February 25th, 2022
By Rehan Piracha
The Islamabad High Court on Thursday rejected a government proposal to establish an oversight panel to prevent arbitrary arrests under Section 20 of the Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act Amendment Ordinance saying it has no hesitation in calling it a draconian law.
Chief Justice Athar Minallah was hearing petitions challenging the PECA Ordinance. The court extended the stay on arrests under the ordinance while asking the attorney general to present his arguments on the constitutionality of the cybercrime law on March 10.
“Half of the country was lost because of restrictions on freedom of expression,” the chief justice observed. “Why shouldn’t the court declare section 20 of the PECA null and void?” the court inquired from the attorney general.
Chief Justice Minallah remarked that the court was shocked at cases coming before it. The court observed that unfortunately action was taken against those who raised their voices against the government. The chief justice remarked that political parties and political workers were responsible for what was happening on social media. The political parties in parliament should Improve the civil defamation law while the court would also assist in this regard, the chief justice remarked. “The only question before the court is why section 20 should not be declared null and void,” Chief Justice Minallah observed.
The Attorney General told the court that there was a need to look into the misuse of the cybercrime law. Saying he was ready to defend the controversial ordinance, the Attorney General said he believed that there should be safeguards against it misuse.
Explaining the safeguards, the AG said the government could set up a board comprising retired judicial officers and representatives of civil society. The FIA would not arrest citizens without the board’s permission, the AG said.
He cited that defamatory posts on social media like accusing someone of being a rapist or pedophile, or calling veil wearing woman a witch could not be considered instances of freedom of expression.
Speaking to Voicepk.net, Usman Warraich, counsel for a petition filed by Nasir Zaidi, secretary-general of Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, said the Attorney General told the court that the ordinance was not unconstitutional and a safeguard mechanism could be put in place to prevent its abuse. “However, the court rejected the AG’s submission on safeguards,” Warriach told Voicepk.net.
“The court also observed that the Attorney General could either ask the government to table the PECA Ordinance in Senate which could pass legislation after holding a debate over the amendments or presents his arguments over the vires of the ordinance challenged in the court,” the PFUJ counsel said.
The court did not entertain petitions by Pakistan Muslim League and Pakistan Peoples Party against the PECA Ordinance. The opposition, which has a majority in the Senate, had the power to reject the ordinance, the court observed. “The political parties should go to Parliament and play their role there,” Chief Justice Minallah remarked.
Chief Justice Athar Minallah remarked that the court had no hesitation in saying that the PECA Ordinance was a draconian law. “You have made it worse than the NAB law,” Chief Justice Minallah observed.
The court said the government’s high-handedness was reflected in that the FIA’s standard operating procedures for arrests and investigations submitted to the high court and the Supreme Court were not implemented. The FIA picked up two journalists without notice and they went missing for some time, Chief Justice Minallah observed. The court adjourned the hearing of the cases till March 10.