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Polls: SC puts Gilgit-Baltistan govt on notice

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Herald Special Correspondent

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s top court on Tuesday put on notice the advocate general and government of Gilgit-Baltistan on a petition filed by the Federal government seeking an amendment to the election laws to hold polls in the region.

The seven-judge bench, headed by Chief Justice Gulzar Ahmed, issued notice to the GB government and its top counsel for Thursday to respond to the federal government plea seeking an amendment to the GB governance order 2018 to conduct the general elections as well as setting up a caretaker government during the interim period.

The bench issued the order after hearing the petition filed by the Attorney General of Pakistan.

However, the CJ expressed wonder why the people of Gilgit-Baltistan could not be accorded the same constitutional guarantees as enjoyed by the people of Pakistan.

“We don’t understand why the people of GB cannot enjoy similar protection as guaranteed by the Constitution of Pakistan when they are totally connected with Pakistan as they carry the same passport and use the same currency?” asked CJ Ahmed.

The term of the present GB government is due to expire in the last week of June and the next general elections will be held within 60 days.

The federal government had twice sought time from the Supreme Court for implementing its Jan 17, 2019 verdict asking for the rights of the citizens of Gilgit-Baltistan, a report published in Dawn said. The SC judgment required the federal government to enact the GB Governance Reforms 2019 by tabling a bill in parliament for bringing necessary amendments.

The federal government pleaded that it would be in the interest of justice that till the promulgation of the proposed reforms in GB, it might be allowed to make necessary amendments to the GB Order 2018 for setting up a caretaker government and conducting elections for the GB Assembly. Permission was also sought to adopt the Elections Act, 2017, Rules/Regulations thereunder and to do all that was necessary to continue the democratic electoral process in the region.

The application explained that different options for meeting the desire of the people of GB were being carefully examined by the government and discussed with the stakeholders which required deliberations at greater length. While the prevailing pandemic may take some time, the term of the present GB government is due to expire in June this year; hence there is urgency to provide legal mechanism for setting up a caretaker government and holding elections in the region, it added.

The application said the elections in GB were not clearly enumerated in the Government of Gilgit-Baltistan Order 2018 and in the Gilgit-Baltistan Reforms 2019, which needed to be rectified. The non-adoption of the Elections Act 2017 and Election Rules 2017 in GB might delay the preparation of fresh computerised electoral rolls and election process of the GB Assembly, pleaded the federal government.

The application said there was no provision in the Government of Gilgit-Baltistan Order 2018 for appointment mechanism of the caretaker government, which was against the spirit of transparency as well as the Constitution of Pakistan.

During the hearing, Justice Umar Ata Bandial recalled that the Supreme Court had determined the status and rights of the people of GB in the Al-Jehad Trust case two decades ago in which the federal government was directed to give them the status of citizens of Pakistan.

In the changed international circumstances, the governance in GB should be perfect and excellent that should inculcate confidence in people even across the border, Justice Bandial observed, adding that GB signified an important part but for some political as well as international reasons, it had not been made “part of the structure we have”.

Justice Bandial asked the attorney general to share with the Supreme Court if any interest was blocking the initiative taken by the court in the interest of the GB people.

Ground realities, Justice Ijaz-ul-Ahsan observed, demanded that the people of GB be given all rights like Pakistanis by assuring them complete independence of judiciary, enforcement of the fundamental rights, as well as replicating the legislative powers to the GB Assembly. “But what is preventing the government to take these steps?” he wondered, adding that the federal government should have taken all these measures by now like it used to do earlier through presidential orders.

“Issues like these are political and strategic and, therefore, the government is in the best position to decide these matters,” Justice Ahsan observed.

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