Pakistani agency aims to bar corrupt candidates from office

By AAMIR SAEED, written for  |  April 29, 2013 at 6:11 PM
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ISLAMABAD, April 29 (UPI Next) -- With a May 11 election set to mark the first transition from one elected government to another in Pakistan since independence in 1947, two bodies are responsible for preventing corrupt candidates from entering the National Assembly and the country's four provincial assemblies.

The National Accountability Bureau is responsible for examining candidates for criminal activity, tax evasion, loan defaults, corruption or criminal convictions. If the NAB discovers corruption it passes the information to the Election Commission, which oversees the election, for potential further action against the candidates.

The commission is "the only institution empowered to handle the whole election process," NAB Chairman Fasih Bokhari told UPI Next. He said the commission "referred the credentials of over 24,000 candidates to a special cell established in the bureau for scrutiny of aspiring candidates." Bokhari, a retired navy admiral, spoke before a court disqualified former military ruler Pervez Musharraf from running in the elections April 16 on the grounds that he violated the constitution by failing to protect judicial independence and imposing emergency law in 2007. Musharraf's lawyer, Ahmad Raza Kasuri, said Musharraf would challenge the decision in the Supreme Court. Former Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf was also barred from running in the May election because of an investigation into corruption charges, but he was cleared of charges April 22.

The Election Commission has also barred 20 former legislators from the May election for having dual nationalities. Four former legislators have been sent to jail for having fake degrees while similar fake-degree cases of around two dozen former legislators are under investigation. The commission charges that the legislators not only violated their oaths by lying but also committed moral corruption under Articles 62 and 63 of the Pakistani Constitution.

Bokhari said the NAB could confiscate salaries and other benefits of disqualified former legislators but only if ordered to do so by the Election Commission.

However, Athar Minallah, a prominent lawyer and human rights activist, said the bureau has done little in the last five years to detect and recover looted money from politicians and government officials.

"Thousands of corruption cases of politicians and government officials are pending in the bureau for years," he told UPI Next, adding that if the chairman were more active, most of these cases would have been disposed of in just a few months.

Bokhari said financial crimes investigation is complex, as white-collar criminals are often sophisticated. Nevertheless, he said, his institution detected more than $2 billion worth of corruption last year, adding that $10.5 billion in government projects are still under scrutiny.

"It is time-consuming to find out prosecutable evidence against criminals to secure conviction from courts" under current law, he added.

Bokhari also said the bureau's work is hampered by shortage of manpower, saying, "We have only 200 prosecutors to deal with more than 1,700 cases."

He said his agency needs 8,000 investigators but current resources won't allow the recruitment of that many.

Bokhari was charged with contempt of court on Jan. 31 for writing to President Asif Ali Zardari alleging that the Supreme Court was unnecessarily pressuring bureau officials in investigations related to high-profile cases. However, he hasn't been formally indicted as he has appealed the charge.

"There is no pressure on me nor am I under influence of anyone. I'm freely performing my duties and trying my level best to minimize chances of corruption in the society," he said.

Bokhari said corruption in Pakistan could be significantly reduced in just a year if people elect the right people to national and provincial assemblies next month.

"It is up to people of Pakistan whether they want a corruption-free or corruption-plagued Pakistan in the years to come," he said.

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