The Supreme Court on Tuesday directed the federal government to ensure that people on the Exit Control List (ECL) do not travel abroad without permission from the Interior Ministry as it resumed its suo motu hearing into “perceived interference” by “persons in authority” in criminal investigations.
Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Umar Ata Bandial headed the five-judge larger Supreme Court bench comprising Justice Ijazul Ahsan, Justice Munib Akhtar, Justice Sayyed Mazahar Ali Akbar Naqvi and Justice Mohammad Ali Mazhar.
During the last hearing on June 3, the apex court had instructed the coalition government to bring the recent changes in the rules of the ECL within the “ambit of the law” within a week, warning that it would issue an order otherwise.
On April 22, the government introduced significant changes to the rules controlling citizens’ exit from the country in an attempt to end the practice of keeping people on the no-fly list for years and even for over a decade.
During the hearing today, Additional Attorney General (AAG) Chaudhry Aamir Rehman told the bench that after the court’s previous hearing, a meeting was held in the attorney general’s office which was attended by all stakeholders.
“A cabinet committee meeting on ECL rules was also held yesterday,” he continued, saying that all the observations and questions of the top court were put forward in it.
Here, Justice Mazhar inquired about the meeting’s minutes. “They will be available within a day or two,” Rehman replied, adding that the cabinet had also summoned the attorney general.
The office of the attorney general, he went on, has formulated SOPs regarding amendments in the ECL rules and has sent them to all the stakeholders. “All the names struck off the list will be reviewed again one by one.”
Subsequently, Justice Ahsan asked what would happen to the names that have already been removed from the list and amendments that have already been made.
“New rules will be made after consultation with the National Accountability Bureau and the Federal Investigation Agency,” the AAG replied.
Meanwhile, Justice Bandial wondered how the people who were “beneficiaries” could amend the rules. He ruled that people whose names were on the ECL would not be allowed to travel abroad without permission from the Interior Ministry.
“Only those leaving for some government-related work should be allowed,” he added.
Responding to the CJ’s instructions, Rehman assured the court that until the government completed the law-making process, these orders would be followed.
‘People in power benefitted from amendments to ECP rules’
At one point during the hearing, Justice Bandial brought up the question of people in power benefitting from amendments made to the ECP rules.
He stressed that the rule of law was important and there should be “no compromise” on the usual procedure for people whose cases were pending.
“The current situation is unique … the country is currently suffering from an economic crisis,” the chief justice observed, urging the executive to use their powers in the light of the law and Constitution.
“We will not allow any investigative organisation, agency or state organ to exceed its limits,” he stated.
The chief justice further remarked that for the system to persist, it was important for everyone to work together. “Legislation from a unilateral parliament should be in line with legal requirements,” he pointed out, stressing that it was not the time to seek advantage (out of the situation).
He added that he did not want to pass an order which would put the government in difficulty.
‘Cabinet seems to have abolished ECL’
Meanwhile, Justice Ahsan asked why the government was in a hurry to remove names from the list. “What was the matter that the cabinet removed names within two days?”
The AAG replied that the names of cabinet members were on the list. “In the past too, names have been removed from the ECL in this way,” he reasoned.
“Is this the government’s response … that it has happened now because it did in the past?” Justice Naqvi asked.
Subsequently, Justice Bandial remarked that authorities took advantage (of the situation) by making amendments to the rules. “If someone thinks that a case is not powerful, they should consult the courts. But the cabinet seems to have completely abolished the ECL,” he added.
Later, during the proceedings, the chief justice appreciated Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and Punjab Chief Minister Hamza Shehbaz for appearing in court for pre-arrest bail in person, adding that he would also review the court ruling.
Subsequently, the hearing was adjourned till June 27. The court has summoned the minutes of the meeting of the cabinet session held on Monday.
The CJP had taken suo motu notice at the recommendations of an SC judge on perceived interference in the independence of the prosecution branch in the performance of its power and duties for investigation and prosecution of pending criminal matters involving persons in authority in government.
According to a press release issued by the apex court, such interference could influence the prosecution of cases, result in tampering or disappearance of evidence in courts or in possession of prosecuting agencies and lead to transfers and postings of officers on key posts.
The press release said that such actions, along with “media reports” about changes in accountability laws, were likely to “undermine” the functioning of the country’s criminal justice system.
“That [is tantamount] to violation of fundamental rights affecting the society as a whole and eroding [of] the confidence of the people in the rule of law and constitutionalism in the country,” it added.
The SC press release did not indicate which “pending criminal matters” it was referring to. However, the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) is currently pursuing a money laundering case against Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and Punjab Chief Minister Hamza Shehbaz, whose indictment has been delayed since February.
The notice also comes amid allegations levelled by the PTI that soon after coming into power, the present coalition government allegedly started influencing different cases and transferring investigators or officers supervising cases, especially related to corruption allegations.
The National Assembly and the Senate passed the NAB (Second Amendment) Bill 2021 last month, clipping the vast powers of the anti-graft watchdog.