Whatever had happened at the Lahore NAB’s office on August 11 would have been averted if the Asghar Khan case had been brought to its logical conclusion. Asghar Khan was a democrat and wanted Pakistan to hold free and fair elections as a prelude to a democratic Pakistan. For him, the removal of Benazir Bhutto’s first government in 1990 was a hard pill to swallow. He could smell dirty interventions and remained steadfast to his permutation until 1996 when the former interior minister Naseerullah Babar, in his parliamentary address, acknowledged that the 1990 general elections were rigged by the ISI.
The agency was accused of distributing Rs140 million among politicians and journalists to prevent the PPP from returning to power. Following this statement, Khan filed a petition in the Supreme Court to expose the rigging trail, its facilitators, and the beneficiaries. As was expected, two different versions of the story were given in the court. Former army chief Gen (retd) Aslam Baig said that the money was distributed on the instructions of the president of Pakistan, Ghulam Ishaq Khan, while former ISI chief Lt Gen (retd) Asad Durrani blamed the army chief to have instructed the distribution of money. Unsolved, the case was thrown in the cold storage and was reopened after 16 years by Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry.
The proceedings of the case and its associated investigation proved that the ISI was running a political cell and was involved in manipulating the 1990 election results. The Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) was asked to further probe the case. Neither the FIA had reported back to the Supreme Court, nor had it inquired about the findings. The review petition filed by Gen (retd) Aslam Baig is also pending. The case was once again thrown in the cold store. Has it withered or is it still alive; nobody is sure. The fact is that had the case been solved, it would have cleansed the system of corrupt elements both in civil and military cadres. It would have also stopped the process of political engineering done in the name of accountability every five years. We may not have seen issues like Panama Papers either happening or used as an instrument to throw sitting governments. And we might not be seeing the fortress of accountability — the NAB — pulled apart by none other than the political forces of the country.
Unfortunately, Pakistan’s judicial system has failed to deliver. It is a pity that the august judges are considered a wedge that divides civil-military relations because of their compromises.
The myth of an independent judiciary fell apart as Iftikhar Chaudhry was reinstated in 2008. The lawyers become more aggressive and smeared the liberal face of the judiciary by lending legal and moral support to Mumtaz Qadri, the assassin of Salman Taseer. The wheel of justice kept to its traditional slow pace, while the Dogar and the Khosa courts passed judgments against one political party after another, labelling most of them as mafias.
Courts in Pakistan have been relieving criminals for lack of evidence; giving stay orders; and implicating politicians in cases that otherwise require parliamentary oversight. Imran Khan is right when he says that no nation can prosper if its judicial system is not dispensing justice. The painful part of this reality is that Imran has become part of the injustice by colluding with forces that have the power to pull strings.
Pakistan’s courts squandered two important occasions to reverse the fate of the country. One, when it failed to retain its independence after the lawyers’ movement. Two, when it refused to pursue the Ashgar Khan case. Democracy is not about elections only; it is about the implementation of constitutional laws. If the Constitution is tampered with and institutions are bypassed then the state begins to fall apart.
In a system where the process of accountability is questioned for its credibility, how would the wheel of justice even move, leave alone remain on the right course? How long will we tolerate incompetent governments, power-sharing military, and an accommodating judiciary? It is because of these three elements that Karachi has become macabre of destructive policies and Balochistan is groaning with pain from underdevelopment. Karachi and Balochistan are two important parts of Pakistan and both are in shambles.
If after 70 years state policies have failed to deliver then it is time to turn the policy around. The first step could be disbanding the present version of NAB and deworming the accountability process from political engineering.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 13th, 2020.