Pakistan’s ‘absconder’ dilemma
The Punjab government decided not to accept former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s application regarding extension of his eight-week bail that expired on December 24, and declared him an “absconder” for violating the bail requirements by not presenting his medical report before a board formed on the order of the Islamabad High Court (IHC).
The supreme leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) was convicted in corruption cases and disqualified from politics. The IHC granted him bail for eight weeks on medical grounds on October 29 last year. He left Pakistan for London on November 19 for medical treatment there. His younger brother and leader of the opposition in the National Assembly, Shahbaz Sharif, accompanied him.
When politicians run away, the law always and perhaps rightly places them in the wrong; but this raises some troubling questions. Who is to blame? There are almost as many answers to that question as there are cases in which politicians abscond; all shades of right and wrong can be found in such incidents. But Pakistani law, as it stands now, accepts only one answer: Absconding is an offense.
This conceals an awkward fact about the country’s law. The government of Punjab province cannot declare Sharif an absconder unless it presents its case to the IHC, which is authorized to render such a verdict. The government is naturally keen to force its way with intrusive regulation. But at the same time, it is reluctant to treat Sharif harshly when the medical problem claimed by the former prime minister is still in dispute.
The government has a standing law that aims to help confiscate the assets of high-value economic offenders absconding from Pakistan. It can exercise this law until the absconders submit to the jurisdiction of the appropriate legal forum.
That should be bad news for those who have fled the country leaving behind a stack of bad debts. However, it is widely felt that high-value political and economic offenders absconding from country defy the legal process and seriously undermine the rule of law in Pakistan. Hence the average voter feels it is necessary for the current government to deliver its pre-election promise and provide an effective, expeditious and constitutionally permissible deterrent to ensure that such actions are curbed. The law should provide for measures to deter economic and political offenders from evading the process of the law by remaining outside Pakistan courts’ jurisdiction.
Undoubtedly it is not easy to bring back these offenders. Recently former finance minister Ishaq Dar’s local property was seized by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) and converted into a shelter home. Nevertheless, efforts are continuing to bring Dar back from England, but people are losing faith and confidence in both the government and the NAB.
Rome was not built in a day. It will take time to control the deep-rooted corruption in Pakistan. As of now, anti-corruption campaigns in Pakistan dwell heavily on moral outrage. The incumbent government’s knee-jerk legislations are in tandem with this approach. While this moralistic approach can heighten public awareness on corruption, it fails to attain the lofty objectives that the campaigners set themselves out for and, therefore, cannot sustain beyond the initial hysteria.
Social justice and social security are critical for political and social stability. This scenario must not be allowed to fester. It has been understood that this is on the agenda of Prime Minister Imran Khan, while his government denies that it is under any form of political control. The public are already beginning becoming impatient as inflation, poverty and poor economic growth are hurting them, a situation that if allowed to continue, could result in egregious behavior. At the same time, the government cannot ignore the fact that justice delayed is justice denied.
This is why the government must not stay fixated on a few politicians and instead should focus on the underlying issues. It must genuinely adhere to the rule of law and at the same time address the concerns of those who believe that another deal like ex-dictator Pervez Musharraf’s National Reconciliation Ordinance has been made.
The danger is, this concern may not resonate with the messages of the government on political stability, rapid economic growth, poverty reduction and rural development. But to ignore public sentiments could have tragic results.
Pakistan’s ‘absconder’ dilemma