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Perjury

A few weeks ago I sat and watched in increasing frustration and disgust as two executives of a semi-government corporation lied through their teeth while giving evidence under oath. Almost every sentence of their affidavits was a lie, answers to every question was a blatant untruth. Even though this was before one of the best judges ever produced by the judiciary in Pakistan, one could see why the judiciary seems to have become helpless to prevent perjury. The case being sub-judice, one cannot ethically take names, however one can understand the reason why accountability is so difficult in a country where almost all statements or cross-examinations under oath are badly tainted. For personal gain, whether monetary or otherwise, false representation of facts and distortions, a gentlemanly phrase for “outright lies”, is the order of the day. Vested interest wants to keep the real facts concealed, invariably it is they who volunteer to become witnesses in any enquiry or trial. They manage to disfigure the truth in so brazen faced and bold a manner that law enforcers do not have the courage to intercede and take action against them. That is why corruption has flourished, these old hands creating a wall of lies, impossible for the investigators to penetrate. The National Accountability Bureau (NAB) is up against it in their search for those who have looted the wealth of this nation, whether from government departments or government or semi-government corporations, etc. To quote Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet, “at lover’s perjuries, they say even Jove laughs”. That may be the prerogative of lovers in a romance, in the real-life of a nation on its economic knees false evidence under oath is an incurable cancer that eats at the heart of our society, the deriving of individual benefit at the cost of the national exchequer, a worthwhile pasttime frustrating pursuit of the concept of collective gain. The Oxford Dictionary very correctly gives the meaning of perjury as “an act of wilfully telling an untruth when on oath”, and goes on to use the words, “lying, mendacity, mendaciousness, falsification, deception, untruthfulness, dishonesty, duplicity”. In simple terms, a perjurer is a criminal.

In most countries, perjury carries exemplary punishment, ruthless enough for people to try and avoid giving a statement under oath lest that statement (or part thereof) be detected to be false. The system is so credible that depositions under oath save the time of the courts in long-drawn out examination of witnesses. Automatic and severe punishment acts as a deterrent of sorts, a search of the legal history all over the developed world will show that because of repeated convictions due to perjury, the drop in corruption has been commensurate with that of perjury. The situation is ready made for malfeasance as in Pakistan today where every enquiry, every investigation, every trial, every arbitration, reeks of rampant falsification with absolute impunity, whether it is statements before the Oath Commissioner, particularly in the matter of real estate, as paid (or motivated) witnesses in any trial before the court etc. Part of the problem is that the judiciary acts only on the evidence on record, giving judgment on the basis of the statute books without relevance to the integrity of the evidence being presented before them. In a jury system the judge controls the courtroom keeping the flow of facts reasonably credible, giving rulings based on the law books and precedence, giving directions to the jury as a summary of the evidence presented. The twelve jurists on the panel then consult among themselves before arriving on a finding, Whereas it is quite possible to give false evidence, the body language of the witness while giving answers to questions as seen by 12 pairs of eyes makes it that much more difficult. The literacy level being low in Pakistan, the jury system is not considered a feasible proposition, somewhat of a strange stance in face of the age-old concept of the Panchayat.

Let us start with the declaration of assets by a politician, a public servant, an income tax payer, etc. On the one hand is the hiding of illegal wealth by misdeclaration, on the other the failure to pay necessary taxes is endemic. The entire economic system of the country is under pressure because of the large deficit in the revenue collection. In all modern countries, declaration of income and wealth is considered a misdemeanour and carries automatic conviction and/or penalty thereof. Only about 1.5 million people (of the 130 million population) declare income/wealth in a country where 11.6 million homes have electricity (1.6 million in Karachi alone), at least 40% of these residences fall above the threshold for paying income/wealth taxes, the figure thus comes to 4.64 million homes. Reducing this figure by 25% to cover for those people who have more than one home, the figure comes to 3.48 million homeowners who can pay taxes. This would mean there are nearly 2 million homeowners who presently should be paying taxes and don’t. The potential taxpayers could give us between Rs. 200-300 billion in additional incomes/wealth taxes alone, this would allow us to reduce import duties across the board, particularly for electronics, engineering goods, chemicals, machinery, etc thus making the economy across the board that much more competitive. And all by ensuring that misdeclaration under oath is perjury, automatic punishment in most cases should be a term of incarceration in prison.

Why are we attempting privatisation? Mainly because the bureaucrats/technocrats have brought the state-owned and nationalized units to their knees by inefficiency and corruption, lining their own pockets at the cost of the nation. All the executives must make an annual declaration of assets clearly showing increases and the volume thereof in a separate column, if the increase is inordinate and the source of income is other than salary, that should be mentioned. That declaration of assets must be filed with income/wealth tax returns so that differing statements are not presented before different authorities, as is the usual practice today. Furthermore it must be mandated that any misdeclaration, any false statement/evidence, any fabrication of evidence, in short any lie would mean automatic dismissal without any benefits and render them liable for prosecution for perjury other than whatever charges/punishment can be levelled against them including confiscation of illegally acquired property, penalties, etc.

In the case mentioned by me the two executives were, besides lying under oath, clearly caught fabricating evidence in the form of false letters/affidavits by different people. They did not bat an eyelash, in fact they smirked about the fact, secure in the knowledge that the judge would probably throw out the evidence but would not proceed against them for fabricating evidence.

As it is the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) has a difficult task solving white-collar crime, this task is made all that much more difficult in the present environment where perjury does not have right of place in punishment being imposed automatically irrespective of the case itself. Unfortunately law enforcement agencies will fabricate evidence/give false statements in order to target the object of their attention. This misuse of legality is also largely ignored, how many times has the prosecution been taken to task by the presiding judge when the case has been dismissed because of the lack of credibility in the evidence? NAB’s success rate would snowball if it could send witnesses who commit perjury to prison, you would find a lot of people suddenly telling the truth. Take the contempt case before the Supreme Court (SC) about the storming of the SC in end Nov 1997. That the atrocity took place there is no doubt (read “The Ugly Face of Fascism” THE NATION, Nov 29, 1997) most of the leaders can be identified on the tapes recorded by the installed Close-Circuit Television (CCTV) Cameras but first they deny their presence, then wrongdoing thereof. Those identified then pleaded ignorance in further identifying their followers, all who stormed the SC were strangers to each other. In a far subordinate US or British Court this sudden loss of memory would have kept them in court custody indefinitely till their memory returned. If those close to the then highest in governance in the land can perjure themselves so blatantly before the highest court in the land with such impunity, what does one expect at the lower end of the spectrum? There is only one solution, we must enact and implement the strictest possible law about perjury or all the attempts of the Chief Executive (CE) and his colleagues to accomplish their stated agenda will remain frustrated.

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