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Haj scam strikes double blow

ISLAMABAD: On a day of drama in high places, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani on Tuesday sacked the two warring federal ministers at the centre of the Haj affair and asked a federal secretary facing corruption charges to report to the Establishment Division, while Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-F, a coalition partner, set off speculations about the future of the ruling coalition by quitting the government.

PAKISTAN POLITICS JUIFThe two protagonists in the drama, Religious Affairs Minister Syed Hamid Raza Kazmi who was under scrutiny over mismanagement in this year’s Haj arrangements, and Science and Technology Minister Mohammad Azam Khan Swati, whose statement in the Supreme Court climaxed the story, were sent home by Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani.

The two ministers’ mud-slinging against reach other over the past few weeks had raised questions about protocol and discipline in the federal cabinet.

A brief statement issued by the Prime Minister’s Secretariat said: “The prime minister has removed the two ministers from their portfolios.”

Syed Khurshid Shah, Minister for Labour and Manpower, was asked to look after the religious affairs ministry while Sardar Assef Ahmed Ali, Minister for Education, will take additional charge of the science and technology portfolio.

Sources said the prime minister had taken the decision as a last resort and after exhausting all options as Mr Kazmi and Mr Swati had made a mockery of Mr Gilani’s directive not to utter anything without consulting him.

Mr Gilani also asked Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira to resolve the acrimony, but to no avail.

Amidst the brickbat which was lapped up by the media, the prime minister had even issued a directive to all his cabinet members asking them to keep a low profile and only speak through designated spokespersons.

The sources said the Presidency had been taken into confidence about the prime minister’s decision of dismissing the two ministers.

JUI-F quits coalition
In a quick but expected reaction, the JUI-F decided to part ways with the PPP-led government. The decision was taken after an emergency meeting of the party’s parliamentary committee.

Mr Swati is a rich businessman and chief financier of JUI-F. Speaking at a press conference, JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman said: “In response to the prime minister’s one-sided decision of sacking Mr Swati from his cabinet, the party has unanimously decided to leave the government.”

Two other federal ministers — housing and environment — of the party have also submitted their resignations.

Asked if the JUI-F was also resigning chairmanships of the Council of Ideology and the parliamentary committee on Kashmir, Maulana Fazal said: “These positions are not part of any deal with the government. As they fall under the purview of parliament the party will retain them.”

He accused the government of deviating from its avowed policy of reconciliation and opting for confrontation.

“Our minister only pointed out corruption in the religious affairs division and duly wrote to the prime minister and the president in this regard. Mr Swati only did his duty,” he added.

Political observers were of the opinion that the government was not really perturbed over the JUI-F’s decision as it had only seven seats in the National Assembly and four in the Senate.

Known for his volte-face, they felt, the JUI-F chief would use the sacking of his minister as a bargaining chip.

Dr Qayyum Sommro, an aide to President Asif Ali Zardari, sprung to action and held a meeting with the JUI-F chief.

Talking to Dawn, the sacked religious affairs minister, Hamid Raza Kazmi, said: “I really don’t know why the prime minister has taken this extreme measure because only last night I met President Zardari, who didn’t mention anything like this, rather he praised me.”

However, he said: “Since the prime minister has removed both of us, it makes sense in a way that I have not been victimised.”

He said he had nothing to do with the alleged corruption in Haj arrangements and would prove himself innocent in the Supreme Court.

The apex court is seized with a plethora of complaints about corruption and financial mismanagement in Haj operations.

Mr Kazmi warned that if anyone tried to paint him into a corner for political gains, he would not remain silent.

PPP information secretary Fauzia Wahab told Dawn that the party had a brief meeting over the issue. “I can only say one thing: there is nothing to worry about. We are already in touch with Maulana sahib,” she added.

The prime minister directed Religious Affairs Secretary Agha Sarwar Qazilbash to report to the Establishment Division and appointed Saeed Khan, secretary for overseas Pakistanis, in his place.

Former director general of Haj Rao Shakil Ahmad, who is currently under custody, had said that Mr Qazilbash, being a principal accounting officer, was responsible for reported cases of financial corruption in the ministry.

Mr Gilani has appointed Makhdoom Shahbuddin as minister of state for defence production. However, he will continue to hold portfolio of the health minister.

The prime minister recently removed the state minister for defence production, Abdul Qayyum Jatoi, for criticising his own government for corruption and then, in a bizarre demand, sought an “equal share in the booty”.

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