Rare political accord on changes to Army Act

Updated January 03, 2020

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ISLAMABAD: Members of a government delegation Defence Minister Pervez Khattak, Qasim Suri and Ali Mohammad Khan speak to PPP chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari at Zardari House on Thursday.—White Star
ISLAMABAD: Members of a government delegation Defence Minister Pervez Khattak, Qasim Suri and Ali Mohammad Khan speak to PPP chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari at Zardari House on Thursday.—White Star

ISLAMABAD: In a rare show of agreement, the government and the opposition reached consensus on Thursday over the proposed amendments to the Pakistan Army Act a day before tabling the bill in the parliament to give three-year extension to Chief of the Army Staff Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa.

The legislation, titled Pak­­­is­tan Army (Amend­ment) Act-2020, will fix 64 years as the maximum age limit of the three services chiefs and the chairman of the joint chief of staff committee, with the prime minister having the prerogative to give extension to any of them in future after completion of their normal tenure at the age of 60 years and the president having the power to give the final nod.

The main opposition Pak­istan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) assured the government of its “unconditional” support to the bill, but the Pakistan Peoples Party cautioned the government against haste in the matter to ensure proper and sagacious legislation thro­ugh the parliament.

Leaders of the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) are confident that the bill will be passed by the parliament with the required simple majority on Friday [today], a couple of days after the sessions of the Senate and the National Assembly were convened on a 24-hour notice.

PML-N extends unconditional support; PPP cautions govt against haste; SC urged to suspend its ruling on COAS extension

Law Minister Farogh Naseem told reporters in the Parliament House that all parties and stakeholders were on the same page regarding passage of the bill.

The PML-N, which assured the government of its “unconditional” support to the bill, remained under severe criticism for the whole day by different circles as its senior leader Khawaja Asif said the support was given on the directives of Nawaz Sharif, the convicted former prime minister who had recently been given bail to get medical treatment in London.

“We are hopeful that the bill seeking amendments in the army act, which requires a simple majority, will be passed from both houses unanimously on Friday,” said PTI chief whip in the National Assembly Amir Dogar while talking to Dawn.

He said under a provision the maximum age limit of the army, navy and air force chiefs and joint chief of staff committee will be 64 years in case they were given extension in their tenures.

According to the bill, Section 8-A, B, C, D, E, F will be inserted in the Army Act where Section 8-C about ‘retirement age and service limits of the army chief says: “The retirement age and service limits prescribed for a general, under the rules and regulations made under this Act, shall not be applicable to the Chief of the Army Staff, during his tenure of appointment, reappointment or extension, subject to a maximum age of sixty-four (64) years. Throughout such tenure, the Chief of the Army Staff shall continue to serve as general in the Pakistan Army.”

Section 8-A (2) said the terms and condition of the COAS shall be determined by the president on PM’s advice.

Mr Dogar said amendments in the Army Act could not be challenged in any court of law as Section 8B(2) says: “Notwithstanding anything contained in this act or any other law, or any order or judgement of any court, the appointment, reappointment or extension of the chairman, JCOSC, or the exercise of discretion by the appointing authority in this regard, shall not be called into question before any court on any ground whatsoever.”

Govt-opposition meeting

Meanwhile, a government team led by Defence Minister Pervez Khattak remained engaged in wheeling dealing with the opposition as he first met a team of PML-N leaders in the parliament house which was headed by former defence minister Khawaja Asif and the second meeting between the government’s team and PPP side headed by its Chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari held at Zardari House.

Mr Asif in a private TV channel show said that during a recent meeting in London the ex-prime minister and his party supremo had directed party leaders not to oppose when this legislation would be done in the parliament. “We obey the line of the party’s leadership and decided to support the bill in the parliament,” he added.

He said the bill would benefit not only the incumbent COAS Gen Bajwa but also three services chiefs and JCOSC.

Mr Asif explained that if the government had not mishandled the issue in November when Gen Bajwa completed his three-year tenure [on Nov 28], the Supreme Court would not have to order the government to settle the matter once for all by making amendments in army act through the parliament. “Before this legislation the rules regarding extension in tenure of army chief were vague but now proper legislation is being made in this regard to make rules in this regard,” he added.

About criticism faced by the PML-N for supporting the draft bill, the former defence minister said the criticism was justified for the time being but time would tell that Mr Sharif’s decision was right and justified.

Later, Mr Khattak-led team also comprising Qasim Suri and Ali Mohammad Khan met the Pakistan Peoples Party chairman Mr Bhutto-Zardari. Senior PPP leaders Raja Pervaiz Ashraf, Syed Nayyar Hussain Bukhari, Raza Rabbani, Shazia Marri, Sherry Rehman and Naveed Qamar were also present.

According to the party spokesman, the PPP chairman had expressed concern that parliamentary rules and regulations were not being followed in the legislation to make amendments to Army Act. He asked the government delegation to act according to parliamentary rules and regulations. “The government committee arrived at Zardari House to discuss upcoming legislation. The Peoples Party wants to positively engage with the democratic legislative process. Some parties seem to sidestep the legislative process. The more important the legislation the more important it is for us to follow the democratic process. PPP will take this up with other political parties as well,” said Mr Bilawal in a message on one of the social media accounts.

Mr Bukhari told Dawn that the PPP had concerns over the haste being shown by the government to get the bill immediately passed by the two houses. “We are not against the proposed legislation and extension in tenure of Gen Bajwa but we want that the government should give due time to the parliament to have proper and sagacious legislation on it,” he added.

Later, Mr Khattak reportedly said that he will also make contact with the leaders of other opposition parties including Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman.

SC urged to suspend its ruling

Earlier during the day, the government moved a miscellaneous petition before the Supreme Court seeking suspension of its judgement related to the COAS service term till the final decision in federation’s review petition.

The petition prayed the court to stop implementation on the order in which the apex court had directed the federal government to introduce legislation through the parliament to fix the service term of an army chief.

Earlier, the federal government had filed a review petition before the apex court in army chief’s reappointment/extension case and prayed the court to conduct an in-camera hearing of the case due to its sensitivity. It also prayed the court to form a larger bench for the case.

The top court in its judgement had ordered the federal government to introduce legislation about army chief’s service tenure within a period of six months. The court, however, had accepted the re-appointment of COAS Gen Bajwa.

Published in Dawn, January 3rd, 2020