With the new prime minister under the gun, the government has unveiled a last-minute plan following a Cabinet meeting on Wednesday, which will almost certainly rouse an increasingly assertive judiciary.
It doesn’t end there. In addition to the move to give itself protection from the courts, the government also seems to be moving to launch an offensive of its own through the Public Accounts Committee (PAC).
In a move that could intensify an already serious stand-off, the government has planned legislation on two matters on which it faces intense pressure from the judiciary – dual nationality and, more controversially, on the definition of contempt of court.
The Cabinet meeting on Wednesday passed a draft bill named, “Contempt of Court Bill, 2012,” initiated by the law ministry. “Through proposed bill, the scope of the right to appeal has been enlarged. Moreover, other necessary provisions relevant to contempt proceedings have been incorporated,” said an official handout issued after the meeting.
However, Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira in his briefing elaborated, saying that, after the law will be enacted, no contempt proceedings could be initiated against public office holders as mentioned in the Article 248(1) of the Constitution.
Article 248(1) states: “The President, a Governor, the Prime Minister, a Federal Minister, a Minister of State, the Chief Minister and a Provincial Minister shall not be answerable to any court for the exercise of powers and performance of functions of their respective offices or for any act done or purported to be done in the exercise of those powers and performance of those functions:
“Provided that nothing in this clause shall be construed as restricting the right of any person to bring appropriate proceedings against the Federation or a Province.”
When asked to explain what was meant by “enlarging scope of appeal” Kaira said that after incorporation of the proposed changes, once the appeal of a convict in a contempt case was accepted, the punishment would automatically stand suspended.
‘Contempt of court’ led to the disqualification of former premier Yousaf Raza Gilani last month – and a similar sword dangles above the new prime minister, Raja Pervaiz Ashraf, who will almost certainly follow in his predecessor’s footsteps and refuse to write a letter to Swiss authorities to reopen graft cases against President Asif Ali Zardari.
Prime Minister Ashraf has until July 12 to tell the judiciary whether or not he will follow the court’s directions and write the letter. However, the cabinet has rushed to shield the new premier. Legislation pertaining to contempt of court is likely to be tabled in parliament before the 12th, with the National Assembly session being suddenly summoned for Friday July 6 (tomorrow) and the Senate session for Monday, July 9.
The sitting prime minister will seek immunity from contempt of court proceedings under this legislation, which is also expected to allow for criticism of court decisions, as well as providing legal breathing room for other officials of the bureaucracy in this regard. Even if it is challenged in court, proceedings in this regard will give the prime minister more time in office.
While the dual nationality legislation, also passed by the Cabinet after it was introduced by Farooq Sattar of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), will almost certainly appear in parliament as a constitutional amendment, requiring two-thirds majority, the contempt of court bill will most likely be legislation by simple majority.
While the dual nationality issue has support from parties across the spectrum, given that both treasury and opposition parliamentarians have been suspended by the Supreme Court under Article 63, the contempt bill will almost certainly face stiff opposition.
Attorney-General Irfan Qadir, when contacted, said he was scheduled to attend the cabinet meeting but was unable to participate due to important cases being heard in the courts.
He, however, claimed that there is no contempt law in the country, and, according to him, the new proposed legislation on contempt issues does not need a constitutional amendment. “There is need to enact a law not a constitutional amendment,” he remarked.
A similar law regarding contempt of court was passed by the PML-N government in 1997 at a time the incumbents were also in a row with the top judiciary. The controversy led to the ouster of then chief justice Justice Sajjad Ali Shah. The legislation was scrapped by former President Pervez Musharraf later on through an ordinance which later became a part of the 17th Amendment.
Meanwhile, parliament’s top financial watchdog the PAC will continue pursuing the Supreme Court to explain the audit of its accounts.
Sources said that the chairman of the PAC plans to summon the registrar of the apex court Dr Faqir Hussain to appear before the body to answer questions pertaining to the financial affairs of the top judiciary. Highly placed sources told The Express Tribune that the registrar may receive a letter to that affect within next few days.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 5th, 2012.