UNLAWFUL surveillance and invasion of privacy corrode the very foundations of a democratic social order based on universal principles of human rights. No information obtained through these methods is worth that price. Justice Mansoor Ali Shah in his dissenting note in the Justice Qazi Faez Isa case makes clear his disquiet over the means used by the Asset Recovery Unit with the help of the intelligence agencies to obtain information about the petitioner judge and his family. “In our constitutional democracy, it is essential that everyone enjoys his or her domain of freedom, free from government intrusion — lest it aim to check an unlawful activity,” writes the judge in the 65-page document. Indeed, he says, so critical is the issue that “in it lays the destiny of our people and the future course of our country”.

Institutional imbalances have contributed to such a polarised and cut-throat environment in this country that the constitutionally protected rights to personal liberty, privacy and dignity have fallen by the wayside. Many a forward bloc is said to have been created and political rupture engineered through the judicious use of incriminating personal information obtained on the sly. Instances abound of unlawfully accessed information being deployed to gain an upper hand over perceived adversaries, including judges, politicians, bureaucrats and journalists. One reason cited for the dismissal of Ms Bhutto’s second government in 1996 was illegal wiretapping of judges’ phones. In its verdict upholding that dismissal, the Supreme Court held that phone tapping and eavesdropping by government authorities was immoral, illegal and unconstitutional. In 2007, during Gen Pervez Musharraf’s government, surveillance photos of then chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry’s residence and transcripts of evidently bugged conversations were presented in the Supreme Court, which then ordered a sweep of judges’ homes and courtrooms for spying devices. Nevertheless, the invasion of privacy continued as before. In June 2015, ISI personnel disclosed to the Supreme Court that the agency had tapped close to 7,000 telephones across the country during the previous month. Recently, PML-N vice president Maryam Nawaz claimed in an interview that during her incarceration, the authorities had placed cameras inside her jail cell and bathroom. If there is any truth to these allegations, then those who carry out such despicable acts and continue to do so despite repeated admonishments by the court have plumbed the depths of indecency. This grotesque disregard for human dignity must end here and now.

Published in Dawn, November 16th, 2020

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