Bilawal, Shehbaz accuse govt of turning parliament into a 'rubber-stamp', criticise gag on media

Updated 18 Sep 2020

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PPP chairperson Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari addresses the PBC event on Thursday. — DawnNewsTV
PPP chairperson Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari addresses the PBC event on Thursday. — DawnNewsTV

PPP chairperson Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari and opposition leader Shehbaz Sharif on Thursday accused the government of "steamrolling" bills through the parliament and resorting to revenge tactics in the name of accountability, saying there was a need for a united narrative to protect civil liberties.

Addressing an 'all-party conference' organised by the Pakistan Bar Council, the two leaders also called for reviewing the process of the appointment of the country's top judges. The agenda of the event revolved around "Appointment of judges in superior judiciary, accountability and civil liberties: concerns and corrections."

In his speech, Bilawal said the "most important" legislation in the country was not being carried out in a free atmosphere.

"The important legislation conducted to date in this National Assembly has been done by undermining rules, the Constitution and making the parliament powerless, through force," he said, adding that the opposition was not allowed to present its views.

He said during yesterday's parliamentary joint session in which the government managed to get eight important bills, including three related to the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), passed, "the speaker was not supporting our demand for a vote recount. If our vote isn't counted, our voice isn't heard, then we will be forced to think for how long we want to see this parliament in the shape of a rubber-stamp."

He said the rights of "every section" of society were being usurped and the opposition had to look towards the courts for justice.

"The media bosses who used to threaten us about erecting and bringing down governments ... are today facing restrictions and difficulties," the PPP chairman said.

He said the Charter of Democracy signed by former prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif listed the procedure for appointment of judges and proposed setting up a constitutional court with representation of all provinces.

Bilawal said he agreed with the view that the 19th amendment was "forcibly passed through the parliament".

"An institution gave a clear threat. Because of a line that the appointment of judges will be decided with the input of parliamentarians, legal fraternity and the Bar, they saw the 18th amendment through which we restored the 1973 constitution, as a threat," he told the audience, adding that members of the judiciary and political parties too saw it "with suspicion".

"The 19th amendment was passed as a result of a threat, which was that 'we will blow up the 1973 Constitution'."

Bilawal said there would be "no future" for a legislation or parliament if legislation is carried out "through force and threats", "just as senior journalist Suhail Warraich says 'ye company nahi chalay gi (this company won't ast)'".

He added that the power and process of judicial appointments had to be decided by the people, whose representative forum is the parliament. "I request this forum to demand in your resolution that the 19th amendment be repealed," he said.

Bilawal said members of his family were "martyred by the state one by one", but his party did not waver from its stance for democracy and freedom of the press.

The PPP leader said there needed to be a united narrative that "there will be no compromise on civil liberties and human rights."

"How can we accept that in 2020 in 'Madina ki riyasat (state of Madina)' you cannot publish a book, post a tweet or freely give an interview despite being a member of parliament and the head of a party or it will be censored?" he asked.

"This is not the way of the modern world, of alive nations. We've given too many sacrifices, now we want the accountability of our blood which was used to make this Constitution. Whether the target is the 1973 constitution, 18th amendment, NFC award or human rights, we aren't ready to compromise on these things.

"Our aim and wish are one. Now we need to have one strategy and method and take this struggle forward together."

Bilawal said the PPP will host the multi-party conference of opposition parties in 2-3 days. "From there, we hope all political parties will be ready to at last come on one page and demand accountability from this hybrid regime. The parliament will have to be freed first after which we will also free our country," he added.

Referring to Lahore police chief Umer Sheikh's remarks regarding the victim of the recent motorway gang-rape incident, he said the incumbent government pronounced the country as "Madina ki riyasat" but such was the state of affairs that "those responsible for ensuring justice" for the rape victim "raise questions on the victim instead of the rapist".

He further said the prime minister and ministers came forward to defend the police officer for his victim-blaming remarks.

'Blot on the face of justice'

While addressing the conference that he termed "a pre-APC before the APC", PML-N president Shehbaz said there had been "ups and downs" regarding the provision of justice throughout Pakistan's history. He said while there were judges who gave honest judgements, there are also "judges like Arshad Malik", whom the PML-N claims convicted Nawaz Sharif under duress in the Al-Azizia reference.

"Why the ups and downs? The reason is that during different eras, dictators weakened the judiciary through amendments of their choice and the work politicians and civil society should have done for their defence and to strengthen them could not be done with that much strength," he said.

"Sadly some judges allowed dictators to amend the Constitution. These are the tragic events, the blot on the face of justice, which cannot be washed away."

But he said "instead of crying about the past, we should learn from it and move forward."

"I have no qualms in saying we too made blunders and we should accept them," the opposition leader added.

Shehbaz said there was "no past example" of the kind of restrictions that media in the country was currently facing, but called upon the media to consider how "the entire atmosphere has been polluted due to a specific campaign that was run against political parties in the past 2-2.5 years".

He accused the government of carrying out propaganda regarding the National Accountability Bureau, saying the opposition was passing through "the mill of revenge in the name of accountability" which could have immense consequences for the country.

"Today when the economy is destroyed and the common man is crushed, you first steamroll bills and then say unimaginable things in the parliament."

Shehbaz said in order to strengthen Pakistan and its economy, it was inevitable to address the grievances of the smaller provinces and protect their interests through equitable distribution of resources.