By Ashraf Jehangir Qazi
Since the Panama Papers, an avalanche of comments, reports and statements has expressed righteous indignation, outraged innocence and demands for proof, inquiry, and investigation and demands that the immediate focus should concentrate on the prime minister and his family, etc.
These can be divided in two categories: demands for immediate and credible action on the one hand, and demands for delay and obfuscation on the other. The average Pakistani will either become a participant or remain an angry, cheated and helpless spectator. Will the Panama Papers become a watershed for change? The COAS has made a statement linking corruption with terrorism and promising support for rooting out corruption on a non-discriminatory basis. This was after the prime minister's first TV address to the nation admitting his wealth, asserting his innocence and calling for a “judicial” commission to be headed by a retired judge of the Supreme Court. There was a second TV address by the prime minister who seemed more agitated than previously, accusing his critics of hypocrisy, undertaking to write to the chief justice of the Supreme Court to head a judicial commission of inquiry, and demanding that his critics either present proof of their allegations before such a panel or apologise to the nation for their irresponsible political behaviour.
This is a straight clash between the existing culture of impunity and the emergence of an essential culture of accountability. The prime minister appears to have overlooked the fact that the burden of proof does not lie on his critics. It lies on him to explain the facts as already established by the Panama leaks even if only his “politically exposed” children are specifically named. It should, accordingly, be the bounden duty of any investigative audit to probe these facts to establish whether or not they and the explanations offered are consistent with the laws of Pakistan.
Even if he is able to explain that the facts established by the Panama Papers, and other possible revelations, do not violate the relevant laws, he will still need to demonstrate to the satisfaction of the highest judicial panel and to Pakistani public opinion that the moral norms that attach to the highest executive office of public trust were not violated. These norms are mentioned in the Constitution of Pakistan. The prime minister has graciously offered to “go home” if the judicial commission finds against him. In such an event, specific charges could be preferred against him which may or may not afford him the option of retiring in peace and luxury. Even if the prime minister 'negotiates' a deal (and as of now there is no reason to believe he has any intention of doing so) whereby he offers to resign in return for being able to “go home” that would not address the problem since it would set a precedent.
The prime minister’s decision to request the Supreme Court to take up the matter would appear to some as irrelevant, diversionary and dilatory. As such, it would open the way to the normal political wrangling that has ensured that no dereliction of duty is ever properly investigated and prosecuted. Those of this view would argue that in these circumstances the military's intervention is not inappropriate given the political mess in Pakistan and the “existential” costs of not addressing it.
Civil society and its institutions should normally be able to generate sufficient political pressure to compel appropriate political, judicial and investigative responses without the military having to take an active role beyond its legal remit and responsibility. Is this the case in Pakistan? If not, what is to be done? Is greater judicial activism the answer in such a situation? What about the responsibility of political parties? It must also extend to the menace of endemic high-level corruption which involves a general denial of justice and in the absence of redress, significantly raises the prospect of extremism and terror. Should a credible judicial/investigative process find against the prime minister an early general election would be warranted. We are at a fateful crossroads.
The Tribune, April 26, 2016