ISLAMABAD: The Islamabad High Court (IHC) on Wednesday observed that the government can release details of the Toshakhana gifts received by former prime minister Imran Khan as there is no restraining order to withhold the information.
Justice Miangul Hassan Aurangzeb of the IHC resumed hearing on an appeal filed by the Cabinet Division against an order of Pakistan Information Commission (PIC).
The PIC had earlier accepted an application on the matter and directed the Cabinet Division to “provide the requested information about the gifts received by (former) Prime Minister Imran Khan from foreign heads of states, heads of governments and other foreign dignitaries… description/specification of each gift, information about the gifts retained by the PM and the rules under which gifts thus received are retained by him”. The Cabinet Division was also told to share the required information within 10 working days and upload it on the official website as well.
The Cabinet Division in a petition filed in September last year before the IHC claimed the PIC order was “illegal, without lawful authority”. The then government had adopted the stance that the disclosure of any information related to Toshakhana jeopardises international ties.
Court observes Cabinet Division can make information public in absence of stay order on PIC decision
During the hearing on Wednesday, Justice Aurangzeb observed that since there is no stay order on the PIC decision, the Cabinet Division could make the requisite information public. The judge remarked that the government reciprocates the gesture of receiving gifts from foreign heads of states. He was of the view that the government should formulate a policy on Toshakhana gifts since they were gifted to state functionaries and one should not be able to claim such gifts after paying a nominal amount.
Justice Aurangzeb pointed out that the Pakistan government had in the past gifted a chair to the then US president John F Kennedy, which the latter exhibited for public display. He was of the view that the gifts received from foreign heads of states should be displayed for the public, adding that if someone took the gifts home they should be returned.
The previous government of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) had planned to convert the ancestral home of Justice Aurangzeb in Swat to a museum after the judge suggested the gifts could be displayed in a museum for the general public.
The deputy attorney general sought time from the court to apprise it of the policy of the incumbent government on Toshakhana gifts. Subsequently, the court adjourned the proceedings for a fortnight.
In his application, Abrar Khalid had sought details from the PIC about gifts received by former PM Khan. The Cabinet Division had opposed the request, pleading before the PIC that this matter did not fall within the ambit of Right of Access to Information Act 2017. While referring to a letter dated April 4, 1993 that had declared the details of Toshakhana “classified/secret”, it argued the information could not be requisitioned under the Access to Information Act.
“The record is classified with the directions of the Prime Minister’s Office, as the exchange of gifts between the heads of states and the heads of governments is reflective of inter-state relations, and disclosure of such information is potentially damaging to the interests of Pakistan in the conduct of international relations jeopardising interstate relations.”
In its order, the PIC noted that the Cabinet Division had denied access to each item of the requested information by citing “Section 7(f) & clause 16(ii) of Right of Access to Information Act”. Even the requested information about the rules under which gifts received from the foreign dignitaries are retained by a prime minister has been exempted under these sections.
The PIC held that it was not the “certified information, but absence of certified information [that] contributes to ‘media hype’ and results in ‘unwarranted stories’, creating trust deficit between citizens and public institutions. Certified requested information will dispel rumours about the reporting of the gifts to ‘Toshakhana’ by the public officials and their retention price and which elected representative or public official retained which gift at what price”.
According to the commission, availability of the certified information about the gifts deposited in Toshakhana in public domain will not only make the entire process about the management of these gifts open and transparent, but will contribute to reducing the trust deficit between citizens and public institutions contributed by opacity and secretive ways of functioning of public institutions. “Even citizens of the states on whose behalf gifts are received by our elected representatives and public officials will come to know that their gifts are properly managed, resultantly strengthening people-to-people and inter-state relations,” the PIC stated in its order.
Published in Dawn, April 21st, 2022
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