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February 12, 2020

RTI Commission directs ministry to share Pervez Musharraf trial’s expenses

Top Story

February 12, 2020

ISLAMABAD: The Pakistan Information Commission has directed the Ministry of Law and Justice to share information within 10 days as demanded by a citizen about the details of lawyers engaged for prosecuting former military dictator Gen. (R) Pervez Musharraf on treason charges and fee paid to them.

This order has been passed in reaction to an earlier reply of the ministry that had refused to provide the requested information terming itself as classified ministry, which is not answerable to the taxpayers.

The ministry didn’t offer any response when put on notice by the Commission and subsequently the verdict was issued. For a background, an application was filed under Right of Access to Information Act 2017, commonly known as RTI law, by a taxpayer who wanted to know how judiciously the money contributed by public through their taxes is being used by the ministry. To the amazement of Mukhtar Ahmed Ali, the applicant, the ministry declared him unaccountable to such inquiries. Referring a Cabinet Division notification dated 1993 but without explaining and sharing the contents of that notification, the ministry claimed exemption saying it has been declared “classified, therefore, your request is hereby declined on this aspect.”

In September last year, Mukhtar had demanded the answer of four questions. He asked for the list of the members of the prosecution team and relevant law firms engaged for Musharraf’s trial under article 6 of the Constitution and the fee paid to them. In addition, he sought details of out-of-pocket expenses (e.g. travel, lodging, meal etc.) reimbursed to them. He also asked for the fee break-up paid to each member of the legal team.

After refusal from the ministry, Mukhtar moved Pakistan Information Commission, an appellant body set up under the RTI law for dealing with the complaints lodged by the applicants against the government. In a rejoinder sent to the ministry, Mukhtar said his application has been rejected without being given due consideration as the ministry “has not even bothered to consider Article 19A and the (Right of Access to Information) Act in the course of deciding my application.”

The ministry’s response is vague, his rejoinder continued, as it refers to a Cabinet Division’s notification but doesn’t explain what exactly the notification says and how is that applicable in relation to an application filed under the Right of Access to Information Act 2017. The Act has overriding effect vide its section 25 and, therefore, inconsistent provisions in other laws cannot be used to deny information requests under this Act, he further argued. “Yet the ministry has tried to hide behind a mere administrative notification, which has no legal effect in the presence of explicit provisions of the Right of Access to Information Act 2017,” Mukhtar noted.

The requested information is about the use of tax-payers money in relation to a matter of public importance and, therefore, its disclosure is not likely to cause any harm to public interest, he pointed out. “In fact, by disclosing the requested information, the Ministry of Law and Justice will demonstrate its commitment to transparency and good governance and, hence, will contribute to building public trust in the government,” he noted.

Mukhtar further pointed out that the Cabinet Division notification which was referred in order to decline the information request was issued long before the insertion of Article 19A in the Constitution in 2010 whereby right to information was declared a fundamental right of every citizen. Therefore, he concluded, reliance on the notification to deny access to information amounts to deliberate violation of citizens’ fundamental rights. The said notification, therefore needs to be declared as contradictory to the Article 19A of the Constitution and provisions of the Right of Access to Information Act 2017, he demanded.

Considering his rejoinder plausible, the Commission sought reply from the ministry and directed to send a representative for appearance on the hearing dated December 26 last year. Neither the ministry offered any reply nor dispatched any person for representation. Taking into account merit of the case, the Commission in an order dated February 3 directed the ministry to provide the information requested by Mukhtar within ten working days. Failing in compliance will be tantamount to the contempt of court as the Commission has judicial power to proceed against the federal departments showing defiance.