A Case of Unwarranted Mudslinging
On the eve of Defence day of Pakistan this year, when the entire nation was celebrating the heroic defence of Pakistan in face of an Indian imposed war, it was rather unbelieving to see a blitz of uninformed derogatory remarks stream out from the forum of national assembly targeting the armed forces of Pakistan.
A member of national assembly called upon the House to intervene and stop the Army from trying three retired officers, accused of involvement in an alleged scam in the National Logistics Cell (NLC), in military courts. He insisted that if ends of justice were to be served, then the officers involved ought to have been arraigned before civil judiciary rather than tried under the military law. It was an unkind cut reflecting a lamentable trend whereby the NLC affair has become a rallying point for vested quarters to malign Army by resorting to a baseless and malicious slandering campaign. The law, military law in this case, has to take its due course but jumping the gun, many ignore immutable legal aspects which govern the conduct of legal proceedings invoked against personnel of the armed forces, irrespective of the ranks involved. But first some words about the NLC and the nature of Army’s association with this strategic asset of Pakistan.
NLC was created in 1978 as a crisis management organization of the Federal Government to provide a logistic capability to the nation for quickly and reliably moving large volumes of essential commodities and goods from the Karachi Port to the hinterland. This was essential to ease the flow of logistics from the bottleneck of Karachi, particularly at moments of national crisis or emergency. It would be wrong to assume that it is an exclusive organ of the Army since it is managed by National Logistics Board (NLB), headed by the Minister of Planning and Development (P&D) and includes federal secretaries of P&D Division, Finance Division, Communication Division, Railway Divisions and Deputy Chairman Planning Commission as its members. A serving major general of the Pakistan Army, appointed by the GHQ, acts as secretary NLB. Army’s association with NLC is governed by the fact that it provides the bulk of employed drivers as well as managerial officer cadre who serve the organization on a deputation of two to three years. The Khaki association is considered essential to inject an element of professional expertise, discipline, accountability and compulsions arising out of the need to switch onto the defense oriented duties in times of emergency. This is a gross contortion of the facts for some to say that instead of being a national asset, NLC is an inappropriate commercial venture indulged in by the Army to tend to its corporate interests.
Mismanagement of official funds, in this case NLC’s, by those entrusted their trusteeship, whether in the military or the civilian organization is a serious offense and committing it, by commission or omission, calls for bearing responsibility and facing accountability. For a person in uniform the accountability is ensured through the application of the Pakistan Army Act (PAA), unless the chain of command, under empowerment of the Act, decides otherwise. This legal caveat is not peculiar to military service in Pakistan alone, as some misinformed critiques are wont to make us believe, but rather a universal practice. It might be noted that the Pakistan Army Act draws legitimacy and authority from an act of the Parliament and doesn’t fall in the genre of a departmental law. So if the offending officers are being dealt with under the PAA it would be grossly wrong to assume that they are being willfully and gratuitously exempted from the scrutiny and accountability of the civilian law and investigations by the anti-corruption establishment. If the guilt is proven then the offenders will be meted out with punishment accordingly but it is half-cocked at the moment to exploit the NLC issue for vested ends, as it is a legal case in progress.
The assertions that the retired officers are being reinstated in service for undergoing trial under the PAA by bending the rules and through extending willful privileges, is misplaced to the extreme as well. The accused officers had earlier retired and have been taken on strength of the Army in deference to the provisions of the PAA. They have not been re-hired nor reinstated and are not entitled to any pay or privileges due to their rank. Their recall to service is to face justice under the military law and nothing else. Another aspect that needs to be comprehended as well is that under PAA the financial irregularities are not time barred and entail recall of the offending individuals back from retirement for trial by the military authorities. A major reason for this misunderstanding is perhaps caused by the fact that it is for the first time that retired senior officers have been recalled and subjected to thorough investigations under the ambit of the PAA.
Again it is wrong to assume that the Army has been unduly dragging its feet in bringing the accused to justice. The court of inquiry conducted by a three star general officer was ordered in Nov 2010 and completed within a span of three months. The law authorized the COAS to summarily dispose it off by awarding punishment to offenders in accordance with powers conferred by law or adopt the course for resorting to further formal investigations called ‘recording of the summary of evidence’. The awarding of the punishment would have entailed exercise of discretionary powers, creating an opportunity for critics to cry foul, and the option was rightly foregone to make the investigations fair and transparent. Now when the evidence has been finally collated and brought on record can the decision regarding initiating further legal proceedings in a military court be taken. The charges, if required, will be framed and evidence presented and evaluated through cross questioning by the prosecution and the defense counsels before a decision is awarded. Those having exposure to this methodology would bear it out that the truth will emerge and justice served.
The profession of arms demands utmost integrity and exercise of highest code of conduct by its officers’ corps. Any allegations of financial irregularities constitute a conduct unbecoming of an officer and a gentleman. Military traditions demand that the reported irregularities in maintaining NLC funds by the uniformed officers be thoroughly investigated and brought to the logical conclusion by punishing the guilty in line with dictates of the military law. The process of serving justice is in progress and till it is brought to conclusion the episode should not be used to launch a smear campaign against the Army which is locked in a grueling fight with forces of terrorism with honor, devotion and immeasurable sacrifice. Certainly not on the eve of the Defence Day of Pakistan!