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A view of the National Assembly. — Photo by APP

Govt bid to shield Raja from disqualification

ISLAMABAD, July 9: Having lost one prime minister and seeking to protect another, the government rushed through the National Assembly a new contempt of court law on Monday as a possible shield against zealous judicial forays.

The 13-clause bill, which exempts “holders of public office” from the mischief of contempt in “exercise of powers and performance of functions” and allows for suspension of a sentence during the pendency of an appeal, was taken up for consideration immediately after it was introduced by Law and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Farooq H. Naek by suspending rules requiring its scrutiny by a house standing committee.

The Pakistan Muslim League-N, the largest opposition party, and some other opposition members protested against the bill they called a “black law” and its hurried passage, but their opposition seemed to be only token as they fully participated in the voice vote with shouts of ‘no’ against ‘ayes’ by much more than the required simple majority of the present members of the 342-seat house from the ruling coalition led by the Pakistan People’s Party.

The bill must be passed also by the Senate and get a formal presidential assent to become law, which will repeal the existing effective contempt law: The Contempt of Court Ordinance, 2003 (V of 2003), under which a July 19 order of a Supreme Court bench disqualified then prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani from holding his office and membership of the National Assembly with effect from his contempt of court conviction by another bench on April 26.

In view of a controversy about which of several contempt laws should have actually held the field since a 1976 act, the new bill confirms the repeal also of the Contempt of Court Act 1976, the Contempt of Court Ordinance 2003 (IV of 2003) and the Contempt of Court Ordinance 2004.

Although the government did not say so explicitly, the aim of the new law is to save new Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf from meeting the fate of his predecessor, who was convicted for contempt by refusing a Supreme Court order to write to Swiss authorities to reopen disputed money-laundering charges brought against President Asif Ali Zardari in the 1990s on grounds of a presidential immunity.

Premier Ashraf was present during the proceedings, which continued late into the night and were likely to be followed by a similar vote in the 104-seat Senate on Tuesday.

The government moved with the new law in a hurry as the court has demanded a response from Mr Ashraf on Thursday about the compliance of the same order, which the PPP says none of its premier will carry out on the legal plea of Mr Zardari’s constitutional immunity against prosecution while he holds the office of president and a political stand that it would not allow “trial of graves” as the assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto and her late mother Nusrat Bhutto too were accused in the same charges, which were brought by a then PML-N government headed by its leader Nawaz Sharif.

The bill contains most of the provisions of the previous contempt laws that it seeks to repeal but the most important of its new clauses is one aimed to protect the new prime minister that excludes from contempt of court “exercise of powers and performance of functions by a public office holder of his respective office for any act done or purported to be done in exercise of those powers and performance of those function”.

An original draft had specified such exercise of powers under clause (1) of Article 248 of the constitution. But the law minister told the house that the reference to that article had been dropped.

The PML-N opposition to the new bill and last week’s government decision to reopen Nato overland supply routes was a far cry from its noisy protests in the lower house over two months of its campaign against Mr Gilani following his conviction.

It staged only a token walkout against the resumption of Nato supplies after its deputy parliamentary leader, Sardar Mehtab Ahmed Khan, described the government decision as contrary to guidelines given by a bipartisan parliamentary committee on national security and demanded that the house be informed about the details of agreements or memorandums of understanding reached with Nato or the United States.

Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam leader Maulana Fazlur Rehman and PPP-S chief Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao also opposed the decision on Nato supplies but did not walk out.

PPP chief whip Khursheed Ahmed Shah and Mr Naek were seen engaged in hectic contacts with opposition figures inside the house while speculations were rife about possible opposition rethinking following some recent remarks in speeches by Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry questioning the widely cherished concept of the supremacy of parliament.

Some opposition members voiced fears the Supreme Court might strike down the new law, while Mr Shah and Mr Naek took pains to stress that the government was only correcting prevailing lacunae and not seeking any confrontation with the judiciary.

Though they did not announce a second walkout, PML-N lawmakers marched out of the house again after the final vote on the Contempt of Court Bill without hearing a speech from Prime Minister Ashraf.

The law minister also introduced a bill seeking an amendment in the constitution for an increase in family pensions of the judges of the superior judiciary, but rejected suggestions that it was meant as a bribe to judges, saying it was being done actually in response to a reference from the judiciary itself.

The prime minister, in a late night speech, proposed that house hold a detailed debate on Nato supplies, rejecting opposition charges that the government had compromised on the national honour or going against the parliamentary committee’s guidelines, before the house was adjourned until 11am on Tuesday.