ISLAMABAD: Pakistan's Chief Justice Umar Ata Bandial on Friday observed that cabinet members have no constitutional immunity under Article 248 of the Constitution and criminal proceedings against them should proceed as per the provisions of the law.
Chief Justice Bandial made these observations in the Supreme Court during the hearing of the five-member bench on a suo motu notice on the perceived apprehension of "persons in authority" undermining the criminal justice system.
The bench headed by Chief Justice Bandial, also includes Justice Ijazul Ahsan, Justice Munib Akhtar, Justice Sayyed Mazahar Ali Naqvi, and Justice Mohammad Ali Mazhar. It also expressed grave concern over the cabinet's decision "to remove over a hundred names" from the Exit Control List, who had cases of corruption and tax default lodged against them.
The Exit Control List (ECL) is a system of border control maintained by the Pakistan government under the Exit from Pakistan (Control) Ordinance, 1981. The people on this list are prohibited from leaving the country.
The Chief Justice during the hearing remarked that Article 248 of the Constitution does not provide immunity to the cabinet members and they are liable to be prosecuted in criminal cases.
The bench expressed dissatisfaction over the removal of Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) prosecutor Sikander Zulqarnain, who was pursuing a money laundering case against Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif. "There is an impression that the prosecutor was removed in order to halt the ongoing trial," observed the Chief Justice.
The bench has also expressed concern over the cabinet's decision regarding "the removal of hundreds of accused names from the ECL". The bench has sought a report on the method of amendments in the ECL rules and summoned Federal Investigation Agency's Law Director Usman Gondal. "For now, the court is not nullifying the decision regarding the amendments in ECL rules," the Chief Justice remarked.
Justice Naqvi also enquired about the procedure that was used to amend the ECL rules.
The case was launched on May 18 after it was reported that the government made transfers of officials to interfere in the graft cases against the highest officeholders, especially Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and his son and Punjab Chief Minister, Hamza Shehbaz.
"On whose directions, did the cabinet amend the clauses regarding corruption and tax default," Justice Bandial asked. "Did the federal cabinet give approval of these rules?" Attorney General Ashtar Ausaf said he would present the minutes of the cabinet meeting.
Justice Naqvi observed that the members of the cabinet benefited from these amendments. "Is it not a conflict of interest for the cabinet to amend the rules when the names of the cabinet members themselves were in the ECL?" he asked.
The bench has adjourned the hearing for an indefinite period.