August 8, 2023
By Ahmed Saeed
The National Assembly on Monday, August 7th passed the Official Secrets (Amendment) Bill, 2023, with minor modifications to its original draft. The Senate had previously given its approval on Sunday, August 6th.
The legislation, a copy of which has been obtained by Voicepk, is now poised for presidential assent.
A notable alteration in the revised bill is the removal of a provision that granted intelligence agencies, specifically the ISI and IB, the authority to arrest individuals or conduct searches without the requirement for warrants. This significant change comes after the initial draft, endorsed by the National Assembly on August 1st, had vested broad powers, including warrantless raids and arrests, in the spy agencies.
Another revision pertains to clause 5, with the addition of the term “knowingly” to specify visiting the address of an enemy or foreign agent, aiming to enhance the clarity of the provision.
Furthermore, the amendment empowers intelligence agencies to confiscate documents, maps, models, articles, notes, weapons, and electronic devices, while authorizing arrests based on suspicion.
The bill, initially passed by the National Assembly on August 1st, encountered resistance within the Senate, notably from coalition partners JUI-F and the National Party. Subsequently, the bill was sent to the standing committee who tweaked the controversial clauses of the bill.
Despite these changes, discontent persists among government allies, who label the legislation as an “attack on democracy.” Mohsin Dawar, an MNA representing North Waziristan and Chairman of the National Democratic Movement (NDM), expressed concerns about the bill’s ambiguity and potential implications for civil liberties. He likened it to an attempt to legitimize enforced disappearances.
Dawar pointed out historical instances where similar legislative manoeuvres led to unintended consequences for political parties.
“During the PTI’s tenure, a private member bill was moved to criminalise criticism of armed forces. We also opposed that bill and warned them that the bill would be used against you in future. The PML-N opposed the removal of sections 62 and 63 during the 18th amendment but later they became prey to that.”
Another crucial ally of the PML-N led coalition government, the JUI-F, also registered its opposition to the bill by abstaining during the vote in the lower house of the parliament. Senator Kamran Murtaza stated that while JUI-F did not grant approval to the bill, they refrained from voting against it in accordance with party policy.
He further cautioned the government about the potential future implications of the bill. “We, the people of Balochistan, have already experienced treatment that is both illegal and unconstitutional. I am concerned that similar treatment could be extended to the people of other provinces.”
The Federal Minister for Law and Justice, Azam Nazeer Tarrar, brushed aside criticism, emphasizing that the contentious clauses had been removed. He stressed the necessity of legislation to bring the Official Secrets Act in line with technological advancements.
Additionally, dissatisfaction lingers regarding the prompt release of census data, a move that could delay the upcoming General Election due to pending delimitations based on the new population count.
Dawar alleged misinformation by the government regarding census figures and the exclusion of internally displaced persons (IDPs) from the final count.
“The government repeatedly lied to us on this matter,”
he expressed, further elaborating, “The initial figures of census data suggested a significant increase in the population of Balochistan and Sindh. We were also assured that internally displaced persons (IDPs) would be included in their respective home districts. However, in the final count, the population of IDPs was excluded.”
He continued by highlighting that despite the rise in population figures in Sindh, Punjab, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), the overall number of seats in the National Assembly would remain unchanged. “The results of the 2023 census were manipulated so that the count of National Assembly seats would not be altered. This manoeuvre was intended to circumvent the necessity for a constitutional amendment to modify the composition of the lower house of Parliament.”