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Amnesty galore in Pakistan

Huzaima Bukhari

“Amnesty is the forgiveness of something. Amnesty is anything that says, ‘Do it illegally, it will be cheaper and easier”—Marco Rubio, American senator from Florida

Governments make laws and rules to conduct the affairs of management so as to facilitate the public and for smooth functioning of administration. Rules are meant to be observed, not just by the public but also the legislators. Barring a few exceptions, law needs to be enforced strictly and without bias. Courts have always struck down those statutes that are based on discrimination. There cannot be a set of rules for one category of persons and for the same purpose, a different set of rules for some other. More dissuading position is when law violators are awarded while law-abiders are made to look like fools. For this situation a verdict can be given that those who follow the laws of the country are true patriots whereas those who defy them blatantly are actually traitors who have no respect or regard for their motherland.

This can be better explained by the example of two separate organizations. One, where the members are disciplined folk who love their abode, contribute well towards its management, keep the place impeccable and maintain a reasonably disciplined schedule and where there is a sense of care for each other. Another, where residents are selfish, have no affiliation with their institution, are least interested in its physical appearance, have irregular timings for coming and going because of which there is a total dearth of efficiency in work and harmony in their relationships. Whereas in the former instance, there is peace as well as a general atmosphere of calm and prosperity, in the case of the latter one can only discern chaos with everyone appearing to serve own vested interests but not at all bothered about collective betterment. In this kind of a scenario what is most striking is that individually the members may be successful in establishing themselves but the organization as a whole would be rendered a total failure.

The whole idea of amnesty revolves around granting an official pardon for such persons who have either willfully or inadvertently been involved in violating the laws of the country. An example could be a group of political insurgents who are nabbed by the security forces and after serving time in the gallows are pardoned by the government on account of perhaps their young age. In other words, an unlawful act, instead of being subjected to punishment is given amnesty. Sovereign powers have the right to formulate any kind of law, legalize what is illegal, declare illicit that which is legal, take severe actions against wrongdoers or conversely forgive certain classes of people who are subject to trial but have not been convicted. A very pertinent example can be that of immigrants who enter a country through unlawful means but are declared legal and granted permanent status by the host country. 

In short, amnesty is a powerful tool in the hands of leaders of a sovereign state to extend pardon to the delinquents residing within its political boundaries. However, there is no denying the fact that anyone who is beneficiary of an amnesty is actually making an open confession that until he was pardoned, he had been engaged in breaking laws of the country. The courts have always been reluctant to accept the plea of ‘ignorance of law’ as an excuse for defiance but are rendered helpless when the state has officially forgiven someone. Still, the pardon does not imply that offence was never committed and one who has availed an amnesty could resurrect his life but the one who aspires to lead the country is left with very little moral grounds to take on the responsibilities of an honest and law-abiding head of state.

As far as the members of the ordinary public is concerned, they are like children who can be shown both carrot and stick in a bid to reform them by a conscious parent because a home can be saved from the pranks of a naughty or rebellious youngster in various ways, but what if the parent turns out to be the mischief-monger? It would become very difficult to protect such a household if not from total collapse then at least from disharmony and strained relations.   

Perfection or infallibility for human beings is a far-fetched idea. We are born with weaknesses and throughout our lives we are prone to making mistakes. It is alright if these are inadvertently made, but where the clear intention is to deceive and the wrong is committed willfully, amounts to moral turpitude which is defined as “an act or behavior that gravely violates the sentiment or accepted standard of the community.” For the ordinary public, sins can be forgiven and mistakes overlooked but for a potential leader expectations are much higher. Dr. J Rufus Fears, an American historian while addressing a group of college students remarked that a politician and a statesman are not the same thing. A statesman must be possessed with certain qualities among which he highlighted four essential ones: He must be a bedrock of principles, a moral compass, a vision and should be endowed with the ability to build a consensus to achieve that vision.

Any public office holder, starting from the highest to the lowest rank, if found to have indulged in seeking amnesty or is known to have taken the shelter of an immunity clause of an existing statute is deprived of all moral grounds to continue in office, especially after this implied public confession. Not only is his conduct considered as a bad example, he also loses his credibility as guardian of public trust. If such an exposure occurs in civilized countries, resignations take place. In the aftermath of Panama Leaks in April 2016, several international personalities relinquished their posts. Prominent among them were Iceland’s prime minister Sigmundur Gunnlaugsso, the Ukranian prime minister Arsenly Yetsenyuk and the Spanish minister for industries Jose Manuel Soria besides a number of other public office appointees.

Unfortunately, ours is a country where leaders are idolized to an extent that they are equated with apostles and the followers are unwilling to accept any of their short-comings. After getting tax amnesties or taking benefit of law for whitening of assets, these ‘pious’ leaders not only get elected but also manage to obtain clearance from the highest court. The truth is that many justifications are forwarded in defence of their wrong-doings but criticism is not tolerated. This nature of ignoring vices and bearing with lawlessness of our chosen leaders has not only deprived the masses of a decent life but has also led the country towards the edge of economic collapse. It is about time that our potential leaders learn to uphold principles of moral values and significance of honest deliberations while at the same time, learn to retreat with dignity on being exposed.


The writer, lawyer and author, is an Adjunct Faculty at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS)

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