FIA chief grilled over ‘arbitrary’ travel restrictions

Updated December 20, 2018

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Earlier, senators expressed shock that two MNAs and Hamza Shahbaz were barred from travelling despite not being on ECL. — File photo
Earlier, senators expressed shock that two MNAs and Hamza Shahbaz were barred from travelling despite not being on ECL. — File photo

ISLAMABAD: The Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) told the Senate Standing Committee on Human Rights on Wednesday that it had been preventing individuals from leaving the country on the basis of a self-designed Provisional National Identification List (PNIL) to bypass the lengthy process of putting such people on the Exit Control List (ECL).

Take a look: Misuse of ECL

“The procedure was designed after the Supreme Court directed the FIA to prevent serious offenders from travelling abroad,” FIA Director General Bashir Ahmed explained. The committee had demanded that both the Ministry of Interior and the FIA explain the functioning of the PNIL.

In the last meeting, senators had expressed shock that two MNAs from North Waziristan and Hamza Shahbaz had been barred from travelling despite not being on the ECL. Last month, security officials took National Assembly members Mohsin Dawar and Ali Wazir off a Dubai-bound flight at Peshawar airport. Similarly, Leader of the Opposition in the Punjab Assembly Hamza Shahbaz was also restricted from leaving the country.

Senate committee takes umbrage at the Provisional National Identification List

The committee expressed concern that the ECL is not the only tool to restrict the movement of individuals; other lists such as the Black List, Watch List, Red Book and PNIL are also being used by security agencies. Members asked what these other lists were, exactly, focusing particularly on the PNIL.

FIA DG Ahmed explained that placing names on the ECL took 30 days, as a result of which his department was unable in the past to prevent serious offenders such as murderers from escaping abroad. The PNIL, he said, was designed 10 months ago to be used in urgent cases, and during the past four months, the travel of 16 individuals had been intercepted. These included the US diplomat who killed a motorcyclist during a hit-and-run accident on Margalla Road in Islamabad in April.

Referring to the cases of Mohsin Dawar and Ali Wazir, Mr Ahmed said that their names were placed on the PNIL at the request of the inspector general of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. He did express regret before the committee, though, that the MNAs had not been informed that they were barred from leaving the country.

In response to questions posed by the committee, special interior secretary Dr Aamer Ahmed said that the names of the two MNAs in question were placed on the PNIL after approval by the cabinet last Friday.

This drew the response by a committee member that the PNIL has no legal basis other than being a tool concocted by the FIA.

Committee chairman Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar of the PPP quoted several examples referring to the past two years where the SC had held that an accused person’s right to travel was guaranteed under Article 15 of the Constitution, even if the allegation involved a criminal case.

“The pendency of a trial does not constitute valid grounds for placing a person’s name on the ECL,” maintained Mr Khokhar. “The law contains no justification for the PNIL given that the ECL already exists, backed by an ordinance and the rules. It is a clear violation of the law,” he reiterated, expressing his intention to report the matter to the house given that upholding the Constitution is the responsibility of all state departments.

Taking the matter forward, Minister for Human Rights Shireen Mazari observed that there was no justification for government departments to make absurd ‘laws’, simply because they felt they were unable to intercept criminals.

“The PNIL is arbitrary, cloak and dagger, and opaque,” she argued. “How is it justified when there isn’t even an SC order to prevent persons from leaving the country?”

MNA Dawar also expressed the belief that the FIA was operating outside its mandate in this regard.

In conclusion, the committee held that the FIA DG had failed to provide satisfactory answers regarding the PNIL, and the legal basis of it — that it could constitute a violation of Article 15 of the Constitution.

Minister of State for Interior Shehryar Afridi sought time to fully apprise himself on the subject, while Mr Khokhar declared that the committee would reconvene in 15 days, with the FIA DG and the interior secretary in personal attendance, to chart the course for the future.

Published in Dawn, December 20th, 2018