Govt, opposition set for Panama probe legislative war

ISLAMABAD: The government and the opposition on Friday appeared ready for a legislative war over a law seeking formation of a commission to hold an inquiry into corruption charges, including money laundering.

After the Panama Papers leaks hit the headlines, both sides agreed to form an inquiry commission but a difference of opinion saw the collapse of talks over its terms of reference (ToR).

Two days after the PPP submitted to the Senate secretariat its PTI-backed bill seeking formation of a judicial commission on the scandal involving politicians owning offshore companies, the government on Friday introduced in the National Assembly the Pakistan Inquiry Bill 2016 to replace the 1956 Act on the subject.

Finance Minister Ishaq Dar said at a press conference that the government was open to discussions to reform the law but the opposition had closed its doors. He said the government was left with no option but to bring its own draft after the opposition submitted its bill seeking to limit the scope of the inquiry into Panamagate.

Keeping in view the fact that the opposition had a majority in the Senate and the government in the National Assembly, the minister expressed the hope that the matter would ultimately be decided at a joint session of parliament.

He said the government had given more powers to the inquiry commission under the proposed bill and was ready to further reform the draft in a professional manner.

Law Minister Zahid Hamid, Ports and Shipping Minister Mir Hasil Khan Bizenjo, Prime Minister’s Special Assistant Zafarullah Khan and Minister of State for Information Technology Anusha Rehman were also present.

Mr Dar accused the opposition of confining its bill to the Panama Papers to save its own leaders owning non-Panama offshore companies. He said the opposition was also against an inquiry into the cases of loans written off under political influence and illegal transfer of money abroad.

He said the opposition’s bill targeted the prime minister, although his name had not appeared in the Panama Papers. He added that the prime minister had already said that his family members mentioned in the papers would appear before the commission of inquiry.

He said the opposition had adopted an irresponsible parliamentary attitude, adding that various bills of the government passed by the National Assembly had been amended by the opposition in the Senate and the government had accepted them with amendments and got them adopted by the National Assembly.

“The opposition at that time said it was its right. Now we will also use our right,” Mr Dar said, giving a clear indication that the opposition bill, even if passed by the Senate, would be blocked in the National Assembly.

The law minister said the inquiry commission had been given more powers under the bill as sought by the Supreme Court – an apparent reference to criticism of the earlier law by Chief Justice of Pakistan Anwar Zaheer Jamali who had observed that any commission formed under the 1956 Act would be “toothless”.

Hasil Bizenjo said the government had tried to prepare the law in consultation with the opposition for money laundering and other corruption cases, but the opposition did not want it to go beyond the Panama Papers. “They have declared the prime minister guilty and have also prescribed a sentence for him.”

Anusha Rahman said the opposition’s bill was aimed at nabbing the person whose name was not in the Panama Papers and an attempt was being made to target the prime minister in a ‘roundabout manner’. She said she was amazed to see that the word publicly had also been defined in the opposition’s bill that sought the proceedings to begin with the person who had publicly offered himself for accountability.

The government team termed the opposition’s bill a mala fide agenda meant to seek protection and immunity for many forms of corruption.

In June, after a series of meetings of the parliamentary committee on the Panama Papers issue, the 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 had rejected the government-prepared ToR and presented its own version demanding that the judicial commission begin the inquiry with the prime minister. The opposition bill includes all their proposed ToR which the government has already rejected. The bill asks the commission to first investigate Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his family members and then proceed against others 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 offshore 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.

Salient features of govt bill

Under the government bill, the federal government will specify the time period within which the inquiry is to be conducted, but may extend it on a request by the commission. The commission will have the powers of a civil court under the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908.

The chairman or any officer, not below the rank of BPS-17 authorised by the chairman, may enter any building or place where the commission has reason to believe that any books of account or other documents relating to the subject matter of the inquiry may be found and seize any such books or take extracts or copies.

The commission will have the powers of summoning and enforcing the attendance of any person and examining him on oath, requiring the discovery and production of any documents and requisitioning any public record.

The commission will have the same powers as the high court to punish for contempt any person who abuses, interferes with or obstructs the process of the commission, disobeys any orders of the commission or scandalises it. Executive authorities will act in aid of the commission. The final and interim reports of the commission will be made public.

Earlier during the day, the bill was presented on the floor of the house by Law Minister Zahid Hamid. In his remarks, Mr Hamid claimed that the government had come up with the most comprehensive law possible in the current circumstance.

Recalling Supreme Court’s observations made in response to the letter written by the prime minister for setting up a commission to probe the Panama Papers leaks, the law minister said: “The proposed bill covers all areas towards which the top court has referred to.”

The SC was for expanding the scope of investigations since it involved complex crimes such money laundering and setting up of offshore companies.

Accusing the opposition parties of stonewalling the government’s honest efforts for the formation of a purposeful commission, the law minister said: “Opposition only seems interested in engaging Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in the Panama commission.”

In response, PPP leader Syed Navid Qamar said it was a breach of the parliamentary traditions to defend a bill at the time of its presentation. He said for all practical purposes this bill was meant to protect the prime minister after the names of his children had appeared in the Panama Papers. “Certainly, following the leaks, people have genuine queries about the finances of the prime minister and his family which need to be answered, but this bill practically stops us from doing so.”

He said what to talk about forcing the government to respond to the queries, the bill in its present form even didn’t allow asking a question. The PPP leader said as part of the opposition he rejected this bill now and would do it so when it came back for final voting.

PTI parliamentary leader Shah Mehmood Qureshi echoed the argument presented by the PPP leader. Mr Qureshi said that during eight sittings of the ToR committee, the opposition parties had tried their best to reach to some agreement, but the government was unwilling to listen anything against the prime minister.

This bill, argued Mr Qureshi, was only to muddle the issue of Panama Papers which the opposition was fully determined to take to its logical conclusion.