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Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf. — Photo by APP

ISLAMABAD, July 4: With the Nato supply route controversy almost sorted out, the government on Wednesday started rolling up its sleeves to wriggle out of the problems it is facing as a result of recent judicial decisions.

At a meeting, the cabinet approved a bill to change the contempt law to clip the judiciary’s wings. The proposed bill will provide immunity to federal and provincial government leaders from being charged with or convicted of contempt of court.

Ironically, the bill is similar to what Nawaz Sharif had as prime minister introduced in 1997 during his clash with then chief justice Sajjad Ali Shah.

Legal experts believe that with the adoption of the proposed changes in the contempt law by parliament, a new round of confrontation might start between the executive and the judiciary.

Former prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani was convicted in a contempt of court case for refusing to implement an order of the Supreme Court regarding writing a letter to Swiss authorities against President Asif Ali Zardari. His successor Raja Pervez Ashraf has been asked to submit his reply on the same issue on July 12.

Briefing newsmen after the meeting, Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira said the cabinet had given its approval to the Contempt of Court Bill, 2012, for introduction in either house of parliament.

If adopted with simple majority, the bill will provide a constitutional cover to the powers of top government functionaries against the effects of contempt law.

Through the bill, Mr Kaira said, “the scope of the right to appeal has been enlarged, including incorporation of other necessary provisions relevant to contempt proceedings”.

After the passage of the bill, the information minister said, contempt proceedings could not be initiated against holders of public office as mentioned in Article 248(1) of the Constitution.

Article 248(1) reads: “The President, a Governor, the Prime Minister, a Federal Minister, a Minister of State, the Chief Minister and a Provincial Minister shall not be answerable to any court for the exercise of powers and performance of functions of their respective offices or for any act done or purported to be done in the exercise of those powers and performance of those functions.”

The minister dispelled a perception that the government intended to undermine the superior judiciary. With the enlargement of the scope of right to appeal, the minister said, once an appeal by a convict in a contempt case was accepted, his/her punishment would automatically stand suspended.

Dual nationality

Mr Kaira said: “The cabinet approved a draft bill tabled by the ministry for overseas Pakistanis proposing amendment in Article 63(1)C of the Constitution to enable Pakistanis having dual nationality to contest election for the membership of parliament.”

After threadbare discussion, the cabinet held that if top civil servants and judges who too were involved in state affairs, could hold dual nationality, why should there be this discrimination against politicians.

When approached, Supreme Court Bar Association president Yasin Azad said that although parliament had the right to amend the Constitution and law, such a move would be considered mala fide in the current circumstances.

He said only a simple majority was required to amend a law, while for making a constitutional amendment a two-thirds majority of the two houses of parliament was needed.

The Supreme Court is hearing several cases against parliamentarians and has suspended membership of a number of legislators holding dual nationality.

In reply to a question, Mr Kaira said: “According to my personal opinion, if you allow voting right to dual nationals they cannot be stopped from contesting elections, and if you don’t want them simply remove their names from the voting list.”

Ahsan Iqbal, PML-N’s Deputy Secretary General, said holders of dual nationality should be allowed to vote and contest elections, but once elected they must surrender their foreign nationality before taking oath as people’s representatives.

On the proposed changes in the contempt law, he said after the bill was presented before the house, PML-N’s legal experts would be consulted and a formal position would be taken.

APP adds: The information minister said that the cabinet unanimously endorsed the decision of the Defence Committee of the Cabinet for reopening the ground lines of communication to and from Afghanistan.

He said Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf informed the cabinet that it was vindication of Pakistan’s principled stand after the unfortunate Salala incident.

Raja Ashraf said the US would have to respect Pakistan’s sovereignty so that future relations between the two countries were enduring, strategic and carefully defined for peace and security in the region.

Mr Kaira said the prime minister also informed the cabinet that in view of Pakistan’s larger objective of peace and stability in Afghanistan and the whole region and also its cooperative relations with 50 member states of Nato/Isaf “we will facilitate the transition process to help enable Afghanistan’s national institutions to meet the challenges they are facing”.