ISLAMABAD: Rejecting the opposition’s draft of the terms of reference (ToR) for an inquiry commission on the Panama Papers allegations, the government indicated on Wednesday that it was willing to sit with the opposition to come up with terms of reference that were focused on eliminating corruption and did not target the prime minister personally.

Speaking at a press conference following a meeting chaired by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan said that despite their reservations, a committee had been formed to engage the opposition over the terms of reference.

Accompanied by Law Minister Zahid Hamid and Barrister Zafarullah Khan, the PM’s adviser on law, the interior minister said the opposition’s terms of reference seemed to be an anti-Nawaz manifesto, meant to tarnish the image of the prime minister and his family in order to cripple the government.

“The opposition wants the prime minister in the dock, without touching other politicians whose children also run offshore companies,” he said, alleging that the opposition was not serious about holding an inquiry and only wanted to achieve their political goals by simply levelling allegations.

He claimed that Nawaz Sharif was the first head of the government in the world who reacted to the Panama Papers leaks by addressing the nation and announcing the decision to form a judicial commission. Some senior party members, he said, thought there was no need for such an address, but PM Sharif had, in the interests of transparency, decided to form a commission.

Opposition parties welcome govt offer; PTI insists PM can’t make ToR for inquiry against himself

He criticised the opposition for their never-ending demands and for backing out of each demand after the government accepted it. This was what happened when he offered them the services of the FIA, or suggested the formation of a parliamentary committee to investigate the matter.

He observed that the Supreme Court had unlimited powers and could even go beyond the terms of reference in its inquiry. He asked the opposition to not try to dictate terms to the apex court, and contended that the government could not influence it.

Rejecting the opposition’s criticism of the government-framed terms of reference, Law Minister Zahid Hamid pointed out that the terms of reference for any inquiry commission formed since 1956 had been developed by the government.

He said the terms of reference proposed by the government covered registered offshore companies in Panama and other countries and loans written off under political influence, but the opposition proposed to restrict the scope of the inquiry only to Panama and wanted to omit the written-off loans. He said the opposition also proposed to restrict the scope of investigations to Pakistani citizens alone.

He also said the preamble of the opposition’s terms of reference equated an accusation with a crime, negating all cardinal principles of justice.

Opposition reaction

Expressing his surprise over the government’s response, Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly Syed Khursheed Shah said there was no justification for the government to unilaterally reject the terms of reference drawn up by the opposition.

“Sometimes, moral values are stricter than legal requirements. It is the need of the hour that the prime minister present himself for accountability,” he told reporters on Wednesday.

But, at the same time, he welcomed the government’s offer for talks with the opposition, saying that PM Sharif was a “wise man” and there were “wise people” in his team, who would prefer to take steps to resolve the prevailing crisis.

Mr Shah also said the opposition parties would formally send their draft of the terms of reference to the government, adding that he also planned to write to the prime minister in a day or two.

When asked about criticism of the opposition’s terms of reference, Mr Shah reminded reporters that the role and powers of the inquiry commission on pre-poll rigging had also been prepared following consultations between the government and the opposition.

“If it could be done then, why can’t it happen now?”

In a statement issued after the interior minister’s press conference, PTI spokesperson Naeemul Haq accused him of “speaking for the prime minister and his family”, not the law of the land.

He also questioned how the prime minister, who stood accused of plundering the national exchequer, could be expected to come up with the terms of reference of a commission to investigate his own wrongdoings.

“In order for things to move ahead, talks must be held,” he told Dawn separately. He reasoned that since it was not possible for the opposition to approach the chief justice directly, they would have to sit down with the government at some stage and said that a meeting over the terms of reference could not be ruled out.

PML-Q Secretary General Mushahid Hussain Sayed welcomed the government’s readiness to engage in dialogue with the opposition over the terms of reference. “It is a good sign that the government intends to engage the opposition; dialogue is the essence of democracy,” he said.

Senator Sayed was of the view that the government and the opposition should sit together to jointly draft terms of reference for the commission. When asked about the government’s point of view, that the prime minister was the opposition’s main target, he said that the war of words would continue, but the government’s openness for dialogue was something positive.

Published in Dawn, May 5th, 2016


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