Politically Motivated Corruption Charges Are Lingering Effects of Dictatorships

Pakistan’s democratically elected President Asif Ali Zardari has suffered repeated accusation of corruption, including what is referred to in Pakistan as the so-called “Swiss Case.” What is largely missing from discussion of these charges, however, is historical context. These and other corruption charges were part of a widespread practice of using kangaroo courts to silence the democratic opposition to Pakistan’s past military dictators.

Dawn, a Pakistani English-language newspaper, reports that the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), a government agency created by Gen. Musharraf, has taken possession of the records from corruption and bribery cases filed against Asif Ali Zardari in Switzerland in the 1990s.

What is not reported, however, is that Daniel Zappelli, Geneva’s chief prosecutor, told Reuters that he had no evidence to bring Zardari to trial.

The fact is that the corruption cases brought against President Zardari – like legal cases brought against thousands of other political leaders during the 1990s – were part of a pattern of using the “accountability” courts and the NAB to bully and intimidate political opponents of military dictators.

The State Department’s 1999 Human Rights Report notes that, “Some persons expressed concern over the concentration of power in the NAB, the fact that the NAB chairman is a member of the military, and the presumption of guilt imposed on those tried for corruption.”

Asif Ali Zardari was more than just threatened with legal action, though. The same State Department report notes serious evidence of extreme physical torture by the Musharraf regime.

In May Asif Zardari, husband of former Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, was taken from prison to a police interrogation center in Karachi, where he was kept awake for 4 days, beaten, and cut with knives. On May 19, he was taken to a hospital for treatment. Observers doubted police claims that cuts on his neck were the result of a suicide attempt. In August the secretary general of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) noted in a public statement that the IPU was “alarmed” over the alleged torture of Zardari.

The most recent State Department Human Rights Report for Pakistan, released on March 10, states that problems with the NAB persist today, specifically that “in accountability cases there was a presumption of guilt.” Additional problems with the NAB exist, though. As stated in the State Department’s report:

Special rules apply to cases brought by the NAB or before antiterrorism courts. Suspects in NAB cases may be detained for 15 days without charge (renewable with judicial concurrence) and, prior to being charged, may be deprived of access to counsel. The NAB did not prosecute serving members of the military or judiciary. During the year the government removed NAB’s authority to prosecute politicians on new charges.

Additional questions about the legitimacy of the NAB courts arise when one considers that the original NAB ordinance promulgated under Gen. Musharraf’s dictatorship provide that cases be tried within 30 days.

At the end of Gen. Musharraf’s regime, a bill was passed providing amnesty for office holders who were charged, but not convicted, in cases filed between 1986 and 1999. As the Accountability courts were expected to try cases within 30 days, the fact that these charges remain unresolved suggests that they were politically motivated to begin with – something all but openly admitted by Gen. Musharraf when he adopted the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) in 2007.

The amnesty is part of a broader reconciliation package that includes measures to help ensure free elections and to discourage politically motivated corruption charges, all with the aim of establishing a new era of democracy, General Musharraf, said Thursday night in an interview with Dawn News, an English language television channel.

The State Department’s Human Rights Report in 2007 reached the same conclusion:

The NAB disproportionately targeted opposition politicians for prosecution and did not prosecute active duty members of the military; however, the government promulgated a national reconciliation ordinance on October 5 that provided a mechanism for withdrawing cases against some public office holders whose charges were politically motivated.

While the NRO was declared unconstitutional by Pakistan’s Supreme Court at the end of 2009, the fact remains that the unresolved charges left over from the 1990s were nearly universally agreed to be politically motivated attacks meant to silence democratic opposition to Pakistan’s then-dictators.

As Pakistani journalist Kamran Shafi wrote in his column, “We must never forget Ziaul Haq.”

Instead of removing his name from the squalid history of our poor country, Ziaul Haq’s name must be kept alive so that succeeding generations are reminded of the tyrant and his doings that so completely destroyed Pakistan and its social fabric.

And another thing. Will everyone stop hounding the so-called ‘NRO beneficiaries’? Everyone and Charlie’s Aunt knows that in most cases trumped-up charges were made against their detractors by successive Pakistani governments, dictatorships and others.

However, if those who are demanding action now that the NRO has been declared null and void feel they must go on regardless, it is their moral duty to also demand that the armed forces and the judiciary be made accountable under the same accountability laws too. Let us have no holy cows.

There is no place for official corruption in any government, certainly not in a free democracy. But the charges currently being discussed in Pakistan must be viewed in the context of the history from which they arose. Pakistan suffered severely under dictatorships in the 1990s. Despite Pakistan’s great progress towards democratization, residual effects of these dictatorships continue to cause confusion and distraction in the nation. It’s time for Pakistan to move on.

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