The National Assembly passed a contentious law proposed by the government, which confers extensive powers to leading intelligence agencies and imposes a three-year prison sentence for individuals convicted of revealing the identity of an intelligence official. This legislation was approved by the upper house of parliament the day prior.
The Official Secrets (Amendment) law 2023 was approved by Pakistan’s Senate on Sunday through a majority vote. The federal government had made revisions to the law, specifically eliminating a provision that granted intelligence services the authority to conduct raids or effectuate arrests without the need for warrants. The act was introduced in response to mounting criticism directed on military and intelligence officers by former Prime Minister Imran Khan and his deputies.
The bill was presented in the Senate by Law Minister Azam Nazeer Tarar on behalf of Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah. Minister Tarar informed the senators that the government had decided to remove the section that granted intelligence agencies the authority to conduct raids or arrests without warrants.
The minister stated that the objection has been eliminated and the language allowing for arrest without warrant has been retracted. The minister also emphasised that the legislation should be evaluated impartially, as it provides safeguards for military and intelligence personnel who make sacrifices for the nation, particularly in areas affected by armed conflict.
Following its approval in both the Senate and the National Assembly, the bill is now poised to be presented to President Arif Alvi for formal endorsement, a procedural step of nominal significance.
The Official Secrets (Amendment) Bill of 2023 initially granted legal authority to the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and Intelligence Bureau (IB), two prominent intelligence agencies, to conduct searches and detentions of individuals, as well as seize various forms of evidence, including documents, sketches, plans, electronic devices, and other items that may serve as proof of criminal activity.
According to the bill, intelligence agencies possess the authority to conduct warrantless searches of individuals or premises, including force if deemed necessary, and confiscate any kind of written material, drawings, blueprints, objects, or written records.
The proposed legislation has additionally expanded the scope of the term “document” to encompass various forms such as written, unwritten, electronic, digital, or any other physical or intangible instrument that pertains to the military’s procurement activities and capabilities.
Similarly, the definition of “enemy” as outlined in the proposed legislation is as follows:
Any individual who is directly or indirectly, whether intentionally or unintentionally, involved in activities associated with a foreign power, foreign agent, non-state actor, organization, entity, association, or group, and is found to be responsible for a specific act that poses a threat to the security and welfare of Pakistan.
An additional provision inside the measure suggests the imposition of a three-year prison sentence for the act of revealing the “identity of intelligence agency members, informants, or sources.”
Furthermore, the legislation deems the act of a Pakistani national visiting the residence of a foreign agent, whether within the borders of Pakistan or abroad, as a punishable offense.
The proposed legislation confers authority upon the Federal Investigation Agency and intelligence agency officers to conduct investigations on individuals suspected of contravening the Official Secrets Act.
In an interview with Arab News last week, Advocate Taimur Malik expressed concern that the new legislation has the potential to restrict civil liberties and constitutional rights.
Malik expressed concerns on the potential for extensive misuse of the legislation, notwithstanding its initial intention to safeguard national interests. Legislations of this nature are not typically enacted inside well-functioning democratic systems.
According to his statement, the legislation would yield significant consequences in the event that there are no mechanisms in place to oversee and regulate the activities of intelligence personnel.
According to Advocate Abdul Moiz Jaferii, the proposed legislation pertaining to intelligence professionals can be perceived as an endeavor to provide legal protection to spy services that operate without facing consequences.
According to Jaferii’s statement to Arab News, if we consider the historical track record of our agencies, there are significant apprehensions regarding the potential misuse of these capabilities by these very institutions.
In the past fortnight, the Sharif administration has introduced several contentious laws in parliament, prompting concerns from legal scholars and advocates for human rights. These individuals question the expeditious passage of legislation pertaining to civil liberties without adequate parliamentary deliberation.
The Army Act (Amendment) Bill, which has recently been enacted, introduces provisions that prescribe a maximum imprisonment term of five years for the act of divulging classified material, and a two-year imprisonment term for engaging in actions that ridicule or scandalize the armed services. Furthermore, it imposes a restriction on military personnel assigned to critical responsibilities, prohibiting their involvement in political activities for a duration of five years subsequent to their retirement.
In the previous month, revisions to the Elections Act were enacted, conferring further authority onto the interim administration to make consequential determinations and establish connections with global organizations.
The previous week, the parliament approved a measure on contempt of parliament, which suggests a penalty of six months imprisonment, a fine of one million rupees, or both, for individuals who are determined by a parliamentary committee to be in contempt of the parliament.
On Monday, the Prevention of Violent Extremism Bill was withdrawn by the Senate following objections from legislators. The proposed legislation included a punitive measure of imprisonment for a duration of ten years, coupled with a monetary penalty of two million rupees.
The withdrawal of the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Amendment) Bill, 2023 was officially announced by Information Minister Marriyum Aurangzeb on Monday, in response to objections raised by various stakeholders. On August 3, the National Assembly enacted a law with the objective of simplifying the processes involved in registering and monitoring the ratings of television stations. Additionally, the bill provides further clarification on the definitions of disinformation and misinformation.