• Granting right of appeal retrospectively in matters heard under Article 184(3) triggers debate among lawmakers
• Proposed law seeks to ‘distribute’ chief justice’s power to constitute benches among three-judge panel
• Bilawal backs tweak for sake of consensus in ruling coalition; PTI opposes ‘controversial’ bill

ISLAMABAD: The National Assembly on Wednesday passed the bill aimed at clipping the “unilateral” powers of Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) in initiating suo motu cases and constituting benches along with a last-minute addition of two amendments, including a controversial one giving right of appeal to aggrieved persons in the already decided cases, with retrospective effect.

The bill was passed at a time when a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court headed by CJP Umar Ata Bandial was hearing a petition filed by the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) against the Election Commission of Pakistan’s act of delaying the polls in Punjab in the alleged violation of the apex court’s decision after the CJP took a suo motu notice of the issue last month.

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif remained present in the house till the passage of the bill which saw opposition only from two newly-elected PTI MNAs — Mohsin Leghari and Saleh Muhammad.

Mr Leghari termed the proposed law unconstitutional, saying the government was intruding in the SC’s jurisdiction as amending the rules was the prerogative of the court as per Article 191 of the Constitution.

A number of other members, including those sitting on the treasury benches, in their speeches were of the view that such a law should have been brought much earlier, agreeing that its timing had created doubts in some sections of society.

On the other hand, Mr Bhutto-Zardari termed it “too little, too late”.

Two amendments to the Supreme Court Practices and Procedure Bill 2023, which the government had tabled on Tuesday night after its quick approval by the federal cabinet and which came before the house for a final vote after its endorsement by the NA’s law and justice committee earlier in the morning, were moved by independent MNA from North Waziristan Mohsin Dawar.

Apparently, fearing a backlash over the amendment to an already controversial bill, PPP Chairman and Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari initially opposed the amendment, but after hearing speeches in its favour from the PML-N members, including ministers, announced his support for it, declaring that PPP was doing it for the sake of consensus within the ruling coalition.

The said amendment had actually been suggested by Mohsin Shahnawaz Ranjha of the ruling PML-N during the meeting of the NA Standing Committee on Law and Justice, and reportedly PPP’s Syed Naveed Qamar had opposed it there as well.

“Do not ask for this. There will be allegations that this legislation is being done to provide relief to [PML-N supremo] Nawaz Sharif,” Mr Qamar had reportedly stated while referring to the 2017 disqualification of Mr Sharif in the Panama Papers case.

“The right of appeal under sub-section (1) shall also be available to an aggrieved person against whom an order has been made under Clause 3 of Article 184 of the Constitution, prior to the commencement of this Act,” reads the newly-inserted sub-section in the bill. The appeal, however, will have to be filed “within 30 days of the commencement of this Act”.

Speaking in favour of the amendment, Mr Dawar said the Constitution talked about fair trial and, therefore, those who had already been affected by the court’s decisions under Article 184(3), should be given an opportunity to get a remedy. In this regard, he named former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and PTI dissident Jahangir Tareen, the two leaders who had been facing lifetime disqualification due to their convictions by the apex court in the cases initiated through suo motu notices.

Mr Dawar also named former PM Yousuf Raza Gilani, without realising that he had been disqualified in a contempt case.

He also referred to the demolition of Nasla Tower in Karachi in line with a similar SC order where the affected persons did not get the right of appeal.

Mr Dawar further said this remedy would be available for a limited time of 30 days and for one time after the commencement of this Act.

Explaining his other amendment, the MNA said, he had suggested replacement of the word “a final order” with “an order” so that the appeal could be filed after issuance of the short order and without waiting for the detailed verdict.

A PTI dissident Ramesh Kumar also opposed the amendment, saying it would spoil the good efforts being made by the government and with the support of the lawyers’ community.

“We are moving in a positive direction. Why are you bringing this amendment and bringing this law with retrospective effect? It will not give a good impression ... and there will be again criticism on it in the evening,” said the MNA.

The amendments were, however, supported by Law Minister Azam Nazeer Tarar, stating that in the past they had done several legislations making their commencement with retrospective effect and gave the example of National Accountability Bureau law.

The minister also rejected the PTI’s objection that they needed a constitutional amendment to do these changes, stating the Constitution and laws were superior to the “rules”.

He said Pakistan had six bar councils and “all of them saluted the House over tabling of the bill”.

Mr Tarar acknowledged Mr Bhutto-Zardari’s “too little, too late” remarks, but said he believed “there is a right time for everything” and the government demonstrated restraint “until a voice came from within the courts”.

Earlier, the PPP chairman was provided a free time to make political speech by Speaker Raja Pervaiz Ashraf who was seen switching off the mikes of some opposition members when they deviated from the subject matter during the debate on the bill.

FM Bhutto-Zardari named the former chiefs of the ISI Gen Pasha, Gen Zaheerul Islam and Gen Faiz Hameed, accusing them of being involved in the “hybrid war” against the democratic system of the country by imposing the PTI government. He also lashed out at former CJPs Iftikhar Chaudhry and Saqib Nisar for allegedly becoming part of the anti-democracy campaign.

The National Assembly also passed the Lawyers Welfare and Protection Bill; the Private Power and Infrastructure Board (Amendment) Bill; the Imports and Exports (Control) (Amendment) Bill and the Emigration (Amendment) Bill before the speaker adjourned the sitting till Thursday.

Published in Dawn, March 30th, 2023

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