Sunday September 19, 2021

Extension of military courts by Senate deferred

Govt fails to ensure presence of 69 lawmakers for passage of 28th Amendment Bill 2017; NA passes Commission of Inquiry Bill 2016 amid uproar; Public Private Partnership bill also approved

ISLAMABAD: The government had to defer the Constitution (28th Amendment Bill, 2017) envisaging an extension in the military courts in the Senate on Wednesday when it failed to ensure the presence of mandatory 69 lawmakers (two-thirds majority) for the passage of the bill after its three allies decided not to vote for it.

This left the government red-faced, forcing it to get the proposed piece of legislation deferred till March 28. However, the House adopted the amendment to the Army Act for which it required a simple majority. 

Meanwhile, the National Assembly passed the Commission of Inquiry Bill 2016 amid an uproar from the opposition members. The surprise presence of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in the Senate also could not muster up enough support for the adoption of the constitutional amendment.

Less than 24 hours before, the two pieces of legislation were smoothly passed by the National Assembly where the PML-N enjoyed two-third majority. A government ally senator lamented that voting for the extension of period for military courts was like hiding one’s own sins.

The Question-Hour was not held. However, the number of members in the House was already thin, but the situation turned ugly when two government coalition partners Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PkMAP), and Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F), along with National Party-Mengal with one senator, announced not to vote on the bill.

Finance Minister Muhammad Ishaq Dar, along with Law and Justice Minister Zahid Hamid, were seen moving briskly inside and outside the House in a bid to ensure the maximum presence of senators but to no avail. Dar whispered in the ear of the prime minister, who made an exit from the House, though a rostrum was arranged for his most likely speech on the floor.

Senate Chairman Raza Rabbani wore a sad look on his face and said it was an ‘unfortunate day for all of us as we are going to vote [for military court extension] without our conscience’. On the occasion of an agreement between the government and opposition parties on the military courts, Rabbani had called that day an unfortunate one.

JUI-Fazl’s Maulana Attaur Rehman, who is the younger brother of Maulana Fazlur Rehman, moved two amendments to omit the term ‘religion and sect’ from the bill, but these were rejected through voice during the second reading of the bill.

Earlier, speaking on the bill, the opposition members urged the government to ensure that this two-year extension of military courts was their last-ever term and all out efforts should be made to strengthen the judicial system.

“Today is the heaviest day for all of us as we are going to vote on the bill but we will have to tell the people, why we are doing this. God forbid, we are going to have the bitter pill, which may turn out to be poisonous for us,” said Sherry Rehman of PPP.

She regretted that it was the fault of the political parties, as they were the people who let it happen, adding the military was trained to do things like this, and the politicians should do whatever they could to come out of the terrible situation.

Senator Usman Khan Kakar of PkMAP said that military courts offered no solution to the problem, and whatever was being done with regard to the military courts’ extension was nothing but to hide one’s own sins.

He called for strengthening the civilian courts, saying the judges had set examples by not bowing before the military dictators, adding it was a wrong impression the judges could not try hardcore terrorists.

“Our judge refused to resign when a dictator asked him to quit at gunpoint,” he said while referring to Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, a former chief justice, who refused to quit when then army chief Gen Pervez Musharraf pressured him to bow out in 2007, leading to a judicial crisis.

Senator Jehanzeb Jamaldini, an independent Senator of BNP-Mengal, questioned for how long the civilians would remain dependent on the military. “I have no complain with the military as it is doing a great job, but such kind of amendment will ultimately weaken the democratic institutions, as instead of strengthening the teething democracy, we are strengthening a single institution,” he added.

MQM’s Barrister Muhammad Ali Saif blamed the civilians for the ‘downfall’ of the country’s judicial system and charged the democratic institutions must not take refuge behind the doctrine of necessity to hide their weakness.

Senator Azam Swati of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) appeared more upset, who made a comment, which was immediately expunged on the directive of the chairman, asking the senator to stick to the topic.

MQM’s Senator Col (retd) Syed Tahir Hussain Mashhadi said that the government slept for full two years as not a single judicial reform was introduced, which according to him was like, “The government slept when Pakistan was burning”.

“I would urge both the military and the civil government to crush the terrorists with full might as monsters, beasts [terrorists] are killing our children,” he repeated what he had been saying ever since becoming a member of the Senate.

PML-N’s Lt Gen (retd) Abdul Qayyum had a totally supportive view of the government's stance and said that there was no harm in setting up military courts for speedy trial of hardcore terrorists, as it happened in developed countries like the US in circumstances Pakistan was passing through.

However, PPP Senator Farhatullah Babar questioned the 18th Constitutional Amendment that empowered heads of 10-12 parties to take action against a member of his party if voted against the party decision, saying the clause, which diminished the conscience of an MP, should also be reviewed.

“Parliament has already endorsed a parallel judicial system [military courts], but I want to ask how to do away with this clause which makes head of a political party all in all and one cannot even vote with his conscience,” Babar questioned.

The House will now resume on March 28 (Tuesday) and is expected to adopt the constitutional amendment bill.  Meanwhile, the government survived two attempts of the opposition parties for premature end of proceedings of the National Assembly (NA) due to a lack of quorum.

However, the government got the Commission of Inquiry Bill, 2016 passed by the House on the last day of the extended session. The NA also okayed the Public Private Partnership Authority Bill, 2017 on Wednesday.

The Commission of Inquiry Bill, 2017 would envisage constitution of a commission of inquiry with greater powers. The existing law relating to appointment of commission of inquiry and empowering it for the purpose is the Pakistan Commissions of Inquiry Act, 1956. The Act was invoked for setting up a fact-finding commission on a number of important national issues in the past.

However, the bill said on some matters the need has been perceived for a commission with greater powers than those which can be conferred upon under the act. It is, therefore, considered desirable that a new law be enacted enabling the government to confer additional powers on a commission of inquiry where the nature of the issue is being inquired into so requires.

The clause ‘Protection of action taken in good faith’, says ‘no suit or other legal proceedings shall lie against the federal government, the commission or any member, thereof, or any person acting under the direction either of the federal government or intended to be done in pursuance of this act or any rules or orders made thereunder or in respect of the publication, by or under the authority of the federal government, or the commission, of any report, paper or proceedings’.

A clause ‘additional powers of the commission’, ‘in case specific nature of the inquiry so requires the federal government may, by notification in the official gazette, confer additional powers on the commission’.

The commission under the new law would have power to constitute team and seek international cooperation from foreign countries or agencies to get information, documents, evidence and record or issue letters and interrogate with applicable international instruments.

The Public Private Partnership bill moved by Parliamentary Secretary for Finance Rana Muhammad Afzal Khan provides for a regulatory and enabling environment for private participation in provision of public infrastructure and related services through fair and transparent procurement processes.

The bill has already been passed by the Senate.

The proceedings of the House faced suspension twice due to lack of quorum pointed out by the PPP member Ejaz Jhakrani and secondly by Ms Musarrat Zeb from the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). However, the government managed to complete the required number of 86 members by a narrow margin to get the bills passed by the House.

The opposition lawmakers mainly from the PPP and PTI raised serious objections on not giving time to speak on the bills.

Ejaz Jhakrani and Syed Naveed Qamar of the PPP accused the government of trying to bulldoze the proceedings of the House.

Naveed Qamar said that it was not the way to run the house, as without listening to the opposition, the government was bulldozing the bills and also opposed the passage of all the clauses in one go. Shah Mehmood Qureshi of PTI also supported the point of view of the PPP parliamentarians.

Ejaz Jhakrani raised the question of lack of quorum following speech of the opposition leader causing suspension of proceedings of the house for over half an hour. Musarrat Zeb of PTI pointed out the lack of quorum again when the proceedings resumed.

As the government had planned on the last day of the session, the chair once again suspended the house for around twenty minutes. Earlier, speaking on a point of order, Leader of the Opposition Syed Khursheed Ahmad Shah strongly condemned the lack of interest being shown by the government members in proceedings of the National Assembly, observing that only one member -- Abdul Qadir Baloch was sitting in the House.

He also negated the claims of the government about doing away with or reducing electricity loadshedding in the country, saying that it had happened in central parts of the Punjab province only.

He said Pakistan's exports had decreased during the present government's tenure despite many favours and criticised the government for taking record domestic and external loans. He emphasised that the government should focus on providing employment, health and education facilities to the people instead of spending huge funds on big projects like motorways and metro buses.

Syed Khursheed Shah said agriculture crops were being affected due to shortage of irrigation water in Sindh. He also criticised that the government was not giving due importance to parliament and alleged that steps taken by the government were against the interests of the Federation.