ISLAMABAD: After months of bickering and failure to agree on the terms of reference (ToR) for an inquiry commission to investigate the Panama Papers scandal, both government and opposition parties are set to introduce their own, separate bills in the two houses of parliament.
On Wednesday, the federal cabinet approved the ‘Commissions of Inquiry Act, 2016’ — to replace the current law, which has been in force since 1956 – which will be tabled before the National Assembly in its upcoming session.
But hours after the cabinet approved the draft, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) submitted its own bill seeking the formation of a judicial commission on Panamagate to the Senate secretariat.
Cabinet approves new inquiry commission law; PPP submits own draft to Senate secretariat
The opposition bill, which was also endorsed by Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) parliamentary leader Shah Mehmood Qureshi when he met PPP leaders on Tuesday, is titled ‘Panama Papers Inquiries Act 2016’.
Speaking to reporters at the Parliament House after submitting the bill, Senate Opposition Leader Aitzaz Ahsan said the opposition parties had already rejected the government-proposed law and reiterated the call for the formation of a commission of Supreme Court judges to carry out a probe of the over 600 Pakistanis whose names had appeared in the Panama Papers leaks.
Mr Ahsan said their bill provided for across-the-board accountability, adding that the bill suggested a forensic audit of all the money sent abroad through secret channels. He said the proposed law made it binding upon all those whose names had appeared in the Panama Papers to provide judges of the commission access to their bank accounts.
PPP spokesperson Farhatullah Babar told Dawn the government had shared its proposed amendments to the Commission of Inquiry Act, 1956 with the opposition, which was unanimously rejected by the opposition, since it unnecessarily broadened the scope of inquiries, defeating the very purpose of the law.
Though the government had given more powers to the commission, it had broadened its scope far too much, making it almost impossible for it to complete its investigations, he said.
However, Mr Babar said he did not know whether the draft approved by the cabinet was the same that was shared with them, adding that the government’s secrecy around the draft raised suspicion.
However, talking to Dawn, Finance Minister Ishaq Dar claimed the government was bringing a “completely new law”, after which the old one would stand repealed.
He also admitted that the approved draft was not the same as the one shared with the opposition.
“It’s not the same draft we gave to the ToR Committee the last time, it’s a further improved version,” the minister said.
Briefing reporters on the decision reached in the cabinet meeting, Mr Dar said that through the new law, the government had “empowered the commission” — an apparent reference to criticism of the old law by Chief Justice Anwar Zaheer Jamali, who had observed that any commission formed under the 1956 law would be “toothless”.
The existing law, Mr Dar said, had been around for 60 years and several inquiries had been conducted under: from the separation of East Pakistan in 1971 to the killing of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad in 2012.
That the opposition has chosen to submit its bill to the Senate comes as no surprise, since they command a majority in the upper house. The government, meanwhile, is confident of its majority in the lower house, and can also bulldoze legislation through a joint sitting, if need be.
In June, after a series of meetings of the parliamentary committee on the Panama Papers issue, opposition parties had decided not to hold further talks with the ruling coalition after the government’s refusal to accept their ToR for a Panama-specific probe.
The opposition alliance not only rejected the government-prepared ToR, but presented its own version, demanding that the judicial commission begin the inquiry with the prime minister and his family.
However, both sides had agreed that besides concentrating on the individuals named in the Panama Papers, the committee will also go after those who received kickbacks and commissions, as well as those who had their loans written off illegally.
Although the government bill was not released to the media, the opposition bill seen by Dawn includes all their proposed terms of reference (ToR), which the government has already rejected, as provisions of the law.
In the draft bill, the commission has been given all the powers of a court under the Constitution, the Pakistan Penal Code, the Code of Criminal Procedure and the Supreme Court Rules.
The bill binds the commission to first investigate Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his family members before proceeding against the other Pakistanis named in the Panama Papers.
However, the text avoids naming PM Sharif or his office, instead referring to: “respondents, including their family members, who have publicly volunteered for accountability or have publicly admitted holding of assets and properties or off-shore companies abroad”.
The commission is bound to complete the inquiry against the prime minister in three months – with the option for a one month extension – while it will get 12 months to proceed against all others whose names had appeared in the Panama Papers.
According to the proposed law, the federal government will be required “to make a reference to the chief justice of Pakistan to nominate three judges of the Supreme Court to be constituted as a commission to inquire into the revelations made by the Panama Papers.”
The commission shall be bound to submit a final report for each case to the federal government, which will be published by the federal government within one week of its submission.
“The federal and provincial governments and all governmental agencies and executive authorities, including the National Accountability Bureau, Federal Investigation Agency, Intelligence Bureau, Federal Board of Revenue, State Bank of Pakistan and Securities and Exchange Commission of Pakistan shall act in aid of the Commission and extend all cooperation and assistance necessary to the Commission and shall comply with all its directions.”