Under the military rule of Pervez Musharraf, NAB turned into an instrument of political management. The files kept on politicians were used to pressurize them to join the King’s Party before the 2002 elections. Those who changed loyalties were declared to be clean and inducted in the cabinet, while those who dared to defy were arrested and subjected to ‘investigation’ through third-degree methods.
Under Imran Khan’s hybrid democracy, NAB made the most extensive use of its powers to arrest and detain political opponents and bureaucrats supposedly loyal to them. NAB investigation was not concluded for months while the accused languished in NAB custody or jails. This created the perception that what was going on was political victimization rather than across-the-board accountability. This, combined with media trial and character assassination campaigns conducted by the government’s advisers and ministers caused panic among the bureaucracy and business community. With NAB turning into a symbol of terror, there were at least two high-profile suicides. As there was no end to misuse of powers, NAB’s performance was criticized repeatedly by the superior judiciary through observations and judgments while Parliament was advised to make suitable amendments to the accountability law.
Within weeks of assuming power Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif assured senior bureaucrats that reforms in the NAB law would be introduced soon. The haste with which the government proceeded raised eyebrows. However this also roused expectations that the ruling alliance would make necessary changes in NAO to prevent the abuse of accountability laws. The changes announced however tell a different story. In the first amendment enacted in June, the accountability body was barred from acting on federal, provincial or local tax matters while all regulatory bodies were also placed out of its domain. Now corruption cases involving a sum of less than Rs 500 million have been removed from the jurisdiction of NAB, leaving pretty little for NAB to deal with. The government itself will now appoint accountability judges. The accused will be tried in the territorial jurisdiction of the place they allegedly committed the crime. NAB will no longer be able to seek help from any government agency in the course of its investigations.
This will strengthen the perception that the parties in the ruling coalition are only interested in protecting their leaders facing corruption charges rather than making the required improvements in the accountability law.