ISLAMABAD: The government bulldozed a controversial anti-terrorism bill through the National Assembly on Monday amid rowdy scenes with the protesting opposition lawmakers tearing up copies of what they called a repressive “black law”.
A party allied with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif also joined the noisiest protest of the 10-month life of the present lower house after the government rejected opposition demands that the two sides further discuss the Protection of Pakistan Bill, based on two presidential ordinances.
The failure of a compromise between the two sides makes the fate of the bill — including draconian provisions like empowering law enforcement agencies to shoot suspects at sight, detain them for up to 90 days and not disclose the place of their detention — uncertain when it goes to the opposition-controlled Senate.
The day was marked by three walkouts by the entire opposition — twice against the contested bill and once against the adoption of a resolution by the ruling coalition to extend the life of a presidential ordinance for an additional period of 120 days, and one separately by the government-allied JUI-F to press its own reservations against the bill.
Lawmakers of the ruling party were present in strength for what they expected would be a showdown, after suffering an embarrassment in the previous sitting on Friday, when the house had to be adjourned soon after the question hour because it lacked quorum.
The main component of the bill — Protection of Pakistan Ordinance, 2013 — is already in force after the National Assembly extended its life for 120 days until June through a resolution passed by the house in its previous session.
In an unusual legislative mode, a second bill on the agenda containing a briefer Protection of Pakistan (Amendment) Ordinance, 2014, was withdrawn after its provisions were adopted by the house through amendments moved in the main Protection of Pakistan Bill, which, as an act of parliament is to remain in force for three years from the date any of its provisions first comes into force and will be extendable for up to another three years by a resolution passed by each of the two houses of parliament.
Opposition leader Khursheed Ahmed Shah, of the PPP, and parliamentary leaders of other opposition parties suggested that the two sides further discuss the controversial provisions of the bill possibly during the night and take up a possible compromise draft on Tuesday, the last day of the present session, to ensure its smooth sailing in the 104-seat Senate, where the PPP and its allies form the majority.
But the government’s refusal to oblige them, and the decision of Speaker Sardar Ayaz Sadiq to begin a clause-by-clause reading of the bill, brought opposition lawmakers on their feet in protest before they walked to the steps of the Speaker’s rostrum chanting slogans against the draft and tearing up its copies and throwing them into the air.
After this protest for 15 minutes, through which Science and Technology Minister Zahid Hamid, acting on behalf of Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, continued moving clauses of the bill, as well as government-proposed amendments, the opposition walked out to an adjacent lounge, leaving a pile of torn papers in front of the rostrum.
That was a reminder of similar noisy scenes created by opposition parties during the previous PPP-led coalition government and the preceding government of military president Pervez Musharraf.
The opposition members trickled back into the house after an abortive attempt by one of them to disrupt the proceedings by forcing a headcount to see if the 342-seat house had a minimum quorum of 86 members, and finally stormed out through a different gate, allowing the government a smooth sailing for the remainder of the bill.
A soft-spoken Khursheed Shah urged the government to follow the example of his party’s government, which, he said, got major constitution amendments and most of over 130 bills passed during its five-year tenure by consensus, assuring it that the opposition wanted to facilitate it rather than obstruct.
But Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf vice-chairman Shah Mahmood Qureshi, Muttahida Qaumi Movement’s parliamentary leader Farooq Sattar, Qaumi Watan Party chief Aftab Ahmed Sherpao as well as senior JUI-F member Maulana Ameer Zaman came out more strongly.
Earlier, the opposition staged their first walkout of the day after Minister of State for Water and Power, Abid Sher Ali, gave an abrasive response to opposition criticism against his resolution seeking an extension for 120 days from April 29 onwards for the already enforced Criminal Law (Amendment) Ordinance, 2013, which provides for higher penalties for power theft.
That walkout, which also provoked an angry onslaught from Water and Power Minister Khwaja Mohammad Asif, ended when, on the advice of the chair, Defence Production Minister Rana Tanveer Hussain, persuaded the protesters to come back to the house just as the treasury benches voted “yes” for the resolution.
Earlier in the day, the house also passed a government bill to amend the Service Tribunals Act, 1973, seeking to make appointments of tribunal members in line with procedures followed for judiciary, make the tribunals financially autonomous and empower them to get their decisions implemented.