The stage is set for a dramatic hearing today.
Hours before a potentially decisive hearing of the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) implementation case, the government bulldozed the controversial contempt of court amendment bill through the Senate on Wednesday.
With the bill already having been passed by the National Assembly, it now only needs the president’s signature to officially become law – a move that is expected at any time.
The bill will provide immunity from contempt proceedings to high office holders, including the prime minister, president, chief ministers, federal and provincial ministers as well as governors. The move is key given that Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf’s reply is due today on whether he would be following the court directives on writing a letter to Swiss authorities to reopen graft cases against President Asif Ali Zardari and his late wife, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto. The cases had been closed earlier under the controversial NRO, which was struck down by the court as void ab initio in 2009.
Premier Ashraf’s predecessor, Yousaf Raza Gilani, was disqualified and unseated from prime ministership after being found in contempt because of his refusal to comply with these orders. Many predicted a similar fate for his successor – a fear that is seen to be the cause of the rush to pass the new contempt law.
The Supreme Court will take up the case today with a five-member larger bench, constituted last week, hearing the matter. At the last hearing on June 27, a three-member bench headed by Justice Nasirul Mulk, stated in its written order: “… the new prime minister was elected last week and we trust him that he will honour the direction given by this court. In the meantime we direct the attorney general of Pakistan (Irfan Qadir) to seek instructions from the prime minister and inform the court on the next date of hearing (July 12)”.
The larger bench will be headed by Justice Asif Saeed Khosa and comprise Justice Ejaz Afzal Khan, Justice Ejaz Ahmed Chaudhry, Justice Gulzar Ahmed and Justice Muhammad Ather Saeed.
The bill, presented by Law Minister Farooq Naek, wasn’t passed without plenty of dissent in the Senate. Not only did the opposition protest vociferously and boycott the session, there was rumblings of dissent by the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP)’s own: most notably Senator Aitzaz Ahsan, the ruling party’s legal eagle and the counsel for the prime minister in the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) implementation case.
“The government should review the draft of the bill as the law has been made in haste and could be harmful for the government,” said Senator Aitzaz during the Senate proceedings. “The proposed law is giving immunity to the president and the prime minister; but we must not forget that the situation will change when the party will be sitting in the opposition.”
However, Aitzaz also hastened to laud the gist of the bill, saying that it balances the power of the judiciary.
The opposition, on the other hand, was not in two minds. While taking part in the general debate, Leader of the Opposition Ishaq Dar said that the bill was mala fide, and amounts to lowering the prestige of parliament. He demanded that the bill should be withdrawn immediately otherwise the opposition will take “appropriate action” to ensure that the bill doesn’t stay on the statute books even if it becomes an act.
Pakistan Muslim Legaue-Nawaz (PML-N)’s Raja Zafarul Haq said his party strongly opposes the bill and awaits its annulment by the court. The bill has already been challenged in the Supreme Court for being contradictory to the Constitution.
The law minister defended the government’s move, saying “the bill is not against the judiciary and parliament has full right to legislate under the Constitution.” Naek, however, welcomed the opposition’s criticism, terming it the ‘beauty of democracy’.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 12th, 2012.
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