A plea bargain is defined as “a process to negotiate the resolution of a criminal case without a trial, most often carried out between the prosecution and defence.” The National Accountability Bureau (NAB) is often accused of muk-muka (trade-off) due to the plea bargain option that accused persons avail. It is a misperception among the public and media persons that NAB makes some kind of agreement with the accused person to take back looted money and gives him (the accused) some relaxation. Even some senior media persons think that NAB does so but the reality is contrary to this. NAB or chairman NAB does not give any relaxation to the accused persons. The accused persons request a plea bargain under section 25 (b) of the National Accountability Ordinance (NAO) 1999. When the accused person submits an application for a plea bargain to the chairman NAB, it is at the discretion of the chairman whether he accepts the application or not and when he accepts the application he refers the matter for approval to the Accountability Court.
People, without knowing the fact that plea bargaining is a legal procedure under the NAB law, wrongly criticise the bureau and the chairman. This incorrect impression needs to be corrected. The bureau gives no concession to accused persons. Under the plea bargain clause of the NAB law, an accused person is liable to pay 15 percent additional fine of the total embezzled money. In addition to 15 percent fine, in the case of a government employee, he immediately loses his job forever and, if he is a non-government person or politician, he is barred from contesting elections for the next 10 years. It is due to the voluntary return (VR) and plea bargain options that NAB has recovered billions of rupees since its inception. For 66 years, 59 anti-corruption laws have been made in Pakistan starting with the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1947 and culminating in the NAO 1999. Before the promulgation of the NAO 1999, there was no such clause present in any law to recover looted money from the clutches of plunderers.
Pakistan is following Hong Kong’s anti-corruption model. Like Pakistan and Hong Kong, a majority of countries across the world use plea bargaining to recover looted money, to avoid long legal procedures and human rights abuses. Cynthia Alkon, Associate Professor, Texas A&M University School of Law in a research memorandum, Introducing Plea Bargaining into Post-Conflict Legal Systems, prepared for the International Network to Promote the Rule of Law (INTERPOL) in March 2014, says, “Plea bargaining is frequently considered as a possible solution to problems of case backlogs, long periods of pre-trial detention and to help address other serious human rights abuses resulting from a poorly functioning criminal justice system. Plea bargaining may help to alleviate some of these problems.” After the promulgation of the NAO 1999, the general public has gotten some relief in terms of recoveries of their monies because before the NAO it was impossible to tackle cases of cheating the public at large. NAB has dealt with a number of large public cheating cases like the ‘double Shah’ scam, various housing scams and, more recently, the notorious ‘modarba’ scam, which involved thousands of people. Under the supervision of its new chairman Qamar Zaman Chaudhry, the bureau is striving hard to rapidly bring all pending cases to their logical end. The high level committee set up to clear the backlog has so far cleared around 250 pending cases and is actively working on the remaining ones.
The bureau receives a number of complaints on a daily basis. According to its Annual Report 2013, NAB received 18,607 complaints in 2013. With an additional backlog of 1,464 cases, the number rose to a total of 20,071 complaints. Out of these, 18,892 complaints were processed (converted into complaints verifications, inquiries, linked with cases, referred to other departments, etc) and 1,179 complaints remained pending as of December 31, 2013. A total of 284 fresh inquiries were authorised during the year 2013, raised to 873 including the backlog of 589 inquiries. A total of 243 inquiries were finalised, whereas 630 inquiries remained under process. Some 463 individuals entered into VR and plea bargaining during the year 2013. Out of an agreed amount of Rs 3,149.985 million, Rs 3,125.088 million (99.2 percent) have been recovered.
During the year 2013, NAB recommended the placement of 157 accused on the Exit Control List (ECL) through the ministry of interior. The report also says that during the year 2013 the Awareness and Prevention Division of the Bureau processed 363 projects including procurements amounting to Rs 220 billion approximately; 18 committees were established in all major areas of governance to improve performance. The addition in the backlog of cases as a result of the huge number of complaints that the bureau receives can only be rapidly reduced through accepting plea bargaining requests of the accused persons instead of going for long legal processes. A case in point is of the ‘modarba’ scam in which people from all walks of life invested their monies, including the general public, retired government servants, retired armed forces personnel, people affiliated with religious parties and my ‘wise’ friends from the media. Here the question arises of whether NAB should accept plea bargains from the accused persons — the religious clerics — so that a large number of people get relief or should the bureau only send them behind bars? The answer is self-explanatory.