After three years of wrangling, the government brought a new accountability bill to the National Assembly on Monday, aimed at creating an independent accountability commission to prosecute corruption by holders of public offices, and another one to authorise the use of modern techniques to investigate crimes like terrorism and against national security.
While introducing the two drafts in the face of some hard criticism from the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-N and a member of the government-allied Awami National Party over the withdrawal of an earlier and controversial accountability bill, Law and Justice Minister Farooq Naek sought their early passage.
Deputy Speaker Faisal Karim Kundi, chairing the proceedings at the time, referred both the bills to the house Standing Committee on Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs to submit its reports “as soon as possible”, although the law minister had called for a report on the accountability bill by Thursday so that it could be passed during the ongoing session of the house before its scheduled prorogation on Friday.
While Mr Naek declined opposition’s demand to explain reasons for the withdrawal of what was known as Holders of Public Office (Accountability) Bill introduced in 2009 except saying that it had become “controversial” in prolonged disputes in the standing committee mainly between members of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party and the PML-N, he did so with the required permission of the speaker.
However, there was no immediate opposition to the introduction of the Investigation for Fair Trial Bill which seeks to authorise investigating agencies to use techniques like telephone-taping and the monitoring of e-mails and SMS text messages over mobile phones — all of which would be admissible as evidence before courts trying cases for offences under 10 laws, including the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1997, Official Secrets Act of 1923, Prevention of Anti-National Activities Act of 1974 and National Command Authority Act, 2010.
While disagreements over who should head the proposed Accountability Commission and some other issues did not let the earlier accountability bill return from the standing committee to the house, PPP chief whip and Religious Affairs Minister Khursheed Ahmed Shah sounded more accommodating this time for a consensus, telling the house — apparently on the basis of some behind-the-scene understanding — that “whatever amendments they bring, we will accept them”.
The new 48-clause National Accountability Commission Bill, which will repeal the Musharraf-era National Accountability Ordinance of 1999, provides for the establishment of a three-member National Accountability Commission to be headed by a chairperson who has been a judge of the Supreme Court or a federal government officer in Basic Pay Scale (BPS) 22, a deputy chairperson who has been a judge of a high court or a federal government officer in BPS 21 and a prosecutor general who is qualified to be appointed as a judge of the Supreme Court.
The commission’s chairpersonship was one of the major contentious points in the previous bill with the PPP wanting the office to go to a retired Supreme Court judge or a person qualified to be appointed to the apex court. Another issue was the time from when the law would be applicable — which in the new bill has been set as Oct 1, 2002.
Although a chairperson has to be formally named by the president for a non-extendable term of three years, the bill provides for a complicated procedure of consultations with the prime minister and leader of opposition in the National Assembly and a reference to the Standing Committee on Law and Justice of two names each by the prime minister and the opposition leader if they do not agree on a person. If the committee fails to finalise a name, the prime minister will send another list of two names to the committee, and in case it again fails to agree the first name in the list will get the job.
The president will also appoint both the deputy chairman and the prosecutor general for non-extendable three years in consultation with the commission’s chairperson.
Under the bill, the commission is to constitute an “independent” National Accountability Commission Investigation Agency for “conducting inquiry and investigation of offences” and cases will be tried by accountability courts to be presided over by district and sessions judges to be appointed by the president for up to three years “in consultation with the chief justice of the high court concerned”, with decisions to be made within a year.
The holders of public office to be prosecuted under the new law will range from the president, provincial governors and prime minister to speakers of the National Assembly and provincial assemblies, Senate chairman, federal and provincial ministers and retired or dismissed officers of the armed forces.Corrupt practices that the commission will probe include accepting or obtaining “any gratification other than legal remuneration”, accepting “any valuable thing without consideration or for a consideration”, dishonest or fraudulent misappropriation, seeking or obtaining any property by corrupt, dishonest and illegal means, acquiring assets disproportionate to one’s known sources of income, misuse of authority by accepting bribe, and issuing any directive, policy or order to grant undue concession or benefit in any taxation matter.
“Whoever is convicted of offence of corruption and corrupt practices shall, if the illegal gain derived by him is not fully recovered, be sentenced to imprisonment for a term which may extend to seven years, or with fine, or with both,” the bill says, with a proviso that “in case the illegal gain derived is fully recovered, he shall be sentenced to imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years, or with fine, or with both”.
The preamble to the Investigation for Fair Trial Bill giving the rationale for the new law says the existing laws “neither comprehensively provide for nor specifically regulate advanced and modern investigative techniques such as covert surveillance and human intelligence, property interference, wire-tapping and communication interception that are used extensively in other jurisdictions to successfully prevent the offences and as an indispensable aid to the law enforcement and administrative justice”.
The house also passed the first government bill of its current session, which began on Friday, — a 39-clause Intellectual Property Organisation of Pakistan Bill — to provide for the establishment of such an organisation, giving effect to a 2005 ordinance that integrated the previously existing Trade Marks Registry, Copyright Office and Patent Office.