IMRAN Khan came into power, riding on high seed of moral principle of accountability, backed by yearnings and aspirations of people and law of the land. He did not wave even when fallen many times before making to pinnacle of power to realize his deep political obsession. He remained resolute and steadfast even over a painful period of 22 years. Nation believed him despite a number of inadequacies he had because credibility which he has is rare however, more recently, a change could be noticed in his earlier vows of bringing corrupt bigwigs to altar of real accountability. Earlier he professed and also feverishly affirmed in Parliament on his first day in power. He would neither spare looters of the country nor would he allow NRO of any kind to anyone who has robbed national wealth. Now he has started saying while referring to his political rivals, accused of massive corruption that if you want to save yourselves from languishing in jails, there is only one out gate: return nation’s money. It is an unmistakable signal to them to avail an easy and tempting outlet of plea bargain from adversity in waiting. It is a qualitative departure from what he used to say earlier because inherently grant of plea bargain is a partial accountability.
While hearing on suo motu case regarding NAB’s law of plea bargain, Supreme Court also observed that crimes could not be curbed on voluntary return of money or with any administrative order under provision of this law. The conservatives as well as liberals call it a perversion of justice for different set of reasons. The plea bargain is tantamount to constructing a hedge unfairly for malefactors to dodge a well merited and necessary punishment. It deprives victims and society of their chance of perfect justice including future protection from same or other bunch of criminals. In short, it kills retributive goal of criminal justice system. “Men are not hanged for stealing horses but that horses may not be stolen”- George Savile, an English statesman. Underlying point is that severity of punishment ought to be proportionate to gravity of offence to deter crimes. The laxity in sentencing acts to the detriment of accountability.
Pakistan is on crossroads of its destiny. This may sound to some superfluous because this has been pretty routine phenomena in our chequered history. Yes, it is true but we hardly did anything to regain lost moorings. We continued to lose one after the other indifferently. Resultantly, now we are left with a wreckage which could no more take battering of any kind. The situation is beyond the stage of last straw on camel back. No sphere of national life seems left uncontaminated. Main reason is huge corruption particularly, by those who had mandate to govern the country but indulged themselves in its loot and plunder to crippling effect with impunity which in return became chief cause of corruption to grow sky high unboundedly. This not only emptied national coffers and pushed us to crafty debt trap, laid by our nemeses but also atrophied the country almost in every sense.
This is no overstatement because corruption unfettered erode people’s faith on systems of the country and set train of ensuing ramifications into motion. We have to finish corruption if we want to revive ourselves meaningfully. Key lies in real accountability, not in soft option of plea bargain. In Pakistan, its history is replete of examples wherein, after paying a pittance to state, culprits not only insulated themselves against accountability but also kept lion’s share of loot in their kitty. Admittedly, a politician taking plea bargain, also stands disqualified to hold public office or contest elections for ten years. In addition, he is stigmatized. Academically, this may have some element of deterrence. In our case, it is not so because marooned people tend to ignore this. This has already happened. In case of Zardari, it was to some extent. In case of Nawaz Sharif, it was to quite large extent and continue to exist upon an argument albeit absurd that he eats money but also spends on country. This testifies a fact that corruption also shreds moral and social fabric of society.
This is an intangible cost which a society polluted with corruption, has to make. By taking into account existing state of NAB and other institutions, it may be somewhat safe to foretell that ruling elite can get away from prison by paying partly amount under plea bargain and could still remain in political arena. Out of sight, they are no force as was witnessed in time of General Musharraf when Benazir and Nawaz Sharif were on self-exile but a force to be reckoned with when both came in the country under (in-)famous NRO. The grant of plea bargain would also dampen spirit of change in the nation. It may be quickly assumed that nothing could change in this country which has indirectly supported cause of status quo greatly in the past. An upbeat in a nation is a great asset. Without meaning to prejudice their right of fair trial, these bigwigs be made to undergo mills of real accountability. They deserve it most because they have not only stolen national wealth immeasurably but have also robbed future of nation mercilessly and country neither could afford another spell of corruption nor spate of subterfuges which they would resort to compulsively to revive their sagging fortunes.
— The writer, retired Lt Col, is freelance columnist based in Islamabad.