Opposition’s Panama Papers Inquiry Act bill sails through Senate

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Govt defeated by 39 votes to 18

ISLAMABAD: Amid an exchange of harsh words between the government and the opposition members, the Senate on Thursday passed the opposition’s Panama Papers Inquiry Act, 2016 despite resistance by the treasury lawmakers.

The joint opposition defeated the government by 39 votes to 18 votes. The piece of legislation seeks constitution of a judicial commission to investigate the PanamaLeaks scandal. The main verbal bout was witnessed between the PML-N’s firebrand Senator Mushahidullah Khan and Leader of Opposition Aitzaz Ahsan of PPP.

It all started when Aitzaz Ahsan rose to react to a remark by Law and Justice minister Zahid Hamid, who alleged that the opposition MPs did not honour their promise of getting more time from the Senate to further discuss the bill in the standing committee.

The minister claimed, “They had promised to us that more time to further deliberate upon the bill the committee will be sought from the House, but despite this solemn pledge they backtracked on the commitment, which is not fair”.

In this, Aitzaz smelt sarcastic remarks by the minister directed at him. Aitzaz claimed it was untrue and reminded the government that it must not forget that it was the prime minister, who backtracked on his own commitment given on the floor of the National Assembly.

“We all know what the prime minister said on the floor of the House, who is Leader of the House in National Assembly and what his lawyer interpreted his speech in the Supreme Court is not privy to us and of course as to who backtracked on his stance,” he pointed out.

This apparently left the treasury senators red-faced, forcing Mushahidullah to retaliate by saying those involved in disintegration of Pakistan and giving out the list of Indian Sikhs must not cross limits.

Mushahid remarked, “I have done PhD on your past, so better weigh your words before saying anything against the prime minister, as I’m sitting here only to respond to your allegations”.

His reaction led to desk thumping by several smiling treasury lawmakers. This enraged Aitzaz, who was seen rolling up his sleeves and roared at the treasury benches to stop what he said the baseless allegations against him, but Chairman Senate Raza Rabbani requested both the fuming senators to calm down.

The House had already rejected a motion, seeking more time for a debate on the bill and hence no amendments could be incorporated into the bill. However, using his discretionary powers, Rabbani allowed the PML-N Senators Ayesha Raza Farooq, Nehal Hashmi and Sirajul Haq of Jamaat-e-Islami to bring their amendments, but all were rejected by majority vote by the opposition, while a few minor amendments by Sirajulul Haq were incorporated.

During the legislation, the treasury senators kept saying that the proposed law was prime minister-specific, which was also bulldozed by the house committee concerned, as the opposition senators were to give their input on it but they did not.

The government is of the view that the position has brought the bill with mala fide intentions and it is specific to the probe PanamaLeaks and it wants that the issue of loans write-offs, off-shore companies, BahamasLeaks and other financial crimes to be committed in future should also be included in it.

The bill provides for the constitution of a Commission of Inquiry to inquire into the revelations made by the disclosures contained in the Panama papers.

“And whereas it is necessary to provide for a uniform, fair, non-discriminatory and transparent process of inquiry into the means by which the Panama-related properties, assets and interests were acquired by all Pakistani nationals thus named and their families,” says the bill.

The senators, belonging to the Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PkMAP), a government ally, supported the opposition-sponsored bill, whereas Dr Jahanzeb Jamaldini of the opposition BNP-Mengal voted against the bill along with government members.

The Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) Pakistan abstained from voting. The opposition lawmakers Thursday came down hard on the government for its delaying tactics in reconstitution of Parliamentary Committee on National Security, terming it an attempt to undermine Parliament.

Speaking on a resolution moved by some 36 opposition senators on formation of Parliamentary Committee on National Security, PPP’s Sherry Rehman accused the government of willfully delaying formation of the committee despite making commitments in this context.

“We were promised by no other than the prime minister, who assured us in the presence of Ishaq Dar and Raja Zafarul Haq that the committee will be formed. I got a call from Fawad Hassan Fawad, the principal secretary to the prime minister, that the PM had promised to reconstitute the high-powered parliamentary panel,” she recalled.

She said the reason behind delay in formation of the committee, which did a wonderful job under the chairmanship of Raza Rabbani in the past, was not being formed as the interior minister was against its formation.

The PPP senator noted that Parliament was the heart of democracy and committees form the heart of parliament, and the National Security Committee which was in place during the last PPP government, regularly debated, suggested and monitored policy options.

“This added a first layer of parliamentary oversight to a long and intense series of actions undertaken by civilian and military officials. The National Action Plan (NAP) remains subject to little parliamentary oversight or coordinated burden-share,” she added.

According to her, coordinating a national response to regional, external and internal threats can only be processed appropriately across whole-of-government instruments such as a National Security Committee of Parliament.

She said the way the operation was being carried out in Sindh and Karachi, the rest of the country also needed a similar operation to get rid of militancy and terrorism.

BNP-Mengal’s Dr Jehanzeb Jamaldini said there should be a parliamentary oversight on what the National Action Plan, Nacta, and the intelligence agencies were doing to curb terrorism.

“Calling for improving relations with neighbouring countries, which he said could not be possible unless there is a parliamentary oversight, as this is how the democracies are strengthened in developing countries like Pakistan,” he said.

Senator Usman Khan Kakar of PkMAP said the reason no one has been made accountable after massive terrorist attacks in the country from time to time is mainly because there is no parliamentary oversight on intelligence agencies and other government departments.

Lt Gen (R) Abdul Qayyum, a treasury lawmaker, also endorsed formation of parliamentary committee to keep a check on law-enforcing agencies besides helping the government in improving the performance of different government departments.

Lt. Gen (R) Salahuddin Tirmizi of PML-N plainly stated that there was no need to form any committee as it would be another ‘white elephant’ and the government should focus on improving the performance of the existing departments.

“There are scores of committee but the issue is delivery. Not a single committee or any other department is performing up to the mark, so the focus should be on delivery, and once these existing committees start delivering, there will be no need of any other panel,” he said.

Barrister Muhammad Ali Saif of MQM blamed the judiciary, saying it was a ‘sick institution’, which was the root cause for all the issues we are confronting today and called for improving the criminal justice system if we want to overcome the problems.

Earlier, Rabbani said that ‘giving constitutional status to the people of Gilgit-Baltistan was not an issue of the government, rather it was a sensitive and complicated matter, linked to Kashmir’.

He made this observation in response to brief speeches made by convenor of the House Special Committee on China-Pakistan Economic Corridor Taj Haider and some of its other members, who said the leaders of political parties and civil society members in Gilgit-Baltistan felt deprived and disappointed, as they wanted equal status for them like other Pakistanis.

Rabbani contended that Gilgit-Baltistan was not an ordinary matter and mere constitutional amendment would not do, as senators pleaded for giving due concessions to the region, being the gateway to CPEC, but nothing was being offered to it in terms of investment. They noted that during each and every interaction, the core issue raised was giving constitutional status to it.

The committee report also lays emphasis on enhancing connectivity and feared the broadening of Karakoram Highway to seven meters might not be enough, as this much broadening at various points was impossible, whereas a container was three-meter in width and at one time, two-way traffic might not be possible.

Haider and other senators were speaking on the third interim report of the committee, which he moved for consideration and adoption in the House. They advocated addressing genuine concerns of people of that region and said they could impede the CPEC in their area, if they were denied share in it and constitutional status.

The committee, which had visited the region, apprised the House of its observations and recommendations made in the report.

Haider, Senators Karim Khawaja, Mian Attique Sheikh, Usman Kakar, Sardar Azam, Nihal Hashmi and Dr. Jamaldini spoke on the matter and called for creating conducive environment for all concerned.

Though they appreciated the various measures being taken to develop Gwadar port, they insisted on early provision of basic facilities and ensuring provision of utility services and drinking water to the population there.

The committee members, in particular, talked about the backwardness of Gilgit-Baltistan and deprivations among people there: they pointed out that the locals found difficulty even in sale of their fruit and other items due to lack of proper infrastructure.

They noted that provision of facilities to Chinese across the border were commendable, which Pakistanis lacked and even our security personnel were deprived of modern gadgets. However, they lauded the recent safe and secure passage of first caravan of Chinese containers.

The senators from Balochistan said they would support CPEC but not the one being made Punjab-specific. They complained not a single recommendation of the committee had been implemented by the government so far, which they said was regrettable.

The joint opposition, enjoying support of the ruling coalition partners, including the Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PkMAP) and the National Party (NP) in the Senate, also got disapproved the Companies Ordinance, 2016 by 50 votes to 18, billing the ordinance yet another government bid to sideline Parliament.

After going for voice vote, Chairman Senate Mian Raza Rabbani opted for head count and many were surprised to see not only PkMAP and NP, but also some Fata senators and Mohsin Leghari, on the treasury benches, voted for the resolution, tabled by PPP Senator Saleem Mandviwala, which was filed by as many as 40 senators for the requisitioned session to disapprove the ordinance.