Bill passed in NA, no EVMs, i-voting for oversees Pakistanis

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ISLAMABAD: The National Assembly on Thursday passed two crucial bills seeking to reverse the controversial changes made in the election laws by the previous Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) government regarding the use of electronic voting machines (EVMs) and i-voting for overseas Pakistanis and clipping the vast powers of the National Accountability Bureau (NAB).

The government presented the two bills in the lower house of parliament amid talks about the possibility of early elections in the country and hours after PTI chairman Imran Khan abruptly ended his long march by giving a six-day deadline to the government to announce the election date.

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif remained present in the house during the passage of the Elections (Amendment) Bill 2022 and the NAB (Second Amendment) Bill 2021 — presented by Parliamentary Affairs Minister Murtaza Javed Abbasi and Law Minister Azam Nazeer Tarar, respectively.

The treasury members made more than two dozen amendments to the NAB (Second Amendment) Bill 2021, which had been promulgated by the PTI government through the presidential ordinance in October last year and then laid before the National Assembly in the form of a bill.

The two bills will now be transmitted to the Senate for their passage to become an act of the parliament.

According to the bill seeking an amendment to NAB Ordinance 1999, incumbent NAB chairman retired Justice Javed Iqbal would not be able to continue in the office as it has removed the clause inserted by the previous government granting extension to him until the time of the appointment of his successor.

The bill has suggested that NAB’s deputy chairman, to be appointed by the federal government, would become the acting chairman of the bureau following the completion of the tenure of the chairman.

The bill has also reduced the four-year term of the NAB chairman and the bureau’s prosecutor general to three years.

After approval of the law, NAB will not be able to act on federal, provincial or local tax matters. Moreover, the regulatory bodies functioning in the country have also been placed out of NAB’s domain.

It says that “all pending inquiries, investigations, trials or proceedings under this ordinance, relating to persons or transactions … shall stand transferred to the concerned authorities, departments and courts under the respective laws”.

The provisions of the law shall also not be applicable on the “decisions of federal or provincial cabinet, their committees or sub-committees, Council of Common Interests (CCI), National Economic Council (NEC), National Finance Commission (NFC), Executive Committee of the National Economic Council (Ecnec), Central Development Working Party (CDWP), the State Bank of Pakistan and such other bodies except where the holder of the public office has received a monetary gain as a result of such decision”.

The law will not be applicable on “procedural lapses in performance of any public or government work or function, project or scheme, unless there is evidence to prove that a holder of public office or any other person acting on his behalf has been conferred or has received any monetary or other material benefit from that particular public or government work or function whether directly or indirectly on account of such procedural lapses, which the said recipient otherwise received.”

Through the bill, NAB officials have been barred from making any public statement before filing references and during the investigation. In case of a violation, they will have to face imprisonment of up to one year with a fine of one million rupees.

The newly inserted clause 33F titled “Restriction on issuance of public statements” states: “No official of NAB, in any capacity, shall make any statement in public or to the media regarding persons involved in any inquiry or investigation conducted by NAB until a reference has been filed against such persons.”

The bill has also suggested punishment for filing a false reference which can be up to five-year imprisonment.

The related provision reads: “Provided that if the accused has been acquitted by the court on the ground that the case was initiated with a mala fide intention or based on false or fabricated evidence, the person responsible shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to five years and shall also be liable to fine.”

The new law has also set a three-year term for the judges of the accountability courts. It will also make it binding upon the courts to decide a case within one year. Under the proposed law, it has been made binding upon NAB to ensure the availability of evidence against an accused prior to his or her arrest.

Moreover, NAB will be required to begin an investigation on a complaint within six months and present an arrested person before an accountability court within 24 hours. The bill has also deprived NAB of its power to keep an accused on a 90-day remand and the period has now been reduced to 14 days.

It further says the process of the NAB chairman’s appointment will start two months prior to the completion of his term and will be completed in 45 days. After the passage of the law, the power to appoint the NAB chairman will now rest with the “federal government” instead of the president.

In case of a lack of consensus between the prime minister and the opposition leader on the name of the NAB chairman, the matter will be referred to a parliamentary committee to be constituted by the National Assembly speaker, which will be bound to finalise the name within a month. The members of the Senate will also have representation in the committee.

According to one of the key amendments, the act “shall be deemed to have taken effect on and from the commencement of the National Accountability Ordinance 1999”.

Highlighting salient features of the bill, Law Minister Azam Nazeer Tarar alleged that the NAB laws had been used for political victimisation and changing loyalties. He said all the amendments suggested in the bill were in line with various orders and directions of the courts.

The minister said the NAB laws had been introduced by a dictator to victimise the opponents and for political engineering. He said after the passage of the law, the “misuse of authority” would not be an offence. Similarly, he said, the reference on keeping the assets beyond the known means would only be filed when it would be proved that the assets had been made through corruption money.

The law minister said those sitting in the government today had already suffered under the NAB laws, and the new changes would be beneficial for future rulers and politicians.

Under the amendment to Section 94 of the Election Act of 2017, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) may conduct pilot projects for voting by overseas Pakistanis in by-elections to ascertain the technical efficacy, secrecy, security and financial feasibility of such voting and shall share the results with the government, which shall, within 15 days from the commencement of a session of a house after the receipt of the report, lay the same before both houses of parliament.

Under the amendment to Section 103 of the Election Act, the ECP may conduct pilot projects to utilise EVMs and the biometric verification system in by-elections.

Meanwhile on Thursday, after the National Assembly passed bills suggesting that overseas Pakistanis can only vote physically rather than electronically, and electronic voting machines (EVMs) would not be used in the next general elections, PTI Vice Chairman Shah Mehmood Qureshi said the government had deprived nine million overseas Pakistanis of their right to vote.

“The PTI gave the over nine million overseas Pakistanis the right to vote. Today, this band of thieves and thugs snatched it, disenfranchising a staggering number of Pakistanis and barred the use of EVMs. Another regressive and condemnable act in #PakistanUnderFacism,” he tweeted.

However, Minister for Overseas Pakistanis and Human Resource Development Sajid Hussain Turi rebutted the “misinformation” that expats had been deprived of their voting rights.

He said, “This is baseless and misleading. We are working for a better solution for expatriates.”

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