ISLAMABAD: The approval of a bill by a National Assembly’s standing committee, which proposed up to two years’ imprisonment and a fine for those who “intentionally ridicule the armed forces”, has drawn ire of politicians from across the divide as well as the legal fraternity.

The criticism of the bill came on Thursday not only from the opposition parties but also from federal ministers Fawad Chaudhry and Dr Shireen Mazari.

The Pakistan Bar Council (PBC) has also asked the government to withdraw the proposed amendment.

“Absolutely ridiculous idea to criminalise criticism, respect is earned, cannot be imposed on people. I strongly feel instead of new such laws contempt of court laws should be repealed,” Minster for Science and Technology Fawad Chaudhry tweeted.

Fawad Chaudhry says respect is earned, cannot be imposed on people

He did not mention the bill, but tweeted in response to a tweet by senior journalist Mazhar Abbas who said: “Citizens were free to criticise the parliament, politicians and media but the rest is national interest.”

Human Rights Minister Dr Shireen Mazari, while reacting to Fawad Chaudhry’s tweet, said: “Totally agree. Cannot state it strongly enough.”

The National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Interior, headed by Raja Khurram Nawaz of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf, had on Wednesday approved the bill to make amendment to the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) and Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) to take action against those who “intentionally ridicule armed forces”.

The bill states that anyone held guilty of the said offence could face up to two years’ imprisonment, or a fine that may extend to Rs500,000, or both.

The bill, titled Criminal Law Amendment Bill 2020, introduced by PTI legislator Amjid Ali Khan, was approved by the NA committee amid strong objections from Agha Rafiullah of the Pakistan Peoples Party and Marriyum Aurangzeb of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz.

The PPP said in a statement on Thursday that it rejected any attempts to further gag the fundamental right of freedom of expression in the name of preventing defamation and disrespect of the armed forces.

PPP leader Farhatullah Babar expressed grave concern over the bill and said Section 500 of the PPC already provided punishment for the defamation of anyone, and the addition of Section 500-A was aimed only at gagging freedom of expression guaranteed under Article 19 of the Constitution, in the name of national security. It is not acceptable and will be opposed at every platform, he said.

“The nation has witnessed enough of how behind the façade of ‘national security’ citizens have disappeared mysteriously, national resources diverted, internment centres set up, ex-tribal areas made a no-go area, foreign and security policies hijacked and security establishment’s business and commercial empire expanded exponentially,” he regretted.

Mr Babar said Section 500-A was liable to be grossly misused in the name of national security as Section 295-C had been misused in the name of religion.

“Defence forces working within their constitutional limits are universally admired and do not need any legislation to protect their honour and respect. Similarly, no legislation can stop people from questioning those who transgress their limits with impunity,” he said.

The PBC secretary, on behalf of the council’s vice chairman Kush Dil Khan, said in a press release that the proposed amendment to the PPC and CrPC was contrary to Article 19 of the Constitution.

“If it is passed [by parliament], it would be used as a tool against political opponents and also for their victimisation,” he added.

He said that every patriotic citizen respected all institutions of the country, including the armed forces. “Each and every Pakistani also expects from the institutions to serve the nation and remain within their domain as enshrined in the Constitution. The stance of government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is appreciated for opposing the said bill,” the PBC statement said.

The PBC vice chairman urged the federal government to immediately withdraw the said amendment, stating that if the amendment is passed, the PBC will oppose it tooth and nail and would also challenge it in the competent forum of law.

Published in Dawn, April 9th, 2021

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