Islamabad: The Pakistan President today signed into law a bill aimed at giving blanket immunity to top government leaders from contempt of court proceedings and countering the Supreme Court's efforts to pressure the premier to revive graft cases against Asif Ali Zardari.
Presidential spokesman Farhatullah Babar said Zardari gave his assent to the Contempt of Court Bill of 2012 after it was passed by the Senate and the National Assembly, the two houses of Parliament.
The new law provides blanket immunity to top government functionaries, including the President, Prime Minister, federal ministers and provincial Chief Ministers and Governors, for executive actions.
The President signed the bill hours before the Supreme Court resumed hearing a case related to the graft charges in Switzerland. Officials said the law would replace two ordinances on contempt of court issued by former military ruler Pervez Musharraf in 2003 and 2004.
The Senate or upper house approved the bill by a majority after a heated debate late last night. The bill was passed by the National Assembly or lower house of parliament on Monday. The bill is intended to save new Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf from possible disqualification by the apex court
for refusing to reopen corruption cases against Zardari in Switzerland.
The Supreme Court had given the premier till today to indicate whether he will ask Swiss authorities to reopen the graft cases against the President. A bench headed by Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry disqualified former premier Yousuf Raza Gilani on June 19 following his conviction of contempt in April for refusing to reopen the cases.
Under the new law, the time for filing appeals against a decision in contempt cases was extended from 30 days to 60 days. Till the appeal is decided, any decision in a contempt case will remain suspended.
Judges who initiate suo moto contempt proceedings cannot be part of the bench that hears the case. The new law further states that discussion of a court's decisions will not amount to contempt. The law also be used to launch disciplinary proceedings against a judge without such a move coming under the ambit of contempt.
The main opposition PML-N walked out of the Senate last night before the bill was approved. PML-N lawmaker Ishaq Dar, Leader of Opposition in the Senate, said his party opposed the bill.
He said lawmakers should have been given sufficient time to discuss the bill and added that the bill was challenged in the Supreme Court after being passed by the National Assembly. He was of the view that the apex court could strike down the bill.
Ruling Pakistan People's Party lawmakers Aitzaz Ahsan and Raza Rabbani too expressed reservations about the bill. Ahsan said two clauses of the bill need to be reviewed as they were in conflict with the Constitution.
Except for these two clauses, the bill will help provide balance between the judiciary and the executive, he said. Rabbani said the current situation demanded political and judicial maturity.
He was of the view that the apex court would set aside the bill and hence it should not be pursued at this time. Law Minister Farooq Naek told the Senate that the Constitution gives parliament the right to legislate. "We are not against the judiciary but respect the Constitution," he said.