The fears that the changes in the accountability and electoral reforms bills – one aimed at limiting the powers of National Accountability Bureau (NAB) and the other to reverse the tweaks made by the previous PTI government on the use of electronic voting machines (EVMs) and i-voting for overseas Pakistanis -- would not be given the nod came true on Saturday when President Arif Alvi returned them to Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif for “reconsideration” at a time when the superior judiciary also seems to be against the legislations.
The president, who belongs to the PTI, returned the National Accountability (Second Amendment) Bill 2021 And Elections (Amendment) Bill, 2022, observing that Article 46 of the Constitution had been violated as he was not informed about bringing these legislations to parliament.
A day earlier, the Supreme Court had also observed that it would examine changes being made to the accountability law by the federal government as it could not overlook the efforts to "minimise the role" of the anti0graft body.
On May 27, the Senate had passed the two significant bills, a day after they were cleared by the lower house of parliament.
The president returned the bills to the prime minister for “reconsideration and detailed deliberation by the parliament and its committee(s) in terms of Clause (1) (b) of Article 75 of the Constitution”, read a statement issued by the Presidency’s media wing.
Alvi further observed that the amendments had been passed by the National Assembly on May 26 and by the Senate on May 27 in “haste and without due diligence”.
He maintained the legislation having far-reaching impact on the society should have been discussed in details in consultation with the legal fraternity and civil society.
The president further claimed that through these amendments, the “burden of proof” had been “shifted to the persecution”, making the accountability law similar to the Criminal Code of Procedure 1898.
“This will make it impossible for the prosecution to prove cases of corruption and misuse of official authority by the state persons and would bury the process of accountability in Pakistan.”
He emphasised the amendments would make the tracing money trail for the acquisition of illegal assets almost impossible especially when the “records of the property/assets/wealth were neither digitised nor could be traced especially in Benami properties by the investigators”.
He added that if the amendments were enacted as proposed, the ongoing mega corruption cases in the courts would be rendered “infructuous”.
The president noted that the Supreme Court, in a 2018 judgment, had upheld its verdict from 2014 granting voting rights to overseas Pakistanis. The court had also endorsed i-voting and declared it to be safe, reliable and effective, he added.
Furthermore, the Supreme Court had approved the use of i-voting in a pilot project.
"The court clearly observed, 'We direct the results of the by-elections and the vote count of the votes cast by overseas Pakistanis through the i-voting mechanism shall be kept separately and also secret till the time that ECP [Election Commission of Pakistan] is satisfied about the technical efficacy, secrecy and security of the votes cast by overseas Pakistanis through the i-voting system'."
In its 2018 judgment, the apex court had regretted that the i-voting system was not used despite its earlier verdict, Alvi said.
He also rejected the possibility that EVMs could be hacked. The president compared the i-voting system to digital financial transactions and stated that "the probability of a plane crash is thousands of times higher than the probability of hacking of a digital transaction today".
"With very secure digital payments solutions already existing, and with more than $8 trillion transacted daily, the same processes can ensure anonymity and security of the vote and can also be subjected to complete audit on the truth-match of the vote cast."
Alvi claimed that Pakistan's EVMs were unique because they combined the paper-based system of voting already in use along with the electronic method. There was "no risk" involved, he stressed, adding that parliament could legislate that if there was a discrepancy or dispute.
“The paper count would be preferred over the electronic count or vice versa.”
The president noted that the stigma of rigging was attached to every election in the country which reduced the incoming government's credibility and billions were lost in litigation and confrontation.
"The new amendments in this form are like taking one step forward, and then panicking and taking two steps backward. Changing them back is tantamount to unnecessarily delaying these technical processes for the advancement and transparency of elections." The NAB law amendment bill included that the deputy chairman of the anti-graft body would become acting chairman following the top official's retirement.
The process to appoint a new chairman would begin two months prior to the incumbent's retirement and be completed in 40 days.
Federal and provincial tax matters as well as regulatory bodies' decisions were removed from NAB's purview.
Judges would be appointed in accountability courts for a three-year period and cases would be decided within a year.
NAB would be bound to ensure the availability of evidence prior to arrest. The amendments also included up to five-year imprisonment for filing a false reference.
The Elections (Amendment) Bill, 2022 aims to conduct pilot projects in local by-elections before using i-voting and EVMs in the next general elections.
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