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Speaking truth to power

THE rule of law can defeat corruption, even when it stretches to the highest office in the land. This is the lesson that every country should remember, especially after one woman made a difference in Guatemala.

Attorney General Thelma Aldana uncovered corrupt networks that were siphoning off huge sums involving every level of government including the tax collection machinery. She was able to identify members of the political and economic elite who were involved in financial scams. The money trail led all the way to president Otto Perez Molina, who was arrested and impeached, and is currently facing trial for fraud and money laundering.

Justice may be blind but when it comes to the politics of where it can be applied, former Gambian justice minister Fatou Bensouda faces a dilemma in presiding over investigations and prosecutions against genocide and crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court. Pitted against some African tyrants and Russian oligarchs, she’s fighting single-handedly and asking the court to widen its net to consider new cases from Afghanistan, Iraq, Columbia and Ukraine.

The pursuit of justice can have dire consequences. Senator Leila de Lima of the Philippines learnt it the hard way by speaking truth to power. President Rodrigo Duterte is “both terrifyingly brutal and massively popular” as some 7,000 people have been killed in the anti-drug campaign since June 2016. Most politicians have kept their heads down but not the diminutive, strong-willed former chair of the justice committee, Senator Leila de Lima. She ended up in jail last February. Despite her incarceration she continues to speak out against extra-judicial killings in her country.

The political will to strengthen the FIA is lacking.

In China, a banker is making headlines as the ‘great enforcer’, launching relentless campaigns against corruption as the head of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection. Wang Qishan leads the drive against graft and illicit financial flows netting thousands of officials and businessmen. He has immense public support as “bribes big and small grease China’s wheels of commerce up and down the line”. He is feared because President Xi Jinping supports the national anti-corruption czar.

“Integrity is a word that doesn’t get used a lot in Washington anymore,” said US Senator John McCain. James Comey is an exception. Integrity and professionalism defined his service, as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), to a nation where truth has lately been sacrificed at the altar of political expediency. His principled stance against some key members of the administration in which he served could have cost him his job. He remained undeterred. He “followed the law, spoke the truth and did what he believed was right”. He maintained operational autonomy and independence of his bureau.

However, in a bizarre move, Donald Trump abruptly terminated his services at a time when he was leading criminal investigations into the alleged collusion of the American president’s top aides with the Russian government to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. The firing of James Comey was blatantly political, amounting to the erosion of the independence of law enforcement and a blow to the unwritten constitutional norm of political neutrality.

Our Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) is the counterpart of the FBI. The FIA was established in 1974 to combat corruption and investigate white-collar crime, including money laundering. While the FBI director’s tenure is 10 years, the president can ask Congress to extend the period. President Obama had to approach Congress to get a two-year extension for Robert Mueller’s tenure.

The tenure of the DG FIA is fixed at three years. However, successive governments have flouted the law, causing irreparable damage to the autonomy and independence of this premier crime- and corruption-fighting agency. The political will to strengthen this federal watchdog is lacking and it is by design that FIA heads are posted and transferred at whim.

As DG FIA in 2009, I was faced with an intriguing tug-of-war between the federal government and the Supreme Court. The latter had tasked the agency with probing allegations of massive corruption and pilferage in Pakistan Steel Mills. A team constituted by the director general was required to submit a weekly progress report to the court. However, the then interior minister chose to issue written directions to the agency suggesting a certain mode of investigation as well as including certain officials of his choice from different departments as part of the joint investigation team (JIT) to carry out the probe in a matter entrusted by the apex court.

With great respect and utmost humility, I was constrained to write back to the minister that his directions amounted to interference in the agency’s investigative functions and that the probe team would finalise the process in accordance with the law under my command. No executive or judicial authority could interfere in the legal mandate of the investigation agency. While the Supreme Court issued a contempt notice to the interior minister, it nevertheless chose to look the other way when the director general was soon removed without any reason being assigned, in violation of the law that stipulates a three-year tenure for the FIA head.

In the Panama case, a majority of three Supreme Court judges opted to constitute a joint investigation team directly under their special implementation bench. This JIT is not like the joint interrogation team which is usually notified under the Anti-Terrorism Act,1997, by the interior ministry or home departments to question those suspected of involvement in acts of terrorism, sabotage or anti-state activities. This one is more like a judicial commission directly reporting and working under the apex court.

I would not like to speculate or question the wisdom of the inclusion of representatives of the ISI and MI. However, it appears strange that representatives of the Intelligence Bureau and Federal Board of Revenue have not been included in the team. The move has similarities with the initiative of the Supreme Court of India about a decade back when it took the Central Bureau of Investigation under its wing to supervise investigations against some serving ministers.

I hope the truth will be revealed, no matter who is involved, and justice pursued fairly. Public faith in the integrity of the highest executive office should take priority over all other considerations.

Khosa, Tariq. Speaking truth to power. Dawn, May 16, 2016.

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