March 30, 2023
By Rehan Piracha
In a landmark judgment, the Lahore High Court (LHC) on Thursday annulled Section 124-A, of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC), commonly called sedition law, pertaining to the offence of sedition or inciting “disaffection” against the federal and provincial government, ruling it inconsistent with the Constitution.
Justice Shahid Karim pronounced the judgment which was reserved on the petitions of advocate Abuzar Salman Niazi and others.
According to petitioner Abuzar Salman Niazi, he challenged colonial sedition law (Section 124-A PPC) on the advice of journalist Arshad Sharif, who was shot dead in Kenya last October.
Niazi said the sedition law has been used to terrorise and silence people of the Indian subcontinent since 1872.
In his short order, Justice Shahid Karim declared Section 124-A unconstitutional, striking down it from the penal code.
The written ruling of the order was yet to be released. In his petition, Niazi contended that the sedition offense was enacted in 1860 which is a sign of British colonial rule. The sedition law was used for slaves under which a case could be registered on anyone’s request, the petition stated.
The petitioner said the Constitution of Pakistan gives every citizen the right to freedom of expression. However, cases under sedition law were being registered for making speeches against the rulers, he added.
According to the petitioners, Section 124-A of sedition is being used for political purposes and should be struck down. “Lawyer Hassan Niazi was recently arrested under the sedition law,” he pointed out. The court later dropped sedition charges against Hassan Niazi, a nephew of Imran Khan, former prime minister and chief of the opposition party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf.
The petitions said the law was serving as “a notorious tool for the suppression of dissent, free speech and criticism in free and independent Pakistan”.
It quoted the cases of political leaders Shahbaz Gill and parliamentarians Mohsin Dawar and Ali Wazir from Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement facing prosecution on basis of sedition charges.
According to the petition, various prominent journalists, namely, Arshad Sharif, Khawar Ghumman, Adeel Raja and Sadaf Abdul Jabbar are facing prosecution on the basis of sedition charges. Javed Hashmi was also sentenced to 23 years in prison on sedition charges, the petition added.
Verdict applicable across Pakistan: Pansota
According to senior lawyer Ahmed Pansota, the high court judgment was applicable across Pakistan.
“The jurisdiction of the high court extends to Punjab but the statute from which Section 124-A has been removed is applicable across Pakistan,” he told Voicepk.net.
He said the verdict would provide relief to the accused booked under the sedition clause as charges against them would be dropped. “Those who have been convicted and serving sentences could approach the courts for cancellation of sentences,” he opined.
Welcoming the verdict, Pansota said the colonial-era law was used to target political activists, journalists, and lawyers critical of the government.
Ministries of law, HR had opposed annulment of sedition clause
Interestingly, the federal law and human rights ministries defended the sedition clause in their replies submitted to the court during the hearing of the petitions.
“Thus, the criminal provision of sedition is constitutionally valid and is not in conflict with the right of freedom of speech under Article 19 of the Constitution or any other fundamental rights, as the State may restrict speech in the interest of protecting public order,” the Law Ministry said in its reply.
“Section 124-A of PPC only restricts the element of hatred, contempt or disaffection towards the governments and is in accordance with the restrictions provided for in Article 19 of the Constitution of Pakistan and international conventions,” the human rights ministry said in its reply.
The Islamabad High Court had earlier dismissed an identical case filed by Shireen Mazari with the direction that the petitioner may raise the matter in Parliament.
Bill on repeal of Sedition law still missing in Parliament
In January, Senior Pakistan Peoples Party parliamentarian Raza Rabbani announced that his bill on the deletion of Section 124-A has gone missing in the National Assembly after its passage from Senate in July 2021.
“My Private Members Bill for deletion of section 124A, PPC, 1860, was passed by the Senate of Pakistan on 9th of July, 2021, but the said Bill has deliberately been lost in the National Assembly,” he said in a statement. “It is a matter of history that charges of treason and sedition are only leveled levied against politicians and civilians. It is a matter of fact that the Lahore High Court quashed the proceedings of the Special Court in the matter of high treason charges under Article 6 of the Constitution against former military ruler Pervez Musharraf,” Rabbani said. “The government will be better advised to refrain from prosecuting under such sections,” he said and added, “The government should also, on its own motion, give Notice of my private member Bill for the deletion of section 124A, PPC which is lying dormant in the National Assembly.”
What is the offence of Section 124-A in the penal code?
Sedition: Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise, brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards, the Federal or Provincial Government established by law shall be punished with imprisonment for life to which fine may be added, or with imprisonment which may extend to three years, to which fine may be added, or with fine.
Explanation 1: The expression disaffection includes disloyalty and all feelings of enmity.
Explanation 2: Comments expressing disapprobation of the measures of the Government with a view to obtain their alteration by lawful means, without exciting or attempting to excite hatred, contempt or disaffection, do not constitute an offence under this section.
Explanation 3: Comments expressing disapprobation of the administrative or other action of the Government without exciting or attempting to excite hatred, contempt or disaffection, do not constitute an offence under this section.