Pakistan’s hour of glory and Sri Lanka’s hour of shame

Rajeewa Jayaweera
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A five-member bench of supreme court judges in Pakistan, in a landmark decision, has disqualified Nawaz Sharif from the office of Prime Minister. Sharif’s disqualification is on grounds he lied of his assets during a corruption probe.

The court has referred Sharif and his Finance Minister Ishaq Dar, his former accountant, to the Corruption Court.

Accusations against Sharif revolves around ownership of four apartments in Park Lane, a neighborhood of the wealthy, in London.

The Panama Papers, an unprecedented leak of 11.5 mil. files from the database of the world’s fourth biggest offshore law firm, Mossack Fonseca, indicated Sharif’s three children Hussain, Hasan and Maryam owned three off-shore companies registered in British Virgin Islands, engaged in deals worth USD 25 mil.

The Sharifs claimed, money had been obtained from the sale of a steel mill in UAE and invested with the former Prime Minister of Qatar. Rejecting the explanation, the supreme court constituted a high-powered team to investigate the matter.

During the course of its investigations, the team uncovered the fact, Sharif himself had been the Chairman of a UAE based company, Capital FZE, which he had not declared previously.

The supreme court ruling, disqualifying Sharif from holding office is based on non-disclosure of his involvement with Capital FZE in wealth disclosures, mandatory for all parliamentarians in that country. It is Sharif’s contention, assets being in his children’s names, he is not liable to declare such assets nor pay taxes on such assets.

Despite corruption being endemic in Pakistan and democratic institutions weakened due to successive coups d’état since independence in 1947, Pakistan’s judiciary, in this instance, has demonstrated its independence and unwavering commitment to the rule of law. It has also upheld the principle, ‘no one is above the law’.

In what is perhaps Pakistan’s finest hour since independence, it joins the small and elite group of nations of Brazil, South Korea, Venezuela and USA to have disqualified a sitting head of state / government from office, for corruption.

Mossack Fonseca notified its clients on April 1, 2016 that it had sustained an email hack. Pakistan’s Prime Minister announced his resignation sixteen months later, on July 27, 2017.

Back at home, we in Sri Lanka are still grappling with investigating the Central Bank bond scam which took place on February 27, 2015 resulting in the loss of over Rs 10 billion to the state coffers.

Twenty-nine months on, the scam is being investigated for the fourth time.

The first investigation by a committee of three lawyers with no experience in financial markets and instruments, appointed by the Prime Minister, found “no direct role” by former Governor of Central Bank in the transaction.

A second investigation by a special sub-committee of thirteen government and opposition legislators appointed by Committee of Public Enterprises (COPE) of the 7th Parliament was made irreverent when the President dissolved Parliament on June 26, 2015 no sooner report was completed.

The third investigation by twenty-five members COPE of the 8th Parliament established many irregularities in the bond auctions of February 27, 2015. The report recommended ‘legal action against former Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran and all other central bank officials who are responsible for the scam’. It totally debunked the ‘no direct role by Governor Arjuna Mahendran’ verdict by the Prime Minister’s original investigation team of three lawyers. Even though the report was agreed to by all COPE members, fifteen members (non-governmental) signed the report without footnotes whereas nine government members insisted on footnotes prior to signature. One member abstained. Government members resorted to many tactics to hinder the investigation. One of the worst offenders was a greenhorn first time parliamentarian and Deputy Minister. Suffering from a bout of amnesia, he recently challenged an audience and demanded all those present who had paid brides to municipal officials to get work done to own up without “pointing fingers” at others. The Chairman of COPE, a member of the official opposition in parliament claimed, he was to threaten by some members. The investigation report was finally made available on October 28, 2016,

A fourth investigation by a Commission of Inquiry (CoI) appointed by the President is currently under way. During the current investigation, several questionable acts by former Governor of Central Bank, his son-in-law who was the major shareholder of the company which benefited from the bond scam and some Central Bank officials have come to light. Some details unraveled by CoI have not appeared in the three previous investigation reports.

The President, for reasons best known to him, constituted the CoI with two supreme court judges which empowers them with investigative powers only. Three supreme court judges would have empowered CoI with more than investigative powers.

A young woman, giving evidence before the CoI recently, claimed her luxury penthouse apartment had been rented by former Minister of Finance, currently the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Lotteries (A ridiculous combination -TW), for a monthly rental of Rs 1.45 million. The transaction had been executed by the former Central Bank Governor’s son-in-law. She has further claimed the same apartment had been purchased at the end of six months rental period by a company for a sum of Rs 165 million. The concerned Minister’s spouse and daughter are directors of this company.

The minister has not responded to date to summons issued by CoI, to seek clarification. Reasons given by the minister for not responding to summonses are; attending cabinet and security council meetings and parliament sessions. He obviously attributes less priority to CoI summons than to cabinet and security council meetings and parliamentary sessions which he misses regularly when travelling overseas on ‘official business’.

In this instance, the minister is considered innocent till proven guilty. However, the impunity with which he displays his arrogance stems from the impervious attitude adopted by the President and Prime Minister towards ministers and politicians under investigation for corruption.

This minister was charged for money laundering some time ago. Nevertheless, the good governance administration saw it fit to appoint him Finance Minister while he was under investigation. He was subsequently exonerated of charges.

If the President is genuinely desirous of expeditiously unraveling the bond scam, a directive to all Ministers and officials to respond to summonses from CoI regardless of other duties would be most helpful.

The President recently accused the UNP, one of the two main coalition partners, of soft peddling corruption investigations related to the Rajapakse regime.

All hindrances faced by corruption investigations and acts of omission amounts to state sponsored protection for corruption.

While Pakistan basks in its hour of glory, Sri Lanka has no place to hide in its hour of shame.

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