• Three separate bills to change laws governing tenures of services chiefs, chairman joint chiefs of staff committee
• PML-N, PPP and JUI-F don’t oppose the bills
• JI, PkMAP and NP reject legislative changes

ISLAMABAD: The Nat­ional Assembly’s standing committee on defence on Friday passed the three separate bills referred to it soon after being tabled in the parliament to amend laws governing the tenures of services chiefs and chairman joint chiefs of staff committee.

The entire exercise, which was completed within three hours, was aimed at removing ambiguity in laws as per the Supreme Court’s directive to provide legal ground to the extension given to Chief of the Army Staff Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa after the SC suspended controversial notifications of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf government in this regard last year.

While members of the Senate standing committee on defence also attended the meeting of the NA standing committee on a special invitation, the senators did not vote, indicating that the key bills will be referred to them for approval once these sailed through the lower house of parliament.

Interestingly, Law Minister Farogh Naseem insisted that it was not a joint meeting of the standing committees of the two houses, but believed that there would be no need to place the bills before the Senate standing committee again. The upper house of parliament could pass the bills directly after the NA’s approval, he said.

The National Assembly and the Senate sessions have been convened on Monday at 4pm and 3pm respectively.

At the meeting of the NA standing committee, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and Fazlur Rehman faction of the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (JUI-F) did not oppose the bills, while Jamaat-i-Islami, Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PkMAP) and National Party (NP) rejected them.

Senator Talha Mehmood of the JUI-F, who attended the meeting of NA’s standing committee on special invitation, did not oppose the bills, though party chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman later told a presser that his party did “not become part of a fake assembly by supporting or rejecting the bills”. He said the “fake” assembly had no mandate to make such an important decision [legislation for extension in tenure of services chiefs].

The bills were laid before the two houses by Defence Minister Pervez Khattak amid extraordinary security in and outside the parliament house. According to a source, CCTV cameras system of the prestigious building was shut down and TV screens at media lobby made non-functional showing no proceedings of the two houses.

Prime Minister Imran Khan, who chaired a meeting of the parliamentary committee of the ruling coalition in the morning and remained in the parliament house till the NA standing committee approved the bills, did not attend the National Assembly proceedings.

At the outset of the NA session, Speaker Asad Qaiser suspended the question hour and asked Mr Khattak to present the three bills before the house despite the fact that they [the bills] were not on the NA agenda. Later, after a brief interval for Friday prayers, the bills were tabled in the Senate and then referred to the NA’s standing committee on defence.

According to rules, the standing committee can discuss any bill for as long as one month, but members of the NA committee approved the three bills in less than an hour.

It was learnt that the PTI-led government wanted to introduce a single bill seeking amendments to the Pakistan Army Act-1952, Pakistan Air Force Act-1953 and Pakistan Navy Ordinance-1961 and military rules concerning appointment and extension in tenures of services chiefs and CJCSC, but on PPP’s insistence the government agreed to table three separate bills titled Pakistan Army (Amendment) Bill-2020, Pakistan Navy (Amendment) Bill-2020 and the Pakistan Air Force (Amendment) Bill-2020.

“Except a member of the Jamaat-i-Islami, Senator Mushtaq Ahmed, who was not a member of the defence committee of the upper house but attended the meeting on special invitation, all ruling alliance and the main opposition parties — PML-N, PPP and JUI-F — supported the bills,” Law Minister Farogh Nasim claimed while talking to reporters after the meeting.

He explained that the bills along with the report of the committee would be presented again before the National Assembly, expressing the hope that they would be passed by the house. “Then the bills will be directly sent to the Senate for passage, as there is no need to present them to the standing committee of the Senate on defence,” he added.

JI, NP, PkMAP oppose bills

Usman Kakar of PkMAP and Hasil Bizenjo of National Party opposed the bills during their joint press conference.

JI Senator Mushtaq Ahmed told Dawn that he had rejected section 2 of cause 1, clause 8B and its section 2, clause 8C, section 1, and 2 of clause 8E and clause 8F of Pakistan Army (Amendment) Bill-2020.

The laws, once approved, will fix 64 years as the maximum age limit of the three services chiefs and the CJCSC with the prime minister having the prerogative to give an extension to any of them in future and the president having the power to give the final nod.

Clause 8C about “Retirement age and service limits of the Chief of the Army Staff” 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 a general in the Pakistan Army.

Clause 8A(2) of the bill said the terms and conditions of the COAS shall be determined by the president, on the advice of the prime minister.

Clause 8B (1) which is related to extension in service of the COAS says: “Notwithstanding anything contained in this Act or any other law for the time being in force, the President, on the advice of the Prime Minister, may reappoint the Chief of the Army Staff for additional tenure of three (03) years, or extend the tenure (s) COAS up to three (03) years, on such terms and conditions, as may be determined by the president on the advice of the prime minister, in the national security interest or exigencies, from time to time.”

Once the bills are passed and they became law, they could not be challenged in any court of law, according to Section (2) of Clause 8B that says: “Notwithstanding anything contained in this act or any other law, or any order or judgment of any court, the appointment, reappointment or extension of the COAS, 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.”

Nawaz’s letter

Meanwhile, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif in a letter to PML-N leader Khawaja Asif advised him that the process of the bills should take at least two weeks and it should not be passed in haste, according to media reports. However, Mr Asif, who had announced his party’s “unconditional” support to the bills, denied having received any such letter.

PML-N Senator Mushahidullah, during a media interaction, said only the directive of the party supremo would prevail.

Bilawal’s presser

PPP chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, who remained present in the parliament during the sessions of the both houses as well as in meeting of the standing committee on defence, told a presser that his party would support the legislation if it was done through the parliamentary rules and regulations.

He said the bills would be sent to the NA standing committee on defence before being debated in the house. He said the main opposition party, the PML-N, had not taken other opposition parties into confidence before offering their ‘unconditional’ support to the government.

Terming it a small victory for his party, Mr Bilawal said the government was following parliamentary rules and regulations instead of bulldozing the bill through the house. “If important bills are passed without following the parliament’s procedure it will set a bad precedent for the future,” he said.

However, the PPP chairman said the government stance on the issue was contradictory as it was moving the bill in the house on the apex court directive while challenging the court order at the same time through a review petition.

Bills to be debated

Federal Minister Fawad Chaudhry told the media that the bills would be debated during the next session of parliament.

Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Information Dr Firdous Ashiq Awan congratulated the opposition parties for fulfilling the “important responsibility” and said their patience was worthy of recognition.

Prime Minister Imran Khan had extended Gen Bajwa’s tenure through a notification in August 2019, but the apex court had suspended it on Nov 26 due to irregularities in the manner of extension. After three days of heightened uncertainty, the SC in its order announced that Gen Bajwa would remain the COAS for another six months during which it would be up to parliament to carry out legislation to provide “certainty and predictability” to the post of the COAS for all times to come.

Published in Dawn, January 4th, 2020