ISLAMABAD, June 22: The National Assembly on Sunday easily passed the troubled coalition government’s first budget with a Finance Bill that also provided for a controversial expansion of the Supreme Court so it could include judges deposed or handpicked by President Pervez Musharraf.

The adoption of the 152-page Finance Bill with several amendments after a nine-day debate marked the formal passage of the Rs2.01 trillion budget for fiscal 2008-09, which minister in charge for finance Naveed Qamar had unveiled on June 11.

The minister said 51 of the 76 non-mandatory proposals formulated by the upper house in its own debate in the past week had been accepted in the final document as the house took up the Finance Bill after adopting demands for grant for the government’s ministries and divisions over the past three days.

Although the vote on other clauses of the Finance Bill and amendments proceeded quickly as a mere formality, the clause for increasing the number of Supreme Court judges to up to 29 from 16 was marked by a brief row, with the opposition Pakistan Muslim League (PML) abstaining in protest against the use of a money bill to amend an act of parliament and one member from a ruling coalition party calling the move a “mockery” of the Constitution.

No legal defence against the criticism for using a finance bill, instead of a normal act of parliament, to do the job was offered either by Mr Qamar or any of his colleagues in the coalition-leading Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) except that it was a joint move of the allies, including the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N), which resigned from nine ministries in the cabinet last month over a continuing row over how to restore the deposed judges.

Opposition to the bill’s controversial clause was also voiced during the Senate debate on the budget, with the critics including PPP’s Raza Rabbani, who represents Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani as leader of the house there.

On Mr Qamar’s request, reflecting Senate proposals or the coalition’s own reconsideration, the house omitted seven clauses of the original bill mainly in deference to objections that they did not qualify for inclusion in a money bill, which needs to be passed only by the lower house and does not go to the upper house to become law.

But in what seemed to be a blatant disregard of that analogy, the minister did not move for the omission of the clause that sought to amend the Supreme Court (Number of Judges) Act of 1997 to provide for increasing the number of the judges of the country’s top court by substituting the new words “not be more than twenty-nine” for the original words “be sixteen”.

These words, Finance Bill says, “shall be deemed always to have been so substituted on the 3rd day of November, 2007”, the day President Musharraf enforced his controversial, extra-constitution emergency (in his later abandoned capacity of army chief) under which about 60 judges of the Supreme Court and the four provincial high courts lost their jobs for refusing or not being called upon to take a fresh oath of office under a Provisional Constitution Order.

The government has begun paying salaries to the deposed judges with arrears from Nov 3 but has not come out with a declaration whether the new amendment would in effect mean their restoration after missing two deadlines based on a “Murree Declaration” signed by PPP co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari and PML-N chief Nawaz Sharif and the departure of the PML-N ministers from the cabinet over the PPP leader’s hesitations.

While the 1997 act fixed the strength of the Supreme Court at 16, no such law exists for the provincial high courts.

Dr Atiya Inayatullah, whose PML seems to be still suffering from a guilty conscience for using the finance bill for amending other laws during its previous government, announced the abstention from the voting on the controversial clause by her party, whish she said had no objection to increasing the number of Supreme Court judges but was opposed to the mode chosen now.

Quoting her party’s legal minds, she argued that since the number of the Supreme Court judges was determined by an act of parliament as envisaged by the Constitution, any amendment to that law must be made by a similar act, which must be passed by both the National Assembly and the Senate while a money bill needs to be passed only by the National Assembly.

She was supported by two other party members with Shahnaz Sheikh calling for a strict adherence to legal norms and Riaz Hussain Pirzada saying he had not expected the two major coalition partners to do what “our rulers” had been doing in the past to weaken the system of justice.

But the sharpest attack came from PML-N member Ayaz Amir after Speaker Fehmida Mirza allowed him to speak only after voting on the bill’s clauses just before the final vote.

“Do we realise what we have agreed to?” he asked about the clause and said: “We are making a mockery of our constitutional structure.”

He said a 29-judge Supreme Court could even surpass the United States or any other county. He added that like dictators in the past “we are also becoming a party to make a mockery of the judiciary”.

It was then that Mr Qamar came out with a soft but possibly an embarrassing retort for the estranged PML-N, saying that “the clause was drafted” by PML-N’s Senator Ishaq Dar, who resigned as finance minister with eight other party ministers on May 12.

The speaker disallowed Mr Amir to speak again while another PML-N stalwart, Mrs Tehmina Daultana, was persuaded by some PPP members against speaking about Mr Dar’s role before the house was adjourned until 10am on Monday, when the government is likely to present supplementary demands for grants for the outgoing fiscal 2007-08 for approval.

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