Asif Ali Zardari’s arrest aimed at reinforcing the supremacy of the Pakistani military establishment
Having discovered in Imran Khan a gullible, inexperienced, and power obsessed political leader who could be induced and manipulated into becoming an invaluable asset to sabotage the Pakistani political set up from the within, the Pakistani military establishment over the past year has been cashing in on its investment in Khan, who became the Prime Minister of the country after the 2018 general elections in the country mainly on the back of the support extended to him by the military establishment. After first neutralizing the more ominous challenge of three-time former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, as brought out in EFSAS Commentary of 13-07-2018, the establishment turned its guns this week on another political heavyweight, former President Asif Ali Zardari.
The legal route was chosen, as it was done in the case of Sharif, by the military establishment to neutralize Zardari. The weapon employed was Pakistan's anti-graft body, the National Accountability Bureau (NAB). In a money laundering case involving hundreds of millions of dollars siphoned out of Pakistan, an Islamabad High Court (IHC) bench comprising Justice Aamer Farooq and Justice Mohsin Akhtar Kayani on 10 June withdrew the bail that had earlier been granted to Zardari, paving the way for the NAB to arrest him from his residence on the same day. Interestingly, it was the same bench that on 28 March had granted interim bail to Zardari in the same case. In fact, Zardari’s interim bail had been extended several times before the 10 June decision. The case was originally registered with the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) and was filed before a banking court in Karachi. The NAB later transferred it to its Rawalpindi directorate. The IHC bench, adding to the intrigue, did not specify why it took the decision to withdraw bail on 10 June. Its short cryptic order simply stated that “for the reasons to be recorded later, instant petition is dismissed and ad-interim bail granted to the petitioner vide order dated March 28, 2019 is recalled”. The IHC bench also cancelled the bail of Zardari’s sister Faryal Talpur, also a politician and co-accused in the case, but she has not yet been arrested as her warrant had not been issued by the NAB.
Subsequently, on 11 June, Zardari was presented by the NAB before an accountability court in Islamabad, and a 14-day physical remand was sought for him. The NAB submitted eight grounds for Zardari's arrest, including legitimizing illegal income through transactions in fake bank accounts and use of front men for money laundering. NAB prosecutor Sardar Muzaffar Abbasi told the court that prima facie, Zardari was involved in mega money laundering through fake accounts, of which he was a beneficiary. Last year, Pakistani authorities had discovered several accounts in the names of poor people that had been flooded with cash before being suddenly emptied. In September 2018, Pakistan's Supreme Court had established a commission to investigate the case and found that at least $400 million had passed through “thousands of false accounts”. The NAB claimed that its investigations pointed to Zardari’s involvement, but he has maintained all along that he had no connection with these accounts. Terming the government as an instrument of the military establishment, and Prime Minister Imran Khan as its “blue-eyed boy”, Zardari insisted that he was being unfairly hounded by them for political reasons.
During the hearing, Judge Mohammad Arshad Malik queried why the NAB had not sought the accountability court's permission for Zardari's arrest. “The reference is ongoing in this court, so NAB should have asked for permission”, he said, to which the NAB prosecutor responded that the NAB had not arrested Zardari suo moto, but had only acted upon the IHC’s withdrawal of Zardari’s bail. The accountability court eventually granted the NAB a 11-day physical remand of Zardari, and ordered that Zardari be presented before the court again on 21 June.
Although he has been a controversial figure in Pakistani politics and has earlier served about a decade of incarceration for alleged financial impropriety and murder, Zardari had never been convicted. His stature and influence in Pakistani politics had been elevated by his marriage to former Prime Minister and popular politician Benazir Bhutto, who belonged to one of the most prominent political lineages in Pakistan, and his subsequent tenure as President from 2008 to 2013. Despite Zardari’s loss of popularity towards the end of his term as President when the impression of him being prone to financial inducements and kickbacks became firmly entrenched in the public mind, sporadic nationwide protest demonstrations were held on 11 June against Zardari's arrest.
An emergency consultative meeting of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), which Zardari co-chairs along with his son Bilawal Zardari Bhutto, was held to discuss Zardari’s legal options. Bilawal, who over the last few years has emerged as a capable politician in his own right and has been highly critical of the Imran Khan led government for its dictatorial tendencies, incompetence, and inability to keep inflation under check, termed his father’s arrest as an act of “political victimization” by the government, adding that it represented a negation of Article 10-A of the Pakistani Constitution that guaranteed every citizen the right to a fair trial. He, however, appealed to party workers to remain calm and wait for party directives.
Bilawal later revealed that the PPP had decided to form a coordination committee to engage with parties in and outside parliament. He added, “We are not ready to compromise on democratic, economic and human rights of the people. We believe Asif Zardari’s arrest is a mere excuse and their real target is the 1973 Constitution, the 18th Amendment and democracy”. He averred that “When the government is ‘selected’ and weak, it is scared of criticism”. Because of this, the “selected government” wanted “selected media, selected judges and selected opposition”. He accused the government of enforcing media censorship and witch hunts. He said, “Our media is facing censorship… Those who don’t toe the line face repercussions”. He also lamented that references were being filed by the government against “pro-democracy” judges. Taking a dig at Imran Khan’s pledge of ushering in “Naya (New) Pakistan”, Bilawal asserted that there was no difference between the present government and the country’s several past military dictatorships. “People were silenced then and the same is happening now”, he remarked, adding that the military establishment was “running everything. We know this. You know this. They also know this as well. But the PPP has always tried to uphold democracy and tried to convince them that in democratic and civilized countries, the army is posted in three positions: at the border, in the barracks and on the battlefield”.
The PPP received support from other Pakistani political parties on Zardari’s arrest. The main opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N), questioned the timing of the arrest, alleging that it had been done to divert public attention from the “IMF-prepared anti-people budget” that the government presented in the National Assembly (NA) on 11 June. Leader of the opposition in the NA, Shehbaz Sharif, highlighted a pertinent point, “Zardari has presented himself before NAB on every occasion and has not used delaying tactics. NAB should have appreciated this. There was no need for an arrest”. Nawaz Sharif’s daughter and heir apparent, Maryam Nawaz, asked in a tweet, “This fake premier used to say that there were separate laws for the poor and the rich. But the fact is that there is a separate law for all others and the one for Imran Khan and his cronies who bear expenses for him. Is there any law at all for them or not… This drama will not last any longer”.
Liaquat Baloch, deputy chief of the Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) party, accused the government of adopting a policy of likes and dislikes with regard to accountability. He elaborated that while Zardari had been arrested, the 436 people named in the Panama Leaks as well as hundreds of other highly corrupt public figures were roaming free. He contended that the JeI’s principled position was that accountability should be enforced across the board, without any discrimination, if the menace of corruption was to be eliminated from the country.
Despite its assertion that it had no say in Zardari’s arrest, the government’s stand came across as hollow and had few buyers. Interior Minister Ijaz Shah said that the government “had nothing to do” with Zardari’s arrest as the NAB was “an independent institution and the government cannot interfere in its affairs”. Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi also claimed that the NAB “has no connection with the government”. However, Zardari’s arrest came at a time when the economy is spiraling downwards and discontent is simmering in the country following repeated devaluations of the rupee, soaring inflation, and rising utility prices. Observers believe that Zardari’s arrest was a reaction to the protests that the PPP had planned against the government on these issues. Zardari had been vocal in demanding the removal of Imran Khan’s government, and much to the consternation of the government he had also initiated moves to forge opposition unity. The recent invitation to Maryam Nawaz and leaders of other opposition parties to an Iftar dinner during Ramzan that was jointly hosted by Asif Ali Zardari and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari was viewed as a step in this direction.
Afrasiab Khattak, a Pashtun human rights activist and former Pakistani senator, felt that Zardari's arrest appeared to be a case of “political victimization and blackmailing”. He added, “We are not against accountability, but it should be across the board. Prime Minister Imran Khan's government has many corrupt members, but they appear to be above accountability”.
Lahore-based academic and political commentator, Dr. G M Pitafi opined that “Zardari was expected to be arrested. It is not something which was unexpected. However, it has some serious implications for the future of this country. I believe that the narrative of the opposition that in present Pakistan selective accountability is being done to target pro-democracy civilian leaders has become dominant and persuasive”. It is pertinent to mention that the NAB is also investigating several politicians of the ruling coalition, but none of them have actually been arrested. This reinforces the claim by the PPP and the PML-N that the NAB is essentially operating as an arm of the government that is used to achieve political objectives.
Corruption, therefore, does not appear to be at the heart of Zardari’s arrest. After all, corruption has over the decades been endemic in Pakistan and most Pakistani politicians, including the late Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, have been named in high-profile graft scandals. The main issue in the country presently is the desire of the military establishment to undermine an already weakened and floundering political set up, and to drive in and cement its own unbridled supremacy.
Zardari, on 11 June, described his arrest as “a pressure tactic. Anyone involved in politics has to go to jail. The ‘selected’ Prime Minister doesn’t know anything. All is being orchestrated by the Interior Minister” (Ijaz Shah, a retired Army Brigadier and former spy chief whom Benazir Bhutto had regarded as a deadly enemy). Zardari hit the nail on the head when he added that former dictator Pervez Musharraf “was not an elected representative, so he was not prepared to go to jail”. Musharraf, who is facing multiple charges in Pakistani courts ranging from treason to involvement in the 2007 assassination of Benazir Bhutto, was permitted consciously by the military establishment to flee the country unfettered. As Usman Qazi, an Islamabad-based adviser to the United Nations put it, “The military does not want to set a precedent where its officers are held accountable by the civilians”.
Arif Jamal, a United States-based security analyst asserted that “The corruption in the Pakistani military is as rampant as in any other State institution. The army is involved in the smuggling of oil and narcotics through the borders of the western Balochistan province. The military also makes money through its checkpoints in the restive province. All drivers have to bribe the officers to pass through these posts. These are just a few examples”. The reality is that the Pakistani military hogs the bulk of the country's budget and is not answerable to the civilian government over its expenditures.
Had it not been for the impunity enjoyed by establishment-linked corrupt politicians and military officers alike, the arrest of Zardari would have been welcomed more heartily by the Pakistani population.