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June 16, 2021

Arrest, prosecution without warrant: Opposition objects to tax officers powers in Finance Bill

ISLAMABAD: The opposition strongly objected in the Senate on Tuesday over provision in the Finance Bill to empower the tax officers to arrest and prosecute without warrant, forced the government to be on the back foot and assure the senators that it would be revisited and toned down.

The assurance was held out to the Senate by Federal Minister for Law and Justice Barrister Farogh Nasim, who agreed in principle that it would be inappropriate to arrest someone prior to adjudication and said the provisions to this effect in the income tax, sales tax and customs laws will be reviewed, as the House continued debate on the proposed finance bill. PPP parliamentary leader Senator Sherry Rehman raised the issue in the House, terming the provision of 203-A as an assault on the fundamental rights and insisted that the powers to arrest given to the officers of inland revenue appeared to be a mini-martial law.

Ms Rehman pointed out that the very matter was also discussed at the Senate Finance Revenue and Economic Affairs Committee meeting, which unanimously rejected it and called for removal of the provision from the finance bill. However, the standing committee was informed that the same provision was there in the customs act as well. Leader of the Opposition in the Senate Yusuf Raza Gilani was also on his feet to seek an assurance from the government that no such step will be taken through back door.

Former Senate chairman and PPP stalwart Mian Raza Rabbani referred to inclusion of ‘retail’ in the definition of smuggling under the customs act and warned that it would open a huge Pandora box and added that the tax officers would be able to carry out raids at small retail outlets, opening another door for corruption. PMLN Senator Azam Nazir Tarar also spoke on the issue while taking part in the budget discussion and stressed that arrests in fiscal offences take place after adjudication and explained that if the provision was allowed to stay as it is, the people accused of concealing their income would be put behind the bars without being given the right of hearing.

He criticised the government for imposition of 15 percent sales tax on milk and yogurt and increase in the prices of a number of other essential commodities including sugar, wheat flour and ghee and said the budget offers nothing positive to the poor and the middle class.

Law minister, however, disagreed with the opposition’s assertions of the budget being anti-people and remarked, “If it is so, why the chambers of commerce across the country are praising the budget. With due respect, it is not so”. He took the opportunity to also reject as baseless the charges of fudging figures and imposing anti-people taxes and offered a live debate between the economic teams of the opposition parties and the government over budget with facts and figures and clarified that it was not a challenge rather a request. The minister, then, asked the opposition to pin point the figures it alleges had been fudged and the taxes it believed were anti-people and said a correction would not be possible with generalised accusations. He emphasized that inflation was a complex issue but was hopeful that with the steps underway for a visible change would be there in next six months.

On the allegations of political victimisation of political opponents, the minister contended many of the cases being faced by some opposition leaders had been registered before the PTI formed government. He added the NAB, FIA and anti-corruption departments were independent bodies and the cases are adjudicated upon by the judiciary which is also independent. Referring to a letter written by FIA to the opposition leader in the National Assembly Shehbaz Sharif, seeking certain details concerning two sugar mills, he said the government had nothing to do with it.

Meanwhile, as many as six bills already passed by the National Assembly including two bills seeking to amend the elections act were introduced in the House and referred to the Senate’s standing committees concerned for deliberations and reports. These included Elections (Amendment) Bill, 2021), the Elections (Second Amendment) Bill, 2021), the Bill to effectually tackle the pervading instances of rape and sexual abuse in respect of women and children through changes in the substantive law (The Criminal Law (Amendment Bill, 2021), the Regulation of Generation, Transmission and Distribution of Electric Power (Amendment) Bill, 2021), as passed by the National Assembly, be taken into consideration.

PTI’s Barrister Ali Zafar, taking part in the budget debate, though praised the budget, saying this has a new economic agenda for Pakistan, yet found fault with some of the proposals and he pointed out that in the budget there is a proposal for price control mechanism to be put back in place. He suggested reconsideration, saying this has never worked and will not work.

He also said that only market forces can determine the prices of commodities and whenever prices have been controlled, this has led to black marketing. Moreover, he noted that if the international prices are high, food items will be smuggled out of Afghanistan, Iran and India borders and no one will be able to stop it.

Senator Ali Zafar remarked what the budget lacks is due emphasis on alternate energy particularly solar energy: More needed here. Every house should be given interest free loans for setting up a solar system. Solar energy is free. There is no payment in foreign exchange for fuel and there is no environmental damage.