We can handle it | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, October 12, 2007 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, October 12, 2007

Straight Talk

We can handle it

It was reminiscent of the climactic scene from the movie "A Few Good Men." No sooner had the interim government floated the idea of setting up a truth commission, then there rose a chorus of disapproval: "You want the truth?" roared the chattering and political classes, doing their best Jack Nicholson impersonation. "You can't handle the truth!"
There's no pleasing some people. All we have heard over the past nine months from certain sections is that the current anti-corruption drive is destroying the economy and threatening to plunge the country into penury and ruin.
Its critics have charged that the anti-corruption drive that has many of the nation's premier businessmen behind bars or on the run has shaken business confidence to the core and that the resultant instability and uncertainty has left the economy in dire straits.
Indeed, there is some truth to this. The fact that there is a new sheriff in town, so to speak, and that the corruption and criminality that passed as business as usual for so many years is being reined in, is bound to cause economic dislocation and insecurity, and that is precisely what has happened.
That said, one would have thought that those who were most critical of the anti-corruption drive and its repercussions on the economy would be the first to applaud the fact that the government has taken on board their criticism and is looking at alternative measures to balance fighting corruption with maintaining a healthy economy.
One would have thought that the anti-corruption drive's critics would be gratified that the government has demonstrated some measure of flexibility and imagination when it comes to resolving the problem, that it is responding to public opinion and the changing situation on the ground, that it is willing and attempting to correct course.
One would have though wrong.
So loud have the howls of dismay among the usual suspects been that one could be forgiven for thinking that the government had suggested blanket amnesty for murderers, rapists, and child-molesters.
Now, of course, many questions remain as to how such a program would be administered, who would qualify for inclusion, how a truth commission would complement the existing legal system currently in place, etc.
These are all legitimate questions and concerns that will have to be thought through and addressed. But I get the sense that too many of the critics are not interested in how the idea can be developed into something acceptable and workable, and are more interested in scoring cheap points against the plan's proponents.
Too many people are not looking for a practical solution to the problems the nation finds itself faced with when it comes to cleaning up the decades of corruption and dysfunction in all organs of the state including the legal apparatus. By all means we should be skeptical and cautious, but let us be constructive as well.
To fully appreciate the idea of a truth commission and the extent to which it is a suitable institution to help us move forward, we need to go back and take a hard look at where the country was prior to 1/11.
The simple truth is that prior to 1/11 the country was mired in corruption and dysfunction, and the current anti-corruption drive is an attempt to break out of the vicious cycle of misgovernance and maladministration that has plagued this country since its birth, and, indeed, for decades if not centuries before.
This was never going to be an easy or straightforward task. Bringing wholesale change and reform to any entity, let alone an entire country, is always difficult. The fact that corruption had become so institutionalised in the country meant that it had extended its tentacles into almost every nook and cranny of daily life and that uprooting it would essentially require turning the country upside down.
In addition, decades (if not centuries) of shambolic and self-serving rule by colonisers, dictators, and putative democrats alike had left the legal and judicial apparatus required to effect the necessary changes (like all other organs of the government) utterly dysfunctional.
This is the reality that the interim government was faced with, and there is no question that it was, and remains, a daunting one.
Simply put, with the resources (both institutional and human) at its disposal, and given the depths of corruption that it is attempting to dispel, the government cannot do everything. It has no option but to prioritise and focus on what is doable.
Thus it was as far back as February that I have been arguing that the government needs to consider plea bargains as an essential tool in its prosecutorial armoury. The setting up of a truth commission is no more and no less than another similar acknowledgement of the stark reality of the current situation.
The idea is simple. Instead of subjecting them to court trials (which they might win or lose), the government can give certain accused the option of appearing before the truth commission. It would operate as a parallel judicial option, and participation would be totally voluntary. An accused could choose to take his or her chances in a court of law, or he or she could instead choose to testify for the truth commission.
Such an option would make sense for many people. If one doesn't believe that one has committed any crime, then one need not participate. The option to be tried in court and be found either guilty or innocent would always remain.
But the truth commission, by being a non-adversarial proceeding, would have considerable advantages for the state.
Participants would have to give a full accounting of their misdeeds. They would have to testify fully as to their crimes and those of others. They would be required to make restitution of monies illegally obtained and pay a stiff fine on top of this. In return, they would avoid jail-time. In essence, this is no different from a plea bargaining deal, and I fail to see what anyone would find objectionable in such an arrangement.
If it is determined that one has not given a full accounting or has materially misled or hidden information from the commission, this would disqualify one from its benefits and would in itself be an offence punishable by a serious prison sentence.
The dust up over whether the truth commission would be available only for businessmen is a red herring. The key to inclusion would have to be the nature of the crime committed. Certain crimes would qualify one for participation, other crimes would disqualify one. The distinction, therefore, would be based not on whether one is a politician or bureaucrat or businessman, but on what one is credibly accused of.
Certainly, the crime might differ depending on whether one was in government at the time or not. Paying a bribe is a quite different offence from receiving one. It should be perfectly straightforward to structure the commission in such a way that no community or class of person is targeted. If the commission is not available to those who are accused of official corruption, it will not be because they are politicians or bureaucrats per se, but because the crimes they are accused of are not eligible for disposal by the truth commission.
The truth commission will help the smooth and swift administration of justice. In addition, due to the fact that it a non-adversarial forum, it will provide torrents of information that will help us better understand how we got where we are and how best to move ahead.
Due to their adversarial nature, trials do not always bring out the truth and they often do not provide any kind of closure, either. A truth commission, apart from being a very practical measure for lightening the burden on the court system, will provide the nation a measure of truth and closure for some of the crimes and misdeeds of the past. I think we can handle it.
Zafar Sobhan is Assistant Editor, The Daily Star.

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