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LAHORE, June 1: A Lahore High Court full bench on Wednesday restrained religious affairs ministry from finalising the process of Haj quota allocation to private tour operators and sought a detailed reply from the federal government and the ministry by June 6.

The bench comprising Chief Justice Ijaz Ahmad Chaudhry, Justice Sheikh Azmat Saeed and Justice Umar Ata Bandial issued the order hearing dozens of writ petitions filed by Haj tour operators against the alleged discrimination on the ministry’s part in quota allocation to them.

The bench also allowed four tour operators, who were allocated the quota, to become party to the case.

These operators took the plea that as they had been awarded the quota, they should be heard as the court decision would have an effect on them. They also requested the court to adjourn the matter as their counsel had to appear before the Supreme Court at Islamabad.

Earlier, advocates Ahmad Awais and Muhammad Azhar Siddique, representing the main petitioners, argued that the tour operators had been facing discrimination in Haj quota allocation for the last eight years.

They said the ministry had been allocating quota to the same tour operators since 2004-05 and receiving kickbacks.

Opposing a ministry claim, the counsel said the Saudi government had not barred the Pakistan government from allocating Haj quota to new operators.

They pointed out that the LHC in its judgment against Haj Policy 2006 had directed the ministry to strictly follow merit and constitutional provisions while making the policy.

To a court query, a deputy attorney general said following an agreement between Saudi and Pakistani authorities, the former issued visas to 650 tour operators. Therefore, he said, the ministry was allocating quota to only those operators. He said on SC orders, 96 more operators were awarded the quota.

Advocate Siddique insisted that if there was such agreement between the two countries, it should be presented before the court.

Justice Saeed asked the attorney whether the previous LHC order was implemented or the ministry introduced any transparent procedure for the award of quota.

At this, a deputy secretary informed the court that the ministry had received complaints against 238 operators and it was planning to blacklist them.

Advocate Awais raised a query and said if the ministry received complaints against 238 operators out of 650, how it could claim merit was observed while granting the quota.

Justice Saeed asked the ministry’s representative as to why the petitioners (tour operators) were not made part of the quota allocation process, denying them their constitutional right.

The bench directed the deputy attorney general and all the counsel to come up on June 6 with complete preparation and comprehensive arguments as no further adjournment would be allowed.

Meerub Travel Tours (Pvt) Ltd, Travel Shop Limited and others had alleged in their petitions that the religious affairs ministry allocated Haj quota 2011 to private tour operators on the basis of personal liking and political influence despite clear directions of superior courts to follow merit in quota allotment.

They prayed to the court to declare the provisions of Haj Policy 2011 concerning private tour operators illegal and direct the ministry to allocate quota on merit after canceling all previous allocations.