August 2, 2023
By Ahmed Saeed
The coalition parties of the PML-N-led ruling alliance, civil society, and lawyers have rejected the amendment bill of the Official Secrets Act passed by the National Assembly on August 1st, Tuesday.
They were of the view that the legislation would adversely affect the state of human rights and civil liberties in the country.
The bill passed by the national assembly has delegated broad powers, including raids and arrests without a warrant, to the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the Intelligence Bureau, including raids and arrests without a warrant.
The bill also proposed three years of imprisonment and a fine of one million rupees for disclosing the identity of sensitive institutions, informers, and sources. It further states that intelligence agencies (IB and ISI) will be empowered to seize any documents, maps, models, articles, notes, weapons, or electronic devices and arrest the accused on the basis of suspicion.
The bill is likely to be tabled before the Senate today, August 2nd. Although the ruling alliance enjoys a simple majority in the upper house, it would be an uphill task for the government to get it approved as the coalition partners have rejected the bill, terming it “an attack on democracy.”
‘Rules bypassed by flag bearers of democracy’
Senator Tahir Bizenjo, who is the parliamentary leader of the National Party, has said that his party would never vote in favor of the bill in the upper house. He added that his party was never consulted by the government before the tabling of the bill.
“Our party had always opposed such legislation, which we consider anti-democratic. We have never been consulted on this legislation, only two major parties sit together and take these decisions,”
The NP senator also criticized the haste with which the bill was passed, bypassing legal formalities and the assembly’s rules. The bill was not sent to the relevant standing committee for discussion, and even the bill was not part of the assembly’s agenda. It was introduced as a supplementary agenda item. “We used to severely criticize Imran Khan’s government for passing the bill in similar manners by circumventing the rules, but unfortunately, the same is happening in the era of so-called flagbearers of democracy,” he said.
The lawyers’ community also rejected the amendment to the Official Secrets Act and termed it a draconian law. Hassan Raza Pasha, Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Pakistan Bar Council, said that the lawyers would challenge the legislation in the courts as it violates the fundamental rights given by the constitution.
Joining the chorus of opposition, the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (F) party decried the bill as an assault on human rights and democracy. JUI-F Senator and senior lawyer Kamran Murtaza asserted that his party would vote against the bill in the Senate. “The government had not consulted with their party on the issue, and moreover, the bill was never presented before the cabinet for approval,” he added.
‘A move to appease military establishment’
Human rights activists have urged the government to roll back the proposed legislation as there are high chances that intelligence agencies would misuse the law to further encroach on fundamental rights.
Senior politician and rights defender Afrasiyab Khattak said that the law would give legal cover to the illegal practice of enforced disappearances. He said that intelligence agencies should be brought under parliamentary supervision instead of giving them unlimited powers. “I think this legislation is done to appease the military establishment, and it was done at a time when democracy is fragile and the Supreme Court is paralyzed,” he said.