared he would abscond? He is the Leader of the Opposition and leading his party, so would he really cut a one-way ticket to Neverland never to return? (c) Was he arrested because he was in a position to influence the investigation? He does not hold any executive office any more.
NAB investigators have been digging into the Ashiana Case for a while now. Two high-profile arrests have already taken place — senior bureaucrats Ahad Cheema and Fawad Hassan Fawad — and a treasure trove of evidence are available with NAB as per its claim. If that be the case, then shouldn’t the grounds for Shehbaz’s arrest have been spelt out clearly, cogently and convincingly? Shouldn’t someone galloping on the official hobbyhorse laid out the detailed reasons for why it was important to arrest the Leader of the Opposition? Wouldn’t this have quelled all legal confusions, political assumptions and conspiracy theories?
- Because the PML-N should be weakened before by-polls.
This reasoning is, for obvious reasons, favoured by the PML-N and its supporters. For them it makes political sense: why else would ‘they’ arrest Shehbaz a few days before by-polls that the PML-N feels it can perform well in? A natural parallel is drawn with the arrest of Nawaz Sharif, Maryam Nawaz and Capt (retd) Safdar on the eve of the July general elections, only to be bailed out two months later. But more than a convenient theory, this line of argument –prevalent and popular as it is — betrays a dangerous undercurrent.
Manifest in this is the latent recognition that Shehbaz’s arrest is primarily political, and hence not technically legal, and hence mala fide. Manifest also in this is that NAB does somebody else’s bidding, and hence is independent only in name, and hence is a tool to be used by those in power against those who are not in power. Why else would ‘they’ arrest Shehbaz if not for some partisan reason that has rather little to do with the watertight legal requirements of the case?
So why would ‘they’ do this? And who are ‘they’?
Once the line of reasoning has sown doubts about NAB’s ability to retain its independence, ‘they’ could be any person or institution that can possibly have a vested interest in Shehbaz’s arrest. Roam free in the land of conspiracy theory and there’s a-plenty low-hanging fruit to pluck.
But till very recently, such reasoning did not fall within the realm of conspiracy theories. Till very recently, NAB was being berated by the Supreme Court for its less than scintillating performance. Till very recently political people were being legally hounded for very political reasons. Till very recently weak judgments were wreaking havoc in the land of statutes. And till very recently, NAB prosecution’s case, built on its investigators’ case, based on seemingly solid evidence, was being rubbished by higher courts. So you see, some conspiracy theories tend to grow legs, and walk.
NAB is a responsible — though a bit eager — organisation. It has sweeping powers crafted by sweeping legislation enacted for swooping on those who monkey around with laws, rule and regulations. NAB also has a swagger that has of late been laced with a hint of the saviour syndrome. Yes, the same saviour syndrome that is trending across the country like an angry sea reclaiming land.
Responsibility demands restraint. Restraint defies swagger. Swagger can slip into sloppy work. NAB cannot afford sloppy work. Not when so much is at stake on its investigation and prosecution.
The rhetoric gushing down from tall ramparts since last year has mostly been about fixing this broken system through a combination of structural reform, institutional equilibrium and ruthless, across-the-board accountability. These terminologically heavy terms require a heavier sense of purpose to transform them into a reality. Such purpose does not compromise on the strict rule of law; does not dilute due diligence at the altar of a self-declared higher purpose; and certainly does not melt the steel frame of precedence with the scorching flames of messianic vigour.
Much has been hacked away to build anew this broken system. Much price has been paid by this country in the hope that a fresh beginning is around the bend. At a time when the old has been bulldozed and the new is still contoured by words alone, confidence is the only thing holding this system together. It is a confidence borne of a belief that the institutions that we all revere have things under control, that they have a plan and an ability to execute it, and that they can see around the bend even when we cannot.
Shehbaz’s arrest needs to feed this belief, not rupture it. The belief will be fed through evidence that proves beyond a shadow of doubt that he is a victim not of any devious political machinations, but of his own intolerance for due process. Such evidence will need to hold up in court via a prosecution that banks less on rhetorical grandstanding and more on the irrefutability of its indictment. That is a tall order for an organisation that messed up the other brother’s case in the Accountability Court. If in doubt, read the detailed judgment of the Islamabad High Court that bailed out Nawaz Sharif and his daughter.
V for vigour. V for veracity. V for vendetta. Guess which one we cannot afford.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 7th, 2018.