ISLAMABAD: The government and the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) are set to present before the Supreme Court on Thursday the same terms of reference (ToR) on the basis of which they have already introduced separate bills in the two houses of parliament.
It was after months of bickering and failure to agree on the ToR for a commission to investigate the Panamagate scandal that the government introduced in the National Assembly its bill seeking to replace the 60-year-old Inquiry Commission Act, 1956, and the opposition submitted its own bill for the purpose to the Senate.
The deliberations of a parliamentary committee formed by the National Assembly speaker to formulate the ToR for the inquiry commission were deadlocked in June over the opposition parties’ insistence that the inquiry process should begin with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and members of his family.
The issue has been a bone of contention between the government and the opposition, and now it has been left to the apex court to decide the scope and process of the judicial commission.
Talking to Dawn on Tuesday, PTI vice-chairman Shah Mehmood Qureshi said his party’s main contention was still the same — the accountability process should start from the prime minister. He said the PTI would submit the ToR on the basis of which Aitzaz Ahsan of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) had tabled the bill in the Senate on behalf of all opposition parties in September.
Mr Qureshi said the bill had jointly been drafted by Mr Ahsan and Hamid Khan, who is representing the PTI in the Supreme Court, and later endorsed by all opposition parties.
Terming Tuesday’s decision of the Supreme Court a “victory” for the PTI, he said the court was not bound to adopt the complete ToR either of the government or the opposition. He said the court had asked the parties involved in the case to submit their ToR and then it would itself determine the future course.
The National Assembly’s law and justice committee had already approved the government-sponsored “Pakistan Commissions of Inquiry Bill, 2016” in the absence of PPP and PTI members.
On the other hand, the opposition had itself sought deferment from a Senate committee of its bill seeking formation of a commission to investigate charges against the prime minister and members of his family regarding setting up of offshore companies through illegal means.
Only three of the 44 movers of the bill were present in the committee meeting when its chairman Javed Abbasi announced that he had received a request from Leader of the Opposition in the Senate Aitzaz Ahsan for the deferment of the bill because he was busy in connection with a case before a bench of the Supreme Court in Karachi.
The government has termed the opposition’s bill “completely “discriminatory, aiming at “targeting” the prime minister, whose name was not even mentioned in the Panama Papers. The bill has a limited scope and will not be helpful in preventing illegal practices in future, it says.
The opposition’s bill suggests a forensic audit of all the money sent abroad through secret channels. The proposed law makes it binding upon all those whose names have appeared in the Panama Papers to provide judges of the commission access to their bank accounts. The bill binds the commission to investigate Prime Minister Sharif and members his family and before proceeding against more than 600 other Pakistanis named in the Panama Papers.
However, the carefully prepared text avoids naming PM Sharif or his office, instead referring to: “the inquiry against a respondent, who publicly volunteers himself and his family for accountability or who publicly admits holding of offshore assets, along with his family, shall be completed and submitted in the first instance.”
The opposition wants the commission to complete the inquiry against the prime minister in three months — with an option of one month extension — and against the rest in one year.
Through the bill, the opposition wants the commission to investigate properties bought or sold by the respondent and his family during the period between 1985 and 2016.
On the other hand, the government says its bill is based on the observation made by the Chief Justice of Pakistan that the existing Inquiry Commission Act, 1956, was toothless and powerless. The government’s bill suggests that besides investigating the Panama Papers leaks, the commission should also have the powers to probe establishment of offshore companies, loans written off, illegal transfer of money to foreign countries and other corrupt practices.