The urgency was palpable.
A contentious bill, effectively providing immunity to high-office holders to disobey court orders and a free hand for the public to criticise the judiciary, was bulldozed through the National Assembly on Monday night by the government.
The timing of the legislation, passed after a marathon session, is key. The bill will ostensibly provide cover for Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf from possible disqualification by the Supreme Court, which had sought his compliance on an earlier verdict to write to Swiss authorities to reopen graft cases against President Asif Ali Zardari. The premier’s reply was sought by July 12 (Thursday). This case had led to the disqualification and unseating of Yousaf Raza Gilani as premier on contempt of court charges last month.
With the new premier also expected to refuse to write the letter, like his predecessor, the government feared similar consequences for the new chief executive.
Clause 3 (I) of the bill reads: “exercise of powers and performance of functions by a public office holder of his respective office under clause (1) of Article 248 of the Constitution for any act done or purported to be done in exercise of those powers and performance of those functions,” shall not amount to commission of contempt of court. The office holders referred to are: the prime minister, federal ministers, provincial chief ministers, provincial ministers, provincial governors, and the president.
Aside from the protection, it also allows for general criticism “in good faith” of the judiciary without resulting in contempt of court charges. “Fair comments about the general working of courts made in good faith in the public interest and in temperate language; fair comments on the merits of a decision of a court made, after the pendency of the proceedings in a case, in good faith and in temperate language,” shall not amount to contempt of court.
Section 13 of the bill said that Contempt of Court Ordinance 2003 (v of 2003) stood repealed. It further said: “for removal of doubt, it is hereby declared that the Contempt of Court Act 1976 (LXIV of 1976), Contempt of Court Ordinance, 2003 (IV of 2003) and Contempt of Court Ordinance, 2004 (I of 2004) stand repealed.”
The bill still has to be passed by the Senate, and then signed by the president – which will probably be done before July 12, when the court takes up the Swiss letter matter.
The 13-clause bill was passed in a marathon session of the National Assembly amid protest by the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) which called it a “black day for democracy.”
The opposition raised objections against the government’s decision to not to send the bill to the relevant standing committee for deliberations and they kept on demanding time as per rules. But time was of the essence for the government.
“You are in hurry but don’t make parliament a shield against your misdeeds,” said Sardar Mehtab Khan Abbasi from the PML-N. “The PPP respects the judiciary despite the fact we are victims of justice,” said Law Minister Farooq H. Naek, defending the bill and intent of the government. He said there are a number of contempt of court cases in the courts but there was confusion about the relevant law. This bill will bring an end to all misunderstandings, he added. “It is a bill to create equality between the judges and parliamentarians,” said Naek, while laying the bill before the house.
While felicitating the house over the passage of the bill, the prime minister said the law will provide full opportunity for a fair trial and a transparent procedure for right to appeal.
However, Khawaja Saad Rafiq from the PML-N said that the only purpose of the bill is to tie the hands of the superior judiciary since it gives licence to abuse authority. “Through such legislation, you (government) are inviting undemocratic forces,” he added.
Meanwhile, the government also introduced the 21st Constitutional Amendment bill aimed at increasing the pension of widows of judges of Supreme Court and high courts from 50% to 75%.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 10th, 2012.
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