May 25, 2020
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A Thief To Catch A Thief

Benazir is not the victim of a witch-hunt; she is guilty as hell. But what we have now is just ‘one-sided accountability’

A Thief To Catch A Thief

THERE are no legal surprises in the conviction of ex-prime minister Benazir Bhutto and husband Asif Zardari for corruption by the Lahore high court, a sentence which carries a five-year prison term, a joint fine of US$ 8.6 million and disqualification from parliament

Evidence of US$ 8.6 million in kickbacks to Benazir and Zardari for granting pre-inspection customs rights to two Swiss companies during Benazir’s tenure as premier was proffered by the Swiss authorities who have already indicted three Swiss nationals for corruption in the same case.

Nor is it true, as Benazir has alleged, that Justice Abdul Qayyum, one of the two judges on the bench, was historically "biased" because "his brother is a Muslim League legislator and his father was on the bench which sentenced Mr Z.A. Bhutto to death".

Benazir didn’t make these allegations when the supreme court established the bench. She didn’t raise objections during the first nine months of the trial. She clutched at them at the fag end when cast-iron proof of wrongdoing was presented by the prosecution.

For much the same reason, Benazir is not the victim of a "witch-hunt". That term connotes a frame-up; it refers to an innocent person wrongly accused and unfairly adjudged. But Benazir and her husband were guilty as hell and they have been adjudged as such.

There had been doubts whether senator Saif-ur-Rehman, a pal of prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who chairs the notorious Accountability Bureau that prosecuted the case, would pursue it to its political end. Indeed, when delays set in, many wondered whether the senator merely intended to harass his leader’s political opponents, much as Benazir had done as prime minister when she used dg-fia Rehman Malik to investigate and lodge strong cases of corruption and misuse of power against Nawaz Sharif but studiously refrained from seeking a conviction. Since there is "honour among thieves", it was reasoned, Sharif might stop short of convicting Benazir. Once such a precedent is set, there is no guarantee that the noose might not be around his neck in time to come. In the end, however, one old adage was finessed by another: it took a thief to catch a thief!

Benazir prolonged the case by shrieking "due process" even when "due process" was patently exhausted—the year-long trial should have concluded within three months as per the accountability law. That it took so long to conclude an open-and-shut case attests to the ingenuity and doggedness of Benazir’s lawyers rather than to doubts about her guilt. In fact, any "procedural" lapses by the high court were duly resolved during the trial by the supreme court.

That said, it is absolutely true that this is no "accountability". Far from it. Accountability is supposed to be transparent and across the board. That is why the accountability law framed by the much-vilified caretaker regime of president Farooq Leghari in 1996 has sprung to everyone’s lips as the only true yardstick by which it should be measured. But two critical amendments were made in the law by the Sharif government. The cut-off date of the application of the original law was changed from 1985 to 1991 (so that Nawaz Sharif’s corrupt practices during that time as Punjab chief minister could be condoned) and the writ of the chief accountability commissioner was circumscribed by making it impossible for him to accept or investigate corruption cases without the approval and backing of the Accountability Bureau.

This trial has led to three far-reaching and irrevocable conclusions. One, the verdict against Benazir and Zardari, however well deserved, is not likely to be perceived as just because it is one-sided. Two, it is likely to create unmerited sympathy, especially for Benazir, and reinvent her as a martyr, which she is not. Three, it is likely to raise the even more critical, urgent and principled demand that Nawaz Sharif and brother Shahbaz (current Punjab CM) should also be subjected to the same fate. The two sets of thieves are bound one day to be hoist with their own petards!

Of course, many legal and political battles lie ahead. Benazir will appeal to the supreme court and argue that the judges were biased, that there has been a mistrial. She could demand that the supreme court should conclude hearing a case of corruption lodged against Nawaz Sharif in 1997 by a former chief of the Pakistani Air Force (still pending) before hearing her appeal. She also intends to mount a constitutional challenge to the very accountability law under which her trial was conducted. Finally, Benazir is bound to play the "Sindh card" and cry "ethnic discrimination" by the Punjabi establishment. She says she will whip up the masses and overthrow the Sharif regime. So we may expect some political instability. But it will pass because Benazir no longer speaks the same sort of sentiment she once did.

Of course, Nawaz Sharif will seem omnipotent and despotic. He has got rid of a president, a chief justice and an army chief. Now he is about to get rid of the one and only leader of the opposition. But no one is invincible and history has always exacted full-blooded revenge from dictators.

There is nothing to quibble about regarding this verdict. If an unstable, immoral, iniquitous and thoroughly discredited two-leader (not two-party) system is in danger of losing its bearings, no tears should be shed for it. If certain dubious individual "human rights" have been legally restricted, the fact remains that society’s collective "human rights" have been immeasurably enlarged by such a political precedent. If "one-sided accountability" has been rejected by some, "even-handed accountability" is now demanded by many. If this seems like one step back today, it could lead two steps forward tomorrow.

(The author is editor of The Friday Times, a Lahore-based weekly)

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