Plea bargain is perhaps one of the most controversial laws in Pakistan. It allows a suspect who has been accused of massive corruption and financial irregularities to voluntarily return a small portion to the authorities and escape punishment.
This law is part of the NAB Ordinance and the anti-graft watchdog has claimed to recover billions (subsequently returned to the national exchequer) as a result of plea bargain. Many politicians and bureaucrats have flashed this card to shrug off all corruption allegations and returned back to their positions. The law has granted them impunity, allowing them to carry on with their corrupt practices.
The Supreme Court has now taken notice and given the government three months to amend plea bargain laws. The bureau has been asked to stop offering plea bargain deals until parliament passes legislation on the matter. The apex court said that if the NAB Ordinance was struck down then the entire organisation would be rendered powerless and ineffective.
The Council of Islamic Ideology has declared several sections of the NAB Ordinance, particularly plea bargain laws, as un-Islamic. It said that plea bargain is against Shariah laws, while handcuffing suspects and keeping them under detention for long periods of time is unacceptable. The council has also said that it was not the suspect’s responsibility to prove their guilt as a person is presumed innocent in fair trials.
Plea bargain laws are present in several country whereby the defendant agrees to plead guilty to a particular charge in return for some concession, such as a lesser charge, dismissal of charges, or a more lenient sentence. This allows both parties to avoid a lengthy trial and saves the court’s valuable time. In Pakistan, plea bargain is not common in criminal cases but its use is widespread in corruption cases.
NAB has immense authority at its disposal over the use of the law. After a suspect applies for it, NAB chairman has the authority to endorse it before presenting it to the courts. The accused is declared guilty but escapes punishment and often returns to his job. This is also where corruption sweeps in within the anti-corruption watchdog.
The federal government has clipped the wings of NAB preventing it from taking action against businessman and industrialists adding even more controversy. The government should revisit contentious laws such as plea bargains which not only affect the accountability drive but also the claims that action is been taken against corruption.