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Islamabad: Consensus bill may be introduced soon

parliament PakistanISLAMABAD: A new accountability law drafted in April but remaining stalled because of objections raised by the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-N may now reach parliament as a consensus bill.

According to Opposition Leader in the National Assembly Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, the government side has communicated its acceptance, with one minor exception, of PML-N’s formulations, but his party wanted the acceptance in black and white.

“With the bitter experience of the ruling party (PPP) reneging on its words in the past, we want the words in written form,” the opposition leader said while talking to a group of reporters at his Parliament House chamber here on Wednesday.

Chaudhry Nisar said the coalition government’s readiness to accommodate PML-N’s proposals had been communicated to him through a PML-N contact by PPP’s Nasim Akhtar Chaudhry, the chairperson of the National Assembly Standing Committee on Law and Justice.

The draft bill approved by the committee in April remained stalled for want of consensus. The standing committee had on April 15 approved the bill, but Nasim Akhtar refused to share the final draft with opposition members of the committee.

If approved by parliament, the bill will replace the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) with a powerful National Accountability Commission (NAC).

The PML-N has made public its opposition to a number of clauses in the bill. It has been insisting that the head of NAC must be a sitting judge of the Supreme Court whereas the draft of law suggests that the office can be held “either by a sitting judge or a retired judge or any person qualified to be a judge of the Supreme Court”.

The PML-N is also against immunity proposed for a holder of public office for any wrongdoing committed in ‘good faith’. It suggests that the commission should be allowed to pursue cases since 1947. But the bill proposes that the NAC will not carry out investigations against any crime committed before 1985.

Moreover, the PML-N says the proposed bill does not require the government to ask foreign states to freeze and forfeit assets relevant to any investigation in Pakistan.

A clause to this effect was in the National Accountability Ordinance, 1999, which was used to seek foreign cooperation and mutual legal assistance in the money-laundering case against President Asif Zardari in a Swiss court. This was later withdrawn through a controversial letter written to the Swiss authorities by then attorney general Malik Qayyum after the passage of the National Reconciliation Ordinance.

Chaudhry Nisar claimed that the government had conveyed to him that it was ready to accommodate PML-N’s proposals with a condition that the opposition would not press for its demand that the NAC should compulsorily be headed by a serving SC judge. He said the government had also expressed its willingness to remove the clause under which any person qualified to be a SC judge had been declared eligible to become chairman of the proposed NAC.

The government, he said, believed it would be difficult for the superior judiciary to spare a full-time judge for the purpose in the light of the recently-announced judicial policy by Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry.

The opposition leader further disclosed that Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani had expressed his desire to get the new accountability law adopted in parliament only through a consensus.

On the other hand, Nasim Akhtar Chaudhry, when contacted, denied that she had sent any message to the opposition leader. However, she said she had convened a meeting of the standing committee on Sept 16 only to discuss the objections raised by the PML-N on the draft of the bill that proposes to end the immunity so far enjoyed by members of the armed forces, judiciary and parliament by defining public office in accordance with Article 260 of the Constitution.

Once the law is approved, all assets and all employees of NAB will be transferred to the NAC. All cases presently being prosecuted by the NAB would also be immediately transferred to the NAC. The chairman of the proposed accountability commission will be appointed for a period of three years.

Parliamentary Affairs Minister Babar Awan had tabled “the Holder of Public Office (Accountability) Act 2009 (the name changed to NAC Act 2010) in the National Assembly in April last year in the light of the first speech made by the prime minister on the floor of the house after his election on March 29, 2008, in which he had promised to disband the NAB and create an independent accountability commission as envisaged in the Charter of Democracy signed by former prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif in May 2006 when they were in exile.

Soon after its introduction in the NA, the PML-N raised a number of objections on the language and provisions given in the original draft and refused to accept it. Later, the prime minister announced that the government would bring the accountability law before parliament only after taking all the parties, including the PML-N, into confidence.

On the directives of the prime minister, the copy of the draft bill was sent to the PML-N for review. Later, the PML-N returned the draft to the government suggesting more than 50 amendments to it.

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