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Logo of the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), as seen on the main entrance of their office in Karachi, Pakistan, September 14, 2017.
© 2017 REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro
(New York) – Pakistani authorities should follow up a recent Supreme Court decision and cease using the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) to detain critics of the government, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should investigate and prosecute NAB officials responsible for unlawful arrests and other abuses.
On July 20, 2020, Pakistan’s Supreme Court, in an 87-page decision, ruled that the National Accountability Bureau had violated the rights to fair trial and due process in the arrest of two opposition politicians, Khawaja Saad Rafique and Khawaja Salman Rafique, whom the NAB detained for 15 months without reasonable grounds. The court granted the men bail and criticized the NAB for showing “utter disregard to the law, fair play, equity and propriety,” ruling that the “case was a classic example of trampling of fundamental rights [and] unlawful deprivation of freedom.”
“The Pakistani Supreme Court judgment is just the latest indictment of the NAB’s unlawful behavior,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Pakistani authorities should stop using a dictatorship-era body, possessing draconian and arbitrary powers, to intimidate and harass opponents.”
Pakistan’s parliament should carry out urgent reforms to make the anti-corruption body independent, Human Rights Watch said.
In its decision, the Supreme Court also expressed concern about the use of the NAB as an instrument to target government opponents. The court cited a February report by the European Commission that criticized the NAB for bias, noting that “very few cases of the ruling party ministers and politicians have been pursued since the 2018 elections, which is considered to be a reflection of NAB’s partiality.”
The Supreme Court Bar Association and the Pakistan Bar Council, the top elected bodies of lawyers in the country, welcomed the Supreme Court’s decision and criticized the NAB as “a tool for arm-twisting of political opponents.” In February, both bodies said they “strongly condemn” the summons issued to an opposition leader, Bilawal Bhutto, calling it an “act of political victimization.” In March, the chief justice of the Islamabad High Court ruled that the NAB had made arbitrary use of its arrest powers.
The National Accountability Bureau was created under an ordinance promulgated by the military dictator Gen. Pervez Musharraf in 1999. The ordinance gave the NAB unchecked powers of arrest, investigation, and prosecution. The authorities may detain people arrested under the accountability ordinance for up to 90 days without charge. In its decision the Supreme Court commented on the NAB’s arbitrary use of powers of arrest, noting that an arrest “has to be justified.… The power of arrest should not be deployed as a tool of oppression and harassment.”
The National Accountability Bureau arrested Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman, editor-in-chief of the Jang group, the largest media group in Pakistan, in Lahore on March 12 on charges relating to a 34-year-old property transaction. He has remained in the agency’s custody ever since.
In another example of harassment, the NAB court summoned the former president and opposition leader Asif Ali Zardari to appear in person to record a statement, denying his request to record a statement through a video link because of his ill-health and Covid-19. Zardari previously spent 11 years in prison – more than half in NAB custody – without a conviction.
In December 2018, Mian Javed Ahmed, a professor at University of Sargodha, died in NAB’s custody. Dr. Mujahid Kamran, the former vice-chancellor of the Punjab University, who was arrested by the NAB on allegations of illegal appointments at the university, described NAB detention centers as “torture cells.”
“Pakistani authorities should uphold the government’s human rights obligations,” Adams said. “Pakistan’s parliament should amend or repeal the NAB ordinance to ensure that the principles of fair trial, due process, and transparency are not compromised on the pretext of accountability.”