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Lawmakers pass contempt exemption bill

July 12, 2012


A session of the Senate in progress. — Photo by APP

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan's upper house of parliament on Wednesday passed a bill that would exempt senior government figures from contempt of court proceedings, in an apparent bid to save the new prime minister from disqualification.

The move comes a day after the bill was approved by the National Assembly, or lower house.

The Supreme Court has given Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf until Thursday to indicate whether he will obey an order to ask Swiss authorities to reopen multi-million dollar corruption cases against the president.

The court dismissed Yousuf Raza Gilani as prime minister on June 19 after convicting him of contempt in April for refusing to reopen the cases against President Asif Ali Zardari.

The bill, which now needs to be signed by Zardari before it becomes law, seeks to exempt senior government figures including the president, prime minister and ministers from contempt for acts performed as part of their job.

The Senate, or upper house, passed the bill after a debate late on Wednesday as the main opposition party Pakistan Muslim League-N headed by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif staged a walk out to boycott the proceedings.

But the Contempt of Court Bill 2012 also prompted concerns from some within the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party, with senator Aitzaz Ahsan saying during the debate that “any law framed in haste is counter-productive”.

The allegations against Zardari date back to the 1990s, when he and his wife, late premier Benazir Bhutto, are suspected of using Swiss bank accounts to launder $12 million allegedly paid in bribes by companies seeking customs inspection contracts.

The Swiss shelved the cases in 2008 when Zardari became president and the government insists the president has full immunity as head of state.

But in 2009 the Supreme Court overturned a political amnesty that had frozen investigations into the president and other politicians, ordering that the cases be reopened.