By S. M. Hali

The curious case of the Mehran Bank scandal, which is now commonly known as the Asghar Khan case has taken an important position in Pakistan’s judicial history. Air Marshal Asghar Khan, in 1996, had written a letter to then Chief Justice Nasim Hasan Shah against former army chief, General Mirza Aslam Baig, former ISI chief Lieutenant General  Asad Durrani and Younis Habib of Habib and Mehran Banks, relating to the disbursement of public money and its misuse for political purposes. On the basis of Asghar Khan’s petition, Lieutenant General (Retd.) Asad Durrani took the stand in the Supreme Court and provided an affidavit that the army had indeed distributed Pak Rs. 140 million to anti-PPP political candidates only a few months before the October 1990 general election.

Air Marshal Asghar Khan’s petition has called upon the apex court to punish the politicians and political groups who have received the illegal funds from the intelligence agency. Various politicians have been demanding the petition to be heard. The Supreme Court has now fixed February 29th, 2012 to hear the case.

Before going on the merits of the case, a word about Air Marshal Asghar Khan, a politician and world war II veteran fighter pilot, who at the age of 36, served as the youngest and first Pakistani head of the Pakistan Air Force. Later on he was appointed as the head of the National flag carrier Pakistan International Airlines. He is considered to be an honest politician who did not achieve all his political goals due to the principled stands that he took. His long career in the Air Force, running PIA and in politics spanned many of the key moments in Pakistan's history. He is also the author of a dozen books. During his long political career which included imprisonment, he was adopted as a Prisoner of Conscience by Amnesty International and was awarded the Gold Medal by the Pakistan Society of Human Rights. He has also been awarded the Jinnah Award by the Jinnah Society for outstanding services to the cause of democracy and for upholding the values and principles of Muhammad Ali Jinnah.

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The case itself was filed sixteen years ago but is now being brought into the limelight in order to serve the purpose of vested interests bent upon the bashing of the armed forces and ISI. In the wake challenges posed by environmental retribution of politics, vibrant media, wakefulness of civil society and judicial assertiveness, the Armed Forces/ISI are likely to be the main focus of national and international debate, negatively impacting the status and the goodwill of these institutions.

Once the Supreme Court of Pakistan commences the hearing of the more than one and a half decade old case, it will be curious to watch the proceedings, since the alleged recipients of the funds have refused having received any such payment. On the other hand, the main respondents of the case including former COAS General (retired) Mirza Aslam Beg, former DG ISI Lieutenant General (retired) Asad Durrani and former Chief of Mehran Bank Younis Habib, have already committed in black and white before the court that Rs.140 millions arranged through Mehran Bank (insolvent / bankrupt) were distributed to different political parties and politicians, therefore, the case cannot be dismissed without trial and court decision.

Earlier too the alleged recipients of the funds had been acquitted by the court owing to lack of evidence. Raking up this old case will provide an opportunity to those advocates/lawyers bent upon castigating the army/ISI to have a field day. The courts are likely to ask for the proof/evidence against those who received money from ISI. The lawful orders by the competent authority shall be core issue in the court, asking directly, “Who ordered the amount to be distributed and with what purpose”. Even if the lawfulness of orders is ignored, the purpose will be made questionable, enabling the PPP to claim yet another feather in their cap, as forces obstructing its certain victory will stand discredited. The PPP has already taken up cudgels against the Army and ISI as it considers them stumbling blocks in the culmination of its nefarious designs; it has hatched plots like the Memogate scandal and a concerted effort to vilify these august institutions. There is every likelihood that the Political wing of ISI will again be the subject of discussion while court may give a decision to permanently shut down such wings. This decision may create a wrong impression for the ISI for its role in meddling in the elections. The Court will also order ISI to trace back the record and put up evidence beyond reasonable doubt that political leaders/political parties nominated in the case had received the money. On the contrary ISI may be directed to recover the amount and deposit in the State Bank of Pakistan.

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It is imperative to take cognizance of the fact that the amount was distributed to different political leaders as per the details given in the affidavit of Lieutenant General (Retd.) Asad Durrani. Hence record of receipts if any must be produced in the court to prove the veracity of the case. It must be realized that the IS was only obeying the orders of the then President of Pakistan because the political environment had become so charged with feelings of revenge and settling scores against the opponents. Defiance of orders at that stage would have led to conflict between the executive and army leading to another coup d'état/Martial Law. Bank records of the recipients may be traced back and exploratory investigation initiated to collect evidence that money was actually distributed amongst the recipients. The former COAS and former DG ISI must be provided full support to prove their case in the court of law with the judicial teams provided due leverage to prepare their arguments and counterarguments imaginatively. The apex court must ensure that ISI is not bashed publicly through harsh propaganda and the logical conclusion of the case be ensured so that justice may prevail and actual wrongdoers punished.