ISLAMABAD   -   The opposition on Monday introduced a bill in the Senate to curtail powers and jurisdiction of the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) at a time when its key leadership is facing corruption cases being prosecuted by the anti-corruption watchdog.

Former chairman Senate and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) Senator Farooq H Naek tabled the National Accountability (Amendment) Bill, 2019 following house’s approval as the government did not oppose it. The bill that seeks to amend the National Accountability Ordinance(NAO) 1999 was referred to Senate standing committee concerned for further deliberations.

Senator Naek while introducing the draft bill said that NAO was promulgated by then military ruler General (Retd) Pervez Musharraf at a time when both Senate and National Assembly had been suspended. “The purpose of the bill is to remove draconian effects of the law,” he said adding, that successive governments failed to amend or repeal this law.

PPP lawmaker said that NAB was created to pursue mega corruption cases but it had been observed that it in the past had arrested low-level revenue officials and clerks which was the jurisdiction of provincial anti-corruption departments and Federal Investigations Agency at the federal level. “The bill proposes that NAB could only probe corruption case of at least 500 million rupees worth or more,” he added. He said the law proposed that the bureau would have to know about the crime first to probe cases of beyond known sources of income. Senator Naek, a known legal expert as well, told the house that under the existing law, NAB courts have no bail powers and chairman NAB has powers to issue arrest warrants of any accused against whom even reference has not been filed. After this, NAB can keep him/her under detention for 90 days.

In addition to that, violence is used by NAB investigators to get statements of accused during custodial interrogation. He said that either the accused should be questioned without keeping him in custodial interrogation or he/she should be given the right to arrange attorney and to say no to any question. The bill also bars NAB officials from giving public statements and there will be no media trial of any accused, he concluded.

Parliamentary Affairs Minister Senator Azam Khan Swati in his response told the house that the government was bringing its own amendments in the NAB law and this has already been discussed in the cabinet meeting. He said that integrity of present NAB was under question as most of its officials were recruited by its former chairman Qamar Zaman Chaudhry. He admitted there were lacunas in the NAB law.

As many as 16 senators, mostly from Balochistan, tabled the Constitutional (Amendment) Bill, 2019 to increase number of National Assembly and provincial assembly seats of the province. The bill was referred to the standing committee concerned with unanimous approval of the house.

The bill proposes to increase the existing number of National Assembly seats of Balochistan from 20 to 30 and that of its provincial assembly seats from 65 to 80. The movers of the draft law in their remarks said that it was necessary to pass this amendment bill to end deprivations of the province.

Chairman Senate Sadiq Sanjrani sought explanation from Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi about his statement that Pakistan was ready to hold conditional talks with India and Foreign Office’s decision to give consular access to Indian spy Kulbhushan Jadhav. He gave this direction following former chairman Senate and PPP stalwart Senator Raza Rabbani on a point of public importance raised the matter. Two days earlier, Qureshi in an interview to BBC had said that Pakistan could hold talks with India over the issue of occupied Kashmir if New Delhi was ready to meet certain conditions.

Senator Raza Rabbani questioned that how Pakistan could offer a dialogue to India when there was complete lockdown in Indian-occupied Kashmir (IOK) for the last 29 days and India was playing with the blood of the people of Kashmir. Secondly, the spokesperson of Foreign Office in a statement said that Pakistan was giving consular access to Indian spy, he said. And added: “The people in IOK are being denied food and medicines and we are giving access to a spy on the so-called orders of International Court of Justice and US.” He requested the chair to ask the minister to come and explain these two incidents related to India. The opposition senators, taking part in another debate, said that ‘political prisoners’ especially former president Asif Ali Zardari were being denied medical and health facilities. PPP Senator Sherry Rehman opening the discussion demanded that former president should immediately be shifted to hospital from jail as he was suffering from backbone and heart diseases. She deplored that Zardari was forced to send back to jail from hospital ignoring doctors’ advice. He is being denied to meet his family despite court orders, she said and termed it a political vendetta against her party.

Her party colleague Senator A. Rehman Malik expressed deep concern over health conditions of former president and urged the government to immediately shift him to hospital as per recommendations of the medical board.

He said after August 5, since India annexed IOK, the country was passing through a crucial time and they as nation needed unity to confront India on international fronts powerfully rather to be politically divided. He said that world was making fun out of the acts of government while sieging its opposition and asking India to lift the curfew in IOK.

He urged the chairman to constitute a committee that could formulate ‘Code of Conduct’ to define parameters for parliamentarians and to ensure their constitutional and legal rights of parliamentarians.  Leader of the Opposition in Senate Raja Zafarul Haq urged Chief Justice of Pakistan Justice Asif Saeed Khosa to take notice of the “bad treatment being meted out to political class of the country including former prime minister Nawaz Sharif in jails.” He pointed out that even Speaker National Assembly was reluctant to issue production orders of some imprisoned MNAs.

Parliamentary Affairs Minister Azam Khan Swati in his response said that the impression was wrong that it was a political vendetta as all these cases were instituted by PPP and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz against each other. The chairman directed the Ministry of Interior to provide basic facilities to all jailed political leaders.