The federal government told the Lahore High Court (LHC) on Thursday that records of the buyers of the Toshakhana gifts since 2002 were being “declassified” and would be uploaded on a website.
After initially expressing reluctance over submitting the records, the government had on Feb 21 submitted details of the Toshakhana gifts to the court during the hearing of a petition seeking to make Toshakhana records public.
It had also said that it was at the LHC’s discretion to unseal the documents.
Established in 1974, the Toshakhana is a department under the administrative control of the Cabinet Division and stores precious gifts given to rulers, parliamentarians, bureaucrats, and officials by heads of other governments and states and foreign dignitaries.
According to Toshakhana rules, gifts/presents and other such materials received by persons to whom these rules apply shall be reported to the Cabinet Division.
The department has been in the news in recent months in light of proceedings against former prime minister Imran Khan for “not sharing details” of Toshakhana gifts.
The PTI, while in government, had also been reluctant to disclose details of the gifts presented to Imran since he assumed office in 2018, maintaining that doing so would jeopardise international ties, even as the Pakistan Information Commission (PIC) ordered it to do so.
During the hearing today, Cabinet Secretary Eazaz Aslam Dar appeared in court with the Toshakhana record. Azhar Siddiq, the petitioner’s lawyer, was also present.
As the proceedings commenced, the Additional Attorney General told LHC’s Justice Asim Hafeez that the cabinet had declassified the records of the Toshakhana gifts from 2002. “All this record will be uploaded on a website.”
At that, the judge asked if the government did not have the records of gifts bought before 2002 to which the lawyer replied that records before 2002 were not computerised.
Justice Hafeez then instructed the cabinet secretary to also present the records of Toshakhana gifts from before 2002 in court.
Here, the government lawyer clarified that the records of Toshakhana buyers were being declassified. “We are not disclosing the record of those [countries] who gave these.”
However, Justice Hafeez ordered that the details of “where the gifts came from” should also be brought to the court in the next hearing. “You will submit this record to us in the chamber.”
However, the petitioner’s lawyer pressed for the government to present the complete record in court. To this, the judge said: “In 2023, the government decided to declassify records. Things can’t change all of a sudden.”
Subsequently, the hearing was adjourned till March 13.
The plea seeking the details was filed by lawyer Munir Ahmad through Advocate Azhar Siddique in December 2022.
The plea stated: “The right to information is an integral part of a progressive democratic state and the same has been elaborated by the superior courts saying the right to information in all matters of public importance is indisputably a fundamental right guaranteed under Article(s) 19 and 19-A of the Constitution.”
According to the petitioner, the right to information stems from the requirement that members of a democratic society should be sufficiently informed that they may intelligently influence the decision which may affect them.
Therefore, he argued, the people of Pakistan had the right to know every public act, everything that is done in a public way, by public functionaries and their chosen representatives.
The petitioner contended that people at large were entitled to know details of every public transaction and acquire information in all matters of public importance.
“This enables people to contribute in debate on social and moral issues and matter of public importance.”
The plea urged the court to order the respondents to make public the details of assets gifted to rulers as well as bureaucrats and also provide the names, details, information, documentation and materials in respect of the persons/officials who have obtained the assets by making the payment.
The petitioner also sought details of the methodology used to determine the price of the Toshakhana articles.
Ministries of Parliamentary Affairs and Interior and Pakistan Information Commission have been arrayed as respondents in the petition.
Cap imposed on Toshakhana gifts
The development comes a day after Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif said that the cabinet members, politicians and bureaucrats will not be allowed to retain gifts worth more than $300 (around Rs80,000), as he promised to make the entire record of Toshakhana available to the public.
“No one would be allowed to retain state gifts worth more than $300,” the premier had said in a press conference at Prime Minister House after the cabinet meeting.
“Record of Toshakhana will be brought before the public, as the official website [of the cabinet division] will provide details about foreign gifts and will be accessible to all,” he had added.
According to the premier, judges and the armed forces do not provide details of gifts, which they receive on official tours, to the state gift repository. Only the president, prime minister, parliamentarians, cabinet members and bureaucrats follow the practice, he had pointed out.