By: TARIQ KHOSA
THE Panama leaks have shaken the bastions of political power in Pakistan. People by and large had an uneasy feeling of something rotten in our state and now these unpleasant facts have come to the surface: there exists a great sink of possibly illicit loot and a potential conduit for proceeds of crime and corruption.
Offshore services range from legal to illegal, with a huge grey area in between. In terms of tax, illegality is termed as ‘tax evasion’, while ‘tax avoidance’ is technically legal. To distinguish between evasion and avoidance is slippery business. Former British chancellor Denis Healey offers a neat definition of where the distinction lies: “The difference between tax avoidance and tax evasion is the thickness of a prison wall.” Even when offshore dealings are not ‘technically’ illegal, what is ‘technically’ legal is not necessarily what is right.
“Countries that will not tax their elites but expect us to come in and help them serve their people are just not going to get the kind of help from us that they are getting,” Hillary Clinton said in September 2010 to bipartisan applause and added that, “Pakistan cannot have a tax rate of 9pc of GDP when land owners and all the other elites do not pay anything or pay so little.” Journalist Nicholas Shaxson states that the Pakistani elite’s ability to escape from any responsibility to their society is one of the greatest factors corrupting the state and undermining its citizens’ confidence in their rulers. Bad tax systems result in failing states; this indeed is a national security issue.
The Sharifs’ offshore holdings are a test case for accountability.
Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu once remarked: “The most successful ideological effects are those which have no need for words, and ask no more than complicitous silence.” That conspiracy of silence and stealth has been prised open by the Panama leaks. An opportunity has arisen to dismantle the ideology of greed that has been all pervasive in Pakistan.
Hundreds of Pakistan’s rich and famous find their names exposed in data from just one offshore law firm. There are numerous secret destinations where money acquired, through means both foul and fair, appears to be stashed and needs to be accounted for. This offshore web has been woven to cater to the following: tax evasion or tax avoidance; illegal money transfers; money laundering and concealment of proceeds of crime, corruption and kickbacks; acquisition of foreign assets and investments in safe havens as insurance against politically uncertain futures; and simply to avoid domestic legal regimes and transparency.
The large gallery of rogues may also include individuals constrained to undertake business secretly for state agencies involved in covert large-scale international transactions. It all boils down to concealment of identity and lust for money — profoundly dangerous, corrosive to democracy and morally indefensible.
The call for accountability has become the nation’s collective voice; it’s a test case in which the family of the chief executive will have to explain each and every financial transaction made to acquire properties and businesses in Pakistan and abroad. It is fair to ask him and his family to account for the wealth accumulated since he became chief minister of Punjab in 1985. The nation is equally justified in seeking details of wealth from living former and current heads of the federal and provincial governments, and from heads of all the political parties.
Those who brought their nations’ leaders to account include: a Brazilian judge for Rousseff, an Italian prosecutor for Berlusconi, and a team of US investigators for Nixon. The hydra-headed monster of corruption can only be overcome by independent and autonomous institutions composed of professionals of unimpeachable integrity, courage and competence.
It is felt that the higher judiciary in Pakistan is independent since the lawyers’ movement. People are rightly looking to the chief justice to ensure that his judges accept the daunting task of holding the (hitherto unaccountable) elite to fair and firm inquiries. Our lordships are most likely aware of the example of India’s supreme court taking the investigation bureau under its wings a decade ago to supervise probes against corrupt ministers.
Similarly, institutions such as NAB, FIA, FBR, State Bank, IB, SECP, and the police can all be placed under the direct supervision of the judiciary to carry out impartial probes. The armed forces and its affiliate intelligence agencies are also bound to assist the apex court in fulfilling this onerous responsibility. Both federal and provincial governments must, if the judges determine, conduct probes and administer justice under a mandate acceptable to them, without being dictated to by those who are under scrutiny.
Justice is pitted against greed now. Who should emerge victorious: money monsters or a citizenry determined to stamp out the cancer of corruption? Only time will tell.