NA passes tenure bills without a murmur

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ISLAMABAD: Prime Minister Imran Khan in the National Assembly session on Tuesday.—APP
ISLAMABAD: Prime Minister Imran Khan in the National Assembly session on Tuesday.—APP

• Bills on services chiefs term land in Senate
• PPP withdraws amendments
• PM makes a rare appearance in National Assembly

ISLAMABAD: Hours after passage by the National Assembly, the bills meant to empower the prime minister to give extension to the three services chiefs landed in the Senate on Tuesday and were all set to sail through it on Wednesday (today) under the expedited timeline already agreed between the government and the opposition.

The bills were not part of the original agenda issued for the Senate sitting and were brought to the upper house through a supplementary agenda. In the absence of Defence Minister Pervez Khatak, the bills were introduced by the federal Minister for Parliamentary Affairs, Azam Swati, amid the opposition’s uproar.

The senators belonging to National Party (NP), Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (JUI-F), Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PkMAP) and Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) rose in their seats and chanted slogans of ‘no, no’ as the minister tabled the bills.

NP senator Ashok Kumar, however, did not become part of the protest by his colleagues.

Though the Awami National Party (ANP) is opposed to the bills, its lone member in the Senate Sitara Ayaz also remained seated. She has recently been accused of involvement in anti-party activities and her basic membership of the party has been suspended.

The Senate session lasted only 20 minutes and no other agenda other than laying of a few reports was taken up.

Senate Chairman Sadiq Sanjrani referred the bills — the Pakistan Army (Amendment) Bill 2020, the Pakistan Air Force (Amendment) Bill 2020 and the Pakistan Navy (Amendment) Bill 2020 — to the Senate Standing Committee on Defence, which held an emergency meeting within minutes after adjournment of the Senate sitting and passed them unanimously. The meeting was chaired by Senator Waleed Iqbal.

Informed sources told Dawn that a PML-N lawmaker during the meeting of the committee stressed that the exigencies of national emergency for giving extension to the army chief needed to be explained.

A PPP legislator during the brief meeting wondered what would be the implications if the government’s petition seeking review of the apex court’s verdict asking the parliament to decide on the army chief’s extension in six months was dismissed.

Another PML-N senator was of the view that purely from a professional point of view, it would have been better had the incumbent army chief been appointed as chief of defence staff for better synergy and operational integration among the three services, on the pattern of Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom.

It was pointed out that in the recent past, India had also appointed chief of general staff, in the light of Kargil review report.

The Senate will meet today (Wednesday) with a motion for suspension of rules for taking into consideration the three bills giving powers to the president to re-appoint and grant extension in term of the three services chiefs, under the agenda for the day.

With the two major opposition parties – the PML-N and the PPP – already on board, the opposition-dominated house is set to pass the bills in no time, which will then become acts of parliament after formal assent by President Dr Arif Alvi.

NA passes bill in 20 minutes

Earlier in the day, the National Assembly comfortably passed the three bills within 20 minutes after the PPP readily accepted the government’s plea to withdraw its proposed amendments during the rare appearance of Prime Minister Imran Khan.

Through one of its proposed amendments, the PPP had sought “a role for the parliamentary committee on national security” for reappointment of the services chiefs and chairman. The amendment required the prime minister to appear before the parliamentary committee on national security to record reasons for giving an extension to or for reappointment of the services chiefs and chairman, joint chiefs of the staff committee. The party however failed to muster support from the PML-N.

The only voice votes against the bills initially came from the two independent MNAs from the tribal areas – Mohsin Dawar and Ali Wazir – who remained in the house for some time and later left the house after tearing up the copies of the assembly agenda to join the members of the JUI-F and the JI, who had walked out from the house as soon as the assembly started the process of the bills’ passage.

Mr Dawar later through his official Twitter account slammed the government for not allowing them to speak on the bills, saying that the parliament had acted “like a rubber stamp.”

“We voted against the #ArmyAct before walking out. This parliament acted like a rubber stamp. (The) Speaker didn’t even allow the few dissenting voices to make their case. This is one of the darkest days in Pakistan’s parliamentary history. It will take a long time to recover from this,” Mr Dawar tweeted.

Responding to the request of Defence Minister Pervez Khattak, PPP’s Syed Naveed Qamar explained that the party had suggested amendments to improve the bills. He stated that a government delegation had met them before the start of the session asking them to withdraw the amendments and after consulting the other opposition parties and “keeping in view the regional situation, we are withdrawing our amendments.”

There were 299 members present in the 342-member house at the time of the passage of the bills. Three party heads – PML-N president Shahbaz Sharif, PPP chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari and Balochistan National Party (BNP-M) leader Sardar Akhtar Mengal – were among the 43 absentees.

Out of 43 absent members, 17 belonged to the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf, 13 from the PML-N and nine from the PPP.

Other prominent legislators among those who did not attend the sitting were Amir Haider Hoti of the ANP, Ahsan Iqbal, Khawaja Saad Rafique, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, Rana Sanaullah and Marriyum Aurangzeb from the PML-N and Asif Zardari and Syed Khursheed Shah from the PPP.

Those who missed the sitting from the ruling PTI and allies included Deputy Speaker Qasim Khan Suri, Minister for Revenue Hammad Azhar, Ghaus Bakhsh Mehr, Riaz Fatyana and parliamentary secretary for railways Khurram Habib.

A day earlier, the NA standing committee on defence approved the bills for a second time. The panel on Monday deliberated upon the bills again following a controversy over their approval in less than an hour at a joint meeting of the NA standing committee on defence members with members of the Senate’s similar committee. When the opposition protested over the “undue haste” being shown by the ruling coalition, the government had to postpone the sessions of the two houses convened for Saturday, and new timelines had been agreed between the government and the opposition.

The Supreme Court had while deciding a legal challenge to the second tenure for Chief of the Army Staff (COAS) Gen Qamar Bajwa had asked the government to define the tenure, terms and conditions of service of the army chief and got their approval from the parliament within six months.

In an unusual haste, the federal cabinet had approved the proposed amendments at an emergency session last Wednesday. As per the amendments approved by the NA committee, appointment of the services chiefs and chairman, joint chiefs of the staff committee would be the prerogative of the prime minister and his decision to appoint, reappoint or extend the tenures of the chiefs and the chairman cannot be challenged in any court of law. The upper age limit for a four star appointment has been fixed at 64 years in case of reappointment and extension, otherwise the officer will retire at the age of 60 years.

Law Minister Farogh Nasim briefed members of the NA committee on various aspects of the three bills. The PPP intended to introduce some amendments to the bills but the law minister asserted that the proposed changes would require a constitutional amendment. The PPP did not later press for the amendments and the bills were approved with consensus.

In August 2019, Prime Minister Imran Khan extended Gen Bajwa’s tenure through a notification, but the apex court 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 the 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 8th, 2020