KARACHI: Around 257 corruption cases filed by the National Accountability Bureau have been pending disposal in six accountability courts in the province due to slow prosecution and lack of judicial capacity, it emerged on Saturday.
Statistics collected by Dawn from prosecution and judicial sources suggested that there were around 178 references pending disposal before the four accountability courts in Karachi, 42 in Hyderabad court and 37 before the accountability court in Sukkur.
NAB had filed these references against politicians, serving and retired officials of various federal, provincial and local government functionaries, real estate tycoons, their relatives, alleged frontmen and abettors.
The references pertain to their alleged misuse of official authority, corruption and involvement in corrupt practices in the government-launched schemes related to advertisement campaigns, accumulation of assets beyond known sources of income, scams involving amenity and commercial state land, cheating the public at large, etc.
Forty-five references have been pending trial in Accountability Court-I (AC-I), Karachi, 51 in AC-II and 41 each in AC-III and AC-IV, respectively, by the end of June.
NAB has filed 24 new references in the first six months of 2019
Forty-two references have been pending disposal in AC, Hyderabad and 37 in AC, Sukkur.
Of the total 257 cases, around 24 new references have been instituted by NAB in Sindh’s six ACs during the first six months of the current year.
Remaining 230 references were filed during the last two decades and the same were still pending trial due to multiple reasons.
The old pending references included two references dating back to 2005. The references were filed by NAB as part of its anti-corruption campaign launched by former military dictator Pervez Musharraf and then withdrawn under the controversial National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO). But the two references were reopened after the apex court declared the NRO null and void.
The AC-I decided nine cases in 2018 and as many cases by the end of June, 2019.
The AC-II decided five cases in 2018 and seven so far in 2019.
The AC-IV decided 12 cases in 2018 and 13 till June 2019.
The statistics of the disposal and pendency of the cases of the AC-III, which is also the administrative court of the accountability courts, were not available.
The accountability courts are supposed to conclude the trial of a case within 30 days of filing of the reference in terms of Section 16-A of the National Accountability Ordinance, 1999.
During interviews with Dawn, lawyers, prosecution and judicial sources blamed each other for hindering the timely disposal of the graft cases.
They cited ‘slow’ prosecution by NAB’s investigating officers as well as the ‘traditional’ delaying tactics by defence counsel as the main reasons behind timely disposal of cases.
“There are dozens of cases pending for a long time as the trials move at snail’s pace due to inefficiency of many investigating officers of NAB,” a judicial staffer said.
“Initially, the prosecuting agency files references that contain volumes of ‘photocopied’ documents, which later become inadmissible evidence during trial. Therefore, the IOs almost every day seek adjournments to bring the original documents,” the staffer added.
Secondly, the sources said that investigators have named a large number of people as prosecution witnesses in each reference, but most of the time the IOs failed to bring their witnesses in court for their testimony. “So, on each date either a witness is missing or an original document, which results in adjournments,” the sources said.
Judicial sources referred to a recent detailed order passed by the AC-V judge, who was irked by the failure of the IOs in producing evidence (witnesses or documents), and gave strong observations in this regard.
On the other hand, the prosecution held the defence responsible for unnecessary delays.
“Once a suspect engages a counsel, the counsel employs every tactic with an intention to delay the trial as long as possible by filing applications on any minor issue,” said a prosecutor. “In almost every case, the defence counsel would immediately move an application for shifting his/her client to a hospital outside prison citing a lack of better medical treatment facilities in the hospitals inside the prisons.
“They would even cite health issues like depression, hypertension, diabetes, etc, as chronic problems that could risk lives of their clients inside the prisons,” he alleged. “Later on, the accused persons seek permission to allow them to travel abroad for medical treatment, or even for follow-up check-ups.”
The prosecutor was referring to the cases of former ministers of the Pakistan Peoples Party Dr Asim Hussain and Sharjeel Inam Memon.
Lack of judicial capacity
Stakeholders opined that one of the reasons regarding delay in completion of trial within 30 days was a lack of judicial capacity as existing courts were overburdened with cases.
“The cases may appear less in number, but each case comprises of stocks of documentary and ocular evidence to examine, which is humanly not possible for judges to complete within 30-day time,” they said.
Last year, the Sindh High Court had directed the federal law ministry to set up three more accountability courts in Sindh.
Interestingly, the then federal government of the Pakistan Muslim League-N appealed against the high court’s order before the Supreme Court maintaining that there was no need for establishing more courts. Subsequently, the apex court had suspended the high court’s order.
Lawyers said that the hurdles in speedy trials amounted to violation of the basic rights of the accused, who had to remain incarcerated in jails for months.
Therefore, the superior courts had also directed the relevant accountability courts to conduct trials on a daily basis in graft cases against Dr Asim and Sharjeel Memon.
The delays also benefited the accused persons, as the SHC recently granted post-arrest bail to Mr Memon in a case pertaining to alleged corruption in award of the government awareness advertisements due to the delay in the trial.
“Instead of enhancing the number of courts, the directives to conduct trials on a day-to-day basis in certain cases ultimately affect the trials in other cases,” an official said, demanding that increasing the number of courts was the only solution to ensure swift trials as prescribed in the law.