[Dawn 26 November 2019] ISLAMABAD: As the scrutiny committee of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) is set to begin hearing of the five-year-old foreign funding case against the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) on a daily basis from Tuesday (today), the government claimed to have initiated an exercise to find replacement of Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) retired Justice Sardar Mohammad Raza, who is completing his tenure on Dec 6.
In a related development, PTI lawmaker from Faisalabad Farrukh Habib, who in a tit-for-tat move had filed similar cases against major opposition parties Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), addressed a news conference on Monday asking the ECP to scrutinise the accounts of all the registered political parties on the same terms of reference which were being followed in the PTI foreign funding case. “We expect from the ECP which is a constitutional institution to fulfil its official responsibilities efficiently and conduct hearing of the PML-N and PPP cases on a daily basis,” he said.
Federal Minister for Parliamentary Affairs Azam Swati, in an exclusive talk with DawnNews, also lashed out at the CEC and claimed that the government had already engaged the opposition on the nomination of a new CEC.
“Thank God, we are getting rid of (CEC) Sardar Raza,” Mr Swati said, a day after the top leaders of the PTI in its core committee meeting headed by Prime Minister Imran Khan raised questions about the CEC’s impartiality amid fears that the ECP might issue an adverse verdict against it in the foreign funding case before the CEC’s retirement.
Mr Swati refuted the allegations of the opposition parties that the government wanted to make the ECP dysfunctional after CEC’s retirement and was intentionally delaying the appointment of two ECP members from Sindh and Balochistan for past many months.
The minister stated the government would not let the ECP become dysfunctional and expressed the hope that the process of the appointment of the new CEC and the two ECP members from Sindh and Balochistan would be completed before Dec 5.
Sources in the PTI said a majority in the party believed that it was “highly unlikely” that the ECP would be able to announce its final verdict in the case before Dec 5. Even if it managed to do so, they saw no immediate impact on the government, as the matter would ultimately go to the Supreme Court, they said. However, they added, the party leaders agreed that any adverse findings of the scrutiny committee against the ruling party could create problems for them in near future.
Akbar Babar, a dissident founding member of the PTI, had filed the foreign funding case in November 2014 alleging that nearly $3 million in illegal foreign funds were collected through two offshore companies and that money was sent through illegal ‘hundi’ channels from the Middle East to the accounts of ‘PTI employees’. He also alleged that the foreign accounts used to collect funds were ‘concealed’ from the annual audit reports submitted to the ECP.
The ECP had constituted the three-member scrutiny committee under the director-general law and comprising members of office of the Accountant General of Pakistan Revenues in March 2018. The committee was to complete its task in a month but its mandate was later extended for an indefinite period.
The Islamabad High Court records reveal that the PTI had made serious allegations against one of the two auditors of the committee, Mohammad Faheem, who was controller of Accounts of Pakistan Air Force at that time.
The PTI alleged, “Mohammad Faheem is always on the lookout for admonishing the respondents” and the “said member (stated) that with rounds of litigation being over, legal aspects of the case was done and now only scrutiny of accounts was left to be undertaken”.
On Oct 23, PTI lawyers had walked out of the meeting of ECP scrutiny committee in ‘protest’. During its last meeting on Nov 12, the committee had been told that a PTI’s writ petition was pending before the IHC and it was unable to attend the meeting till a decision by the court and appointment of a new lead lawyer.
Mr Babar, once a close confidant of PTI chief Imran Khan, had last week filed a fresh application before the ECP requesting it to decide the case itself after “summoning” the record from the scrutiny committee. The application had been moved by Mr Babar just days after the ECP had decided to hear the case on a daily basis on the demand of all the opposition parties, which had submitted a memorandum before the commission in this regard.
The applicant had accused the PTI of “delaying proceedings of the scrutiny committee making it functionally redundant”. In his six-page application, Mr Babar had provided complete case history mentioning all the “delays, adjournments, applications, and writ petitions” filed by the PTI allegedly to delay scrutiny of its accounts.
According to Mr Babar, the scrutiny committee has met on no less than 42 occasions and issued 16 orders directing the PTI to file pertinent documents/record and documenting, but to no avail.
Mr Babar had drawn the ECP attention to its previous orders in August and September 2017, whereby it had already warned the PTI that in case of its failure to produce necessary documents, the ECP “will be constrained to take strong inference that the source of funds of the respondent and its details are prohibited under the law”.
Talking to Dawn, Mr Babar said he was eagerly looking forward to the conclusion of the case where serious allegations had been made against the ruling party.
Commenting on PTI’s demand regarding the audit of the funds of major opposition parties, Mr Babar said there were no two opinions that the funds of all the parties should be scrutinised. However, he said, the PTI could not make an excuse that since similar accusations existed against other parties, therefore, its case should be lumped with them. Moreover, he said, the nature of evidence against the PTI was different as the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) in its report had already declared that out of 23 PTI accounts, only eight had been declared.
Under the Elections Act, if a political party is found involved in receiving funds from prohibited sources, the party stands dissolved and all the members of the National Assembly, Senate, provincial assembly and even the local bodies on the ticket of that particular party will stand disqualified for the remaining term.
Section 212 of the Elections Act says: “Where the federal government is satisfied on the basis of a reference from the Commission or information received from any other source that a political party is a foreign-aided political party or has been formed or is operating in a manner prejudicial to the sovereignty or integrity of Pakistan or is indulging in terrorism, the government shall, by a notification in the official gazette, make such declaration.”
It further says that “within 15 days of making a declaration, the government shall refer the matter to the Supreme Court.
“Where the Supreme Court upholds the declaration …… such political party shall stand dissolved forthwith.”
The Act explained that foreign-aided political party means “a political party which (a) has been formed or organised at the instance of any foreign government or political party of a foreign country; or (b) is affiliated to or associated with any foreign government or political party of a foreign country; or (c) receives any aid, financial or otherwise, from any foreign government or political party of a foreign country, or any portion of its funds from foreign nationals.”