The latest episode of the Panama Papers saga has seen the nation riveted by the latest round of allegations and counter-allegations. This time, the Prime Minister’s Office has accused the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) of overstepping its mandate by wire-tapping phones of witnesses.
Towards the beginning of last week, the JIT had complained that some state institutions were impeding its task by either not cooperating with the team or, in the worst case, tampering with evidence. The named-and-shamed institutions are: Federal Bureau of Revenue, Law ministry, Intelligence Bureau, the Securities and Exchange Commission of Pakistan and the National Accountability Bureau. Significantly, officials from the last two are members of the JIT. In their responses submitted to the SC as part of the Attorney General of Pakistan’s report, heads of these institutions rejected the allegations.
Notably though, the IB admitted to collecting information on the JIT members, stating that this was routine bureau procedure on all matters of national importance.
Amidst all this lurks the risk of the Panama Papers probe becoming what it should not: another exercise in muscle flexing by state institutions with their actions guided by realpolitik rather than the principle of the rule of law. For the latter to be upheld, the JIT needs to restrict itself to its mandate provided by the SC judgement of April 20. If an institution does not cooperate, the team is well within its rights to raise the issue with the SC bench overseeing the hearing, as it did earlier last week. Use of extra-legal means, like phone tapping, however, fall into the realm of what is unacceptable. Yet this possibility cannot be ruled out since all law enforcement and intelligence agencies have access to the latest surveillance technology. The troublesome aspect is that some agencies represented in the JIT may have acquired technology well beyond the legal and regulatory framework operative in the country. This has been claimed in a comprehensive report launched earlier in the year by London-based advocacy group Privacy International.
The onus of ensuring rule of law rests equally with the other party to this probe. After appearing before the JIT last week, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif used the opportunity to remind their detractors that their family was respectful of the rule of law. But the premier and his younger brother may do well to ensure that their actions match their statements. That is, the state institutions under their command should not be misused to secure their private interests.
The on-going probe into the first family’s business practices was prompted by a campaign by Opposition parties in the Parliament. The campaign itself may have been for political ends insofar as these parties could have seen in the Panama Papers leaks an opportunity to strike a blow to the Sharifs and the ruling party. But, the leaks themselves were part of a professional effort to expose shoddy business practices of elites across the globe. The best the Sharifs can do in the circumstances is to come clean regarding their wealth and assets. For this is the only viable path to securing both their political future as well as the country’s political system. *