The National Assembly and Senate's Joint Standing Committee on Defence approved the three bills pertaining to amendments to the Army Act, the Navy Act and the Air Force Act on Friday afternoon.
The bills, pertaining to the tenure of the three services chiefs, were approved unanimously by the committee and will be presented for approval in the next National Assembly, said Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf Senator Azam Swati.
According to a late night notification, the Senate as well as the National Assembly will hold their next sessions on January 6 at 3pm and 4pm, respectively.
Earlier, Federal Minister for Defence Pervez Khattak tabled the Pakistan Army (Amendment) Act 2020 in the National Assembly, paving the way for a three-year extension for Chief of the Army Staff (COAS) Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa.
Khattak also presented the Pakistan Navy (Amendment Act) and the Pakistan Air Force (Amendment Act), separately.
PML-N had on Thursday assured the government of its “unconditional” support to the bill, but PPP had cautioned the government against displaying haste in the matter to ensure proper and sagacious legislation through the parliament.
On Friday, news of a letter penned by PML-N supremo Nawaz Sharif detailing the party’s stance on the matter made the rounds. Speaking to reporters, PML-N's Khawaja Asif had denied receiving a letter from his party leadership on the matter. "You might have received a letter, I did not receive any [letter]," he said responding to a reporter's question.
The laws will fix 64 years as the maximum age limit of the three services chiefs — chief of army staff, chief of air staff and chief of naval staff — and the chairman of the joint chief of staff committee, with the prime minister having the prerogative to give an 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.
During the brief NA session, PML-N's Khawaja Asif asked that the production orders of those leaders who are under detention be produced. The session was adjourned until 11am tomorrow (Saturday).
The bills are also expected to be tabled in the Senate tomorrow.
Earlier, speaking to reporters after the NA session, PPP Chairperson Bilawal Bhutto Zardari said his party will support the legislation if it is done through the parliamentary rules and regulations.
He said the bills will first be sent to the National Assembly Standing Committee on Defence and the matter will be discussed in the House, adding that PML-N had not taken the opposition into confidence before offering the government their unconditional support on the legislation.
"I think this should have not happened in this way. It is the responsibility of the leader of the opposition to unite the opposition and maintain consensus among ranks."
Bilawal said it was a "small victory" for his party that the government was not bulldozing the bill through the House and was instead following parliamentary rules and regulations in this regard.
"If important bills are passed without following the parliament’s procedure it will set a bad precedent for the future," he said.
"I am still a little confused on what the actual stance of the government is as the government has also challenged the Supreme Court's order through its review petition which on its face looks like a contradiction to me," the PPP chief said, adding that he hoped this contradiction will be removed after passage of this bill.
Responding to a question regarding an alleged letter written by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif regarding the legislation, Bilawal said: "I do not know about this letter. I need to check."
Later, talking to reporters, Federal Minister Fawad Chaudhry also said the bills would be reviewed by the committee and then debated during tomorrow's session.
Govt congratulates opposition parties
Addressing a press conference outside Parliament House, Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Information Dr Firdous Ashiq Awan congratulated opposition parties and their members for fulfilling the "important responsibility," adding that their patience was also worthy of recognition.
"This is an important step towards civilian supremacy and it has proven that if leadership has vision they can turn every challenge into an opportunity," she said.
She said that the Parliament had started the democratic process to take the premier's "democratic authority" forward.
"Today a democratic process has been initiated," she said, expressing hope that the amendments would also be accepted through the democratic process.
Earlier, Prime Minister Imran Khan had attended a meeting of the PTI parliamentary committee. Awan said the premier had emphasised that the representative of the people is answerable to them (the people).
Accord between govt, opposition
Leaders of the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) had earlier expressed confidence that the bill would be passed by the parliament with the required simple majority. The current sessions of the Senate and the National Assembly were convened on a 24-hour notice on Dec 31 – a move that took many by surprise.
In a rare show of agreement, the government and the opposition reached consensus on Thursday over the proposed amendments to the Army Act. PML-N assured the government of its “unconditional” support to the bill, but PPP cautioned the government against displaying haste in the matter to ensure proper and sagacious legislation through the parliament.
However, Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) chief Sirajul Haq tweeted on Friday evening that his party "will not support" the Army Act amendment bill.
JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman, while talking to media in Islamabad, also said his party will "thoroughly resist" the amendment bill because it cannot give the right to legislate to a National Assembly "that was formed after stealing the people's mandate".
Law Minister Farogh Naseem had said all parties and stakeholders were on the same page regarding the passage of the bill.
Earlier, in an urgent meeting on Wednesday, the federal cabinet had unanimously approved proposed amendments to the Constitution and the Army Act in order to give a three-year extension to Gen Bajwa.
The extension conundrum
Prime Minister Imran Khan had previously extended Gen Bajwa's tenure through a notification in August 2019, but the top court suspended it on Nov 26, 2019, due to irregularities in the manner of extension.
After three days of heightened uncertainty, the apex court, through a short order on Nov 28, 2019, had announced that Gen Bajwa would remain the COAS for another six months during which the parliament would legislate on the army chief’s extension/reappointment.
In its detailed verdict released on Dec 16, 2019, the top court had emphasised that it was up to the parliament to carry out legislation that would provide "certainty and predictability" to the post of the COAS for all times to come.
"We would like to emphasise that this crucial matter of the tenure of COAS and its extension, which has a somewhat chequered history, is before the Parliament, to fix for all times to come," wrote Justice Syed Mansoor Ali Shah, a member of the three-judge bench which heard the case, in the court's 43-page judgment.
"It is now for the people of Pakistan and their chosen representatives in the Parliament to come up with a law that will provide certainty and predictability to the post of COAS, remembering that in strengthening institutions, nations prosper."
Both Justice Mazhar Alam Khan Miankhel and Justice Asif Saeed Khosa agreed with Justice Shah's judgment, with Justice Khosa saying in his additional note that it had been a "shocking revelation" to the bench that the terms and conditions of service of the COAS, the tenure of his office, extension in the tenure of his office or his reappointment to that office "have remained unregulated by any law so far".
In the wake of the apex court’s order, the government had decided to introduce the amendment bill in parliament on Friday (today) after building a consensus with the opposition on the matter.
The government needs the support of opposition parties to make the amendments as any amendment to the Constitution needs to be approved by at least two-thirds of the membership of each House — the National Assembly and Senate.
"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 MNA Malik Amir Dogar.
He said that 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 are given an 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 the premier's advice.
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."