The frenzied rush in which a new bill that protects top office-holders from contempt of court proceedings has been pushed through parliament is, to put it mildly, unseemly. The intention of the 23-clause law is clearly to prevent Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf meeting the same fate as his predecessor Yousaf Raza Gilani. With the NRO hearing scheduled for July 11, it is expected that fingers will remain glued to the fast forward button and the bill will be rushed through the Senate and then to President Asif Ali Zardai for his signature. Since Mr Ashraf obviously has no more intention than Mr Gilani of writing that letter to Swiss authorities, the government obviously fears the exit of another prime minister.
The new bill offers protection to ‘office-bearers’ holding high rank from contempt proceedings. These privileged office-bearers include the prime minister, federal ministers, the president, provincial chief ministers and governors. Remarks criticising the judiciary, made in ‘good intent’ will also not be considered contempt. The law replaces the previous standing of contempt on the statute book and is obviously a matter of immense debate in all circles. This is all the more so, since the law was literally thrust through parliament with a barge pole and no time was spent on discussing it, which was highly unfortunate considering the opposition put up by other parties.
The manner in which the whole affair has been handled could misfire badly. It is very likely, indeed almost certain, that the law will be challenged. The Chief Justice of Pakistan, Iftikhar Chaudhry himself has warned of this in his comments about the degree of supremacy enjoyed by parliament. What we see ahead of us is the very real possibility of further confrontation between the judiciary and the executive. This will not be good for any one and it will be most damaging of all for democracy in our country, which is struggling to find some kind of foothold even now so that it can lever itself into a stronger position for the future. Hasty decisions made perhaps, in panic, can only hamper this process and hold back the stability we are trying to achieve in our country.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 11th, 2012.
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