LAHORE - Who should be held responsible for this? Did the government fail to do what it was supposed to do to uphold the law, or it was in complicity with the “accused” to help him get away with the booty?
These questions have cropped up after the Swiss authorities’ intimation to the Pakistan government that cases against former president Asif Ali Zardari were time-barred and could not be reopened despite appeal.
It is not clear so far what course of action the government would adopt to bring back to Pakistan the alleged $60million Mr Zardari was keeping in Swiss banks. Apparently, because of the legal complications – and partly due to lack of will - there is little chance of the government being able to claw back the much-needed money and bring the former president to justice. And even if it made some half-hearted effort, it would yield nothing as former law minister Farooq H. Naek is on record having said in an interview some time back that there is not a single dollar in the accounts Mr Zardari is accused of owning.
The Supreme Court had taken up the matter when the PPP was in power. But Mr Zardari effectively defeated the country’s accountability process by claiming constitutional immunity in cases pending against him in Swiss courts. He managed to have the proceedings prolonged to a time that they became time-barred on Feb 15, because of which no further action can be taken against him.
Regrettably, when the cases could be opened, the “accused” enjoyed immunity, and when he has lost immunity after serving out his mandated five-year term as the head of state, the cases cannot be opened.
The decision to close the cases had been taken by Swiss authorities on Feb 4 and an appeal against it could have been made latest by Feb 15, the period when the PPP was still ruling the country and was determined to do anything to save its leader’s “ill-gotten” wealth, to borrow a term used by his critics.
The bankruptcy of the accountability system and the tricks our political leaders use to serve their own interests were manifest at various stages of the proceedings.
It was during the 1997-99 tenure of the PML-N that the then attorney general Chaudhry Muhammad Farooq wrote a letter to the Swiss authorities for prosecution of Benazir Bhutto, Asif Ali Zardari and some other members of the family.
The legal battle was still going on when Gen Musharraf’s attorney general sent another letter to the Swiss authorities telling them that cases against the accused had been withdrawn in the light of the National Reconciliation Ordinance. Therefore, the letter said, the Swiss authorities should assume as if the earlier letter had not been written at all.
But when the Supreme Court declared the NRO null and void, all cases withdrawn under it stood revived and they included cases against Mr Zardari in Swiss courts.
The court directed the then prime minister Syed Yousaf Raza Gilani to send a letter to the relevant Swiss authorities to have the cases reopened. But the leader from Multan refused to do this as such a step in his words would amount to betraying the party which had brought him to power. The court convicted him on the contempt charge, disqualifying him for any public office for five years.
After his removal as the head of government, it was Raja Pervaiz Ashraf who came to power. The un-implemented court order was referred to him and he agreed to write the letter his predecessor had failed to.
Then law minister Farooq H. Naek (brother-in-law of incumbent Water and Power Minister Khwaja Asif) wrote the letter, the wording of which had been approved by the court. The court proceedings against the prime minister, thus, came to an end. However, nobody knew what was going on behind-the-scenes.
One day the apex court was informed that the law ministry had sent a “secret” communication to the relevant lawyer in Geneva to tell him that despite the earlier letter written by the Pervaiz Ashraf government, cases against Mr Zardari should not be reopened.
Still later, it transpired that the secret letter – written by the law secretary - was missing from the record of the law ministry.
During the PPP rule, at one stage, Mr Zardari’s trusted aide – Pakistan’s High Commissioner to London Wajid Shamsul Hasan visited Geneva and brought the entire record of the case to Britain.
The PML-N government is now into its fifth month but Mr Wajid Shamsul Hasan, a political appointee who should not have been there after the regime change, is still there and working to the satisfaction of the Sharifs.
No action has so far been taken against the law secretary who had sent the secret letter to ‘neutralise’ the official communication by the Pakistan government.
The Sharifs are soft on Zardari, perhaps, because the latter had also done a favour to them while in power.
When the Supreme Court ordered (through a judgment on the petition of Air Marshal Asghar Khan) an inquiry of the allegations that Mian Nawaz Sharif was among the recipients of the ISI funds distributed to defeat the PPP and Benazir Bhutto in the 1990 elections, the PPP government did not let the FIA to go ahead. Mr Qamar Zaman Kaira, the then information minister, said in an interview that the government would like the FIA to drag Mr Sharif.
Had the investigations been started, nobody knows what would have been the consequences for Mr Sharif so close to the 2013 elections.
The PPP saved him then, and Mr Sharif will save Mr Zardari now. There can’t a better reciprocity.
Other cases pending against Mr Sharif cannot be opened because of the immunity available to him as prime minister. (The younger Sharif also enjoys immunity being the chief minister). And the cases that are not covered by immunity also are not expected to be taken up as no investigator will dare proceed against the incumbent head of government.
If Zardari’s immunity has ended, the Sharifs’ has started. This is the accountability process of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.