South Asia

Pakistan: Rights Groups Slam 'Pro-Military' Legislation

Activists and politicians have slammed several Bills that were recently passed in Pakistan ahead of general elections. Many lawmakers say that some of them were approved in haste and bypassed democratic norms.

The outgoing government of Pakistan has passed a raft of legislation during the last 30 days. Many parliamentarians have complained that some of those Bills were not properly debated and oftentimes not even referred to parliamentary committees – sparking fears about the setting of negative precedents in the South Asian country.

Controversial legislation

At least four Bills – which have since become law – were singled out for specific criticism.

The Pakistan Army (Amendment) Act proposes up to five years in prison for those who disclose sensitive information pertaining to the security of the country or the military.

The Official Secrets Amendment Bill grants blanket powers to intelligence agencies.

And the Personal Data Protection Bill and the E-Safety Bill make it difficult for media organizations to obtain tax and other detailed information on individuals – especially government officials and politicians.

All of these Bills sailed through Pakistan’s parliament, especially the lower house, or National Assembly.

The Official Secrets Amendment Bill, for instance, was passed by the lower house but faced fierce resistance in parliament’s upper house, the Senate, when it landed there a few days ago.

The Bill was passed on Sunday but only after it had been amended to address the concerns of some senators and other stakeholders who forced the government to refer the Bill to a Senate committee.

The most significant amendment was the removal of a clause which would have given intelligence agencies the power to arrest suspects or conduct searches without warrants.

The country’s independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) dubbed the legislation, “a blatant attack on the fundamental rights of the people.”

‘Bulldozing’ parliamentary norms

Despite the amendments, some lawmakers still feel the Bills were passed in undemocratic fashion.

Lawmaker Mohsin Dawar does not, for example, believe civilians should be tried under Pakistan’s Army Act.

Pakistani authorities earlier this year initiated trials in military courts against people suspected of being involved in deadly riots and attacks on military installations over the arrest of former Prime Minister Imran Khan on May 9.

“We are opposed to the very essence of the Army Act that empowers the army to trial civilians,” Dawar told DW, adding that it flies in the face of constitutional provisions that guarantee a fair trial.

“Under the Army Act, the appellate authority is the army chief and until he rejects the appeal of a convict, the affected person cannot approach a high court,” Dawar said.

In addition to this, no Bill was debated properly and all these Bills were passed in haste, which goes against the spirit of democratic norms, Dawar added.

Former lawmaker Bushra Gohar told DW that the government carried out hasty legislation, bulldozing all parliamentary norms and democratic principles to pass these Bills.

The incumbent government headed by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, which came to power after lawmakers last year ousted Khan in a vote of no-confidence, is set to hand over the reins to a caretaker government on August 9. The interim government will then announce dates for the upcoming general election.

Khan has been critical of Pakistan’s powerful military since his ouster, and some experts say Sharif’s government, which is backed by the army, could use new laws to prevent him from returning to power.

Cybercrime laws for total control

Similar complaints have been voiced over two acts related to cybercrimes and cyber security.

Farieha Aziz, a Karachi-based digital rights activist, says the Bills were shrouded in secrecy prior to passage.

Their drafts should have been made public, Aziz told DW, adding that there was no transparency during the entire legislative process.

“Parliamentarians did not have any effective debate over the Bills. They did consult some stakeholders but we were not informed about the input that we offered,” she said.

Aziz believes the government wants total control over social media.

“And these Bills have been passed to control social media,” Aziz said. “Now it will be up to the government as to what it allows to be uploaded and what it wants to be removed.”

Press freedom

Pakistani journalists have raised concerns about press freedom following the amendments to cybercrime legislation, as they and their colleagues had previously unearthed corruption scandals after receiving information from government institutions through their sources.

After the passage of these laws, it will be very difficult for media representatives to obtain information or documents such as copies from government departments as Farzana Ali, a Peshawar-based journalist, told DW, adding this would prevent journalists from being able to back claims of corruption or malpractice.

“After the passage of this law, the Right to Information Act becomes pointless, because if government departments cannot pass information to media persons, what is the use?,” said Ali.

This article was originally published on DW.