Though people are being probed and arrested on corruption charges in all provinces of the country, the campaign is the most intense in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The reason is simple. Unlike Punjab, Sindh and Balochistan, KP has three institutions tasked with going after the corrupt.
One is the National Accountability Bureau, the biggest and until now the fiercest of them all. Another is the Anti-Corruption Establishment, which has been in business for years and has kept a low profile since the emergence of new and bigger players in the game such as NAB. And then we have the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Ehtesab Commission, the new entrant with the ambition to cleanse the province of corruption.
Add to it the ubiquitous Federal Investigation Agency and we have in KP a formidable array of corruption-fighting institutions that on occasion seem to be in fierce rivalry with each other and sometimes chasing the same suspects. Surely, at times there is duplication of effort and wastage of time and resources.
Other provinces don’t have the Ehtesab Commission, a brainchild of the PTI Chairman Imran Khan and the outcome of his promise made during the 2013 general election campaign. The commissioning of the Ehtesab Commission last October gave KP the distinction of being the only province where more institutions – compared to other provinces – are busy identifying and punishing those allegedly involved in corruption and misuse of power.
In fact, questions are being asked about why KP has been singled out for the most aggressive anti-corruption campaign. Some consider it unfair, others believe it is a witch hunt. Another frequent question is whether the people in KP, or to be precise those in positions of power, are more corrupt than their counterparts in other provinces. However, those in favour of ruthless accountability think the presence of more such anti-corruption organisations would promote healthy competition between them to bring a higher number of accused to justice.
Imran Khan had vociferously raised the slogan of accountability while accusing Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N and Asif Ali Zardari’s PPP of tolerating and protecting the corrupt and conniving with each other to cover their own corruption. The PTI chief wanted to make everyone accountable, irrespective of his and her status in society. His party’s KP Chief Minister Pervez Khattak backed the initiative to set up the Ehtesab Commission. Despite being in politics for more than 30 years and after serving as a provincial minister a few times, there has been no corruption scandal against him. He was, therefore, better suited to lead the campaign against corruption. In a way he encouraged the Ehtesab Commission Director General, Lt Gen (r) Hamid Khan, to carry out across-the-board accountability by declaring time and again that it could even take action against the chief minister.
Hamid Khan, who served as corps commander Peshawar and led the military action against the militants in Fata before retiring from service as the president of the National Defence University, was a surprising but suitable choice to head the Ehtesab Commission. He accepted the offer to take the job after being assured that there would be no government interference in his work.
Hamid Khan was a no-nonsense general during service. He has the strength of character to resist pressure from any quarter. The speed with which the Ehtesab Commission started arresting those suspected of involvement in corruption earned him the enmity of many influential people. It won’t be surprising if the PTI leadership and provincial government have now started regretting their decision to make him the Ehtesab Commission head.
The arrests made so far show that the Ehtesab Commission made an effort to be even-handed in its work. The first government official arrested by it for his involvement in a land scam was the father of a PTI MPA. This helped build trust in the Ehtesab Commission as a credible organisation willing to make accountable even those considered close to the ruling PTI. The subsequent arrests of senior bureaucrats, a former PPP provincial minister and certain well-connected civilians helped establish the Ehtesab Commission’s credentials as an independent-minded organisation. The chief coordination officer in the chief minister’s native Nowshera district was also apprehended as if responding to Pervez Khattak’s message that nobody, including his appointees, would be spared.
Such arrests give lie to allegations by the chief minister’s rivals that he established the Ehtesab Commission to settle political scores with his opponents. If one were to believe the grapevine, the list of those to be arrested in the near future will establish beyond doubt that the Ehtesab Commission is neither protecting anyone nor acting on someone’s behalf to victimise the rivals of the PTI-led provincial government.
However, questions could be raised about the legal status and working of the Ehtesab Commission. Due to the poor performance of the provincial law department, an unbelievable mistake was made while seeking passage of the Ehtesab Commission Act, 2014 from the KP Assembly. In its original form, the act allowed probing cases from 2014 onward only. The assembly was asked in early April to amend the act so that corruption cases from 2004 onward could also be probed. Another legal issue concerned the judicial remand of the accused that the Ehtesab Commission could seek from the court in light of the act presently in force.
Lawyers of some of the accused exploited this loophole and persuaded the Peshawar High Court to grant bail to at least four important persons in Ehtesab Commission’s custody. The delay in making the two Ehtesab Courts operational also affected the Ehtesab Commission’s work. Also, a strong legal challenge has been mounted by some of the accused to question the Ehtesab Commission’s existence and powers.
In comparison, NAB with its 15 years of experience is well-positioned to tackle legal issues and operational challenges in the pursuit of its objectives. It also has an edge, being a federal institution empowered to operate in the whole country and capable of overriding other anti-corruption bodies confined to the provinces, including KP’s Ehtesab Commission. The NAB bosses proudly claim having recovered Rs265 billion to date from the corrupt and the criminal largely through plea-bargains. They point out that during this period Rs10 billion were spent on NAB operations, which included running its Islamabad headquarters and seven regional offices with a total staff of around 2,000. They claim a conviction rate of 74 percent from the courts for the accused in NAB custody compared to the average 10 percent convictions in other cases in Pakistan.
In KP, NAB has made direct recoveries of Rs2,865 million. The figures from March 2014 to April 2015 are an astounding Rs1,455 million compared to Rs1,410 million during the 14-year period from 2000 to February 2014. Also impressive are the figures of arrests – 165 – and references filed – 42 – during the March 2014-April 2015 period. These figures matter as NAP KP is now in competition with the KP Ehtesab Commission. In fact, the number of arrests by these two organisations as well as by the provincial Anti-Corruption Establishment has registered a sudden increase in recent months.
It is obvious there is a race among them to arrest not only more suspects, but also those with a high profile. At times, it seems there is a tussle over which of these organisations is the first to get a particular accused person. It needs to be emphasised that the law must be followed and the ends of justice met while investigating and prosecuting the accused. The accused is innocent until found guilty by a court of law, but in cases of corruption the reputation of the person is destroyed the moment he or she is arrested and charged with committing unproven crimes.
The writer is resident editor of The News in Peshawar. Email: email@example.com