Crisis of Conscience
By Imtiaz Gul
Express Tribune, January 05, 2017
Events since April last year, when the Panama Papers caused ripples across the world, and the ensuing debates in Pakistan, leave little doubt that this finds itself in throes of a crisis of conscience, spearheaded by the status quo stakeholders including the military, politicians, business tycoons, legal wizards and media czars. Endless cutting remarks by the former chief justice Anwar Zaheer Jamali and many of the present judges were an indicator for this crisis of integrity.
Similarly, the Panama Papers’ case represents a test for Pakistan’s senior judiciary. The outcome will also help us understand whether personal morality and financial integrity count at all in a country or will the judges adjudicate the matter based on legal arguments and “insufficient evidence.” If they opt for the latter, this will only reinforce the fact that Pakistan remains caught in a severe crisis of integrity because of the multiple powerful nexuses that exist.
Back in mid-1980s, the chief minister of a German province, Schleswig-Holstein, committed suicide after he was caught lying before parliament and the press. Similarly, a former German president, Christian Wulff, stepped down in 2012 following a series of financial scandals and the request by a provincial prosecution department to lift his immunity which allowed them to interrogate him. Wulff did not ask for the “proof first”. Neither did he insist on retaining immunity from prosecution.
In this unfortunate country, integrity hardly matters. Even the most honourable legal brains stand up before the court to defend notorious wheelers-dealers. Pakistan seems to be ruled by mighty political, legal, business and media cartels. All benefit also from the powerful military establishment which picks and chooses its favourites as and when needed. These alliances of convenience survive and thrive at the cost of the teeming hapless millions of citizens. And litigation keeps piling up for two simple reasons: a) the regime guiding the legal justice is the dated Criminal Procedures Code, and b) reluctance to deploy moral integrity for judging crime and corruption.
And the accused conveniently hide these two reasons to evade accountability, hiring lawyers with hefty fees to buy delays and acquittals. One example of course is the plea bargain that the National Accountability Bureau offers even to those caught red-handed. Pakistan’s current parliament offers another example of an arrangement among the ruling elites for mutual accommodation and protection. This also prompted the Supreme Court last August to stop the prime minister from unilateral decisions on fiscal matters. Even thereafter, the small Economic Coordination Committee (ECC) of the cabinet has been performing the roles of both the executive and the legislature, and not the cabinet. Nor has parliament been consequential in challenging arbitrary ECC decisions.
This is evident from the fact that Parliament acted as a silent spectator when the executive was exercising its powers through the ECC, evident from the staggering Rs1.2 trillion new taxes, most of which was levied through presidential ordinances, ECC and Statutory Regulatory Orders (SROs). Ironically, despite the massive taxation, Pakistan’s official revenues continue to slip; the Federal Board of Revenue (FBR) registered a staggering shortfall of more than Rs127 billion in tax collection for the first half of 2016-17 fiscal year.
It is no surprise indeed; when those ruling the country themselves patronise those evading taxes and manage to mould public opinion and manipulate laws with the help of the windfalls they make through unethical alliances, who fell pressured to cough up taxes. Why should revenue collection improve if the FBR itself is as much an instrument of corruption as NAB, whose functionaries have thrived not only off plea bargain but also of behind-the-scenes manipulations?
The Supreme Court functions in this undesirable context and we should not be surprised if these conditions bear down on the outcome of the Panama Case as well. Will we see a repeat of what happened to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto?
Imtiaz Gul is the executive director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies