Senate proceedings on Wednesday were marred by usual exchange of barbs between the treasury and the opposition benches with the former accusing the opposition of corruption and money laundering and the latter the government of conducting a witch-hunt in the name of accountability. Triggering the exchange was a clutch of ordinances promulgated on October 31, including the controversial National Accountability (Amendment) Ordinance, 2019. At the time, Law Minister Farogh Naseem had justified legislation through ordinances by blaming the opposition lawmakers of rowdy behaviour. No reason is good enough to bypass Parliament, from which the prime minister and his cabinet colleagues derive legitimacy to govern. Opposition may not have behaved in a proper manner, but the key responsibility for maintaining decorum in the house lies with the treasury benches. Besides, at the outset of the new legislative term Prime Minister Imran Khan had promised to regularly participate in parliamentary proceedings, and also to hold a bi-weekly ‘Prime Minister’s question hour’. Let alone the question hour, he rarely shows up in parliament.
Even in the Senate session, requisitioned by the opposition, the government remained reluctant to place the ordinances, especially the contentious NAB Ordinance, before the house. As former Senate chairman Mian Raza Rabbani pointed out, there was a room in the rules for taking up government business after the requisitioned sessions’ business was over. But the minister for parliamentary affairs could only say that a regular session would be convened in the next two to three days during which all the recently promulgated ordinances would be presented. The delay could only lend credence to the opposition’s claims that the amendments were intended to target opposition leaders currently facing NAB cases. Much of the Wednesday’s Senate proceedings were focused on the NAB Ordinance amendment. PPP’s Fraooq H Naek, whilst denouncing it as the worst form of political victimization, took issue with the provision under which a person facing a corruption charge of over Rs 50 million would get C-class in jail. This, he said, had been done because all political opponents of the present rulers are facing “concocted” and “fabricated” charges of over Rs 50 million. He went on to contend that under the jail manual the class in jail is allocated as per the status of the accused in society and the amount he/she paid in taxes. It can also be argued, though, that this particular rule harks back to the colonial era, whereas under a democratic dispensation, of which rule of law is core value, all people are equal irrespective of their social status. Nonetheless, what is objectionable and needs to change is arrest of suspects while they are still under investigation, hence without proof of liability.
The government, of course, points the finger at the two opposition parties, the PML-N and the PPP – which alternated in power during the recent years – for neglecting to make necessary changes to the accountability law introduced by the Musharraf regime. That though should not be an excuse to craft controversial amendments to it. The ordinance must be placed before Parliament as soon as possible for thorough debate and discussion.