Release Fawad, arrest sedition

These outdated laws may have been helpful to our former masters, but they are detrimental to our young democracy.
Published January 27, 2023

In the popular American TV show, How to Get Away with Murder, Professor Keating, a criminal defence professor, uses her expertise to help her students avoid accountability and escape punishment for murder.

In Pakistan, a similar political drama is playing out, but instead of getting away with murder, the government is using colonial-era sedition laws to silence and incarcerate political opponents. They want to get away unquestioned and remain unaccountable.

Early on Wednesday morning this week, Fawad Chaudhry, Pakistan’s former information minister and spokesperson for the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) — arguably the country’s largest political party — was arrested on charges of sedition.

Under the guise of Section 124-A (sedition) of the Pakistan Penal Code, police officers arrested him outside his home in Lahore on an obscure warrant issued 400 kilometres away in the middle of the night. The FIR also included sections sections 153-A (promotion of enmity between groups), 506 (criminal intimidation) and 505 (statement conducing to public mischief).

While it is often a norm for police in Pakistan to go days without arresting murderers and rapists, when it comes to political opponents of the ruling party, recent years have shown us they spring into action almost immediately, as in the case of Fawad. With complete disregard for his constitutional rights, the police took him to a suspicious facility, kept his phone with them, and later transported him to Islamabad in an anonymous black truck. As this was going on, the Lahore High Court issued an order to produce him for a hearing, but the court’s orders were ignored.

Colonial relic

Sedition laws are a legacy of the subcontinent’s colonial history, where masters looting and plundering the subcontinent were leveraging this law, among others, to jail those resisting enslavement. Today, these laws are used across the subcontinent, highlighting that countries like Pakistan are yet to free themselves from the horrors of colonisation. While the British abolished their own sedition law in 2009, it continues to function as a political tool in Pakistan.

In Pakistan, sedition laws are used as a short-term fix for governments to avoid being held accountable for their actions and silencing political opponents that dare speak truth to power. These laws have no place in a democratic society, including one as nascent as Pakistan’s, and their misuse undermines the very principles of democracy. It highlights one of the most critical issues citizens face simply trying to exercise their constitutional rights.

Perhaps musician and activist Shehzad Roy describes their use best when he says: “There is freedom of speech in Pakistan, but no freedom AFTER speech.”

The vagueness doctrine

Section 124-A of the PPC is a 153-year-old archaic law made worse through its vague text, making it the perfect weapon to silence Fawad.

It says: “Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise, brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards, the Federal or Provincial Government established by law shall be punished with imprisonment for life to which fine may be added, or with imprisonment which may extend to three years, to which fine may be added, or with fine.”

Was Fawad threatening the state by asking the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to be accountable and lay out a plan for elections in two of the biggest provinces in the country? Was he speaking up against the state or inciting violence by asking the ECP to follow the Constitution of Pakistan? While his speech did include a ‘warning’ to the families of the ECP officials, the question remains: does the sedition law apply here?

These laws give government officials and institutions the power to discriminate against citizens by issuing warrants to suppress their constitutional rights. Ruling political parties should resist this massive temptation to use old-school discriminatory practices to maintain the status quo and muzzle citizens.

Change is hard, and it is hard because it requires losses. Changing such colonial laws will require a loss for a few in power. However, their loss will benefit our democracy and be a step in the right direction, ensuring freedom of speech for us all, which our constitutional right.

These outdated laws may have been helpful to our former masters, but they are detrimental to our young democracy. Fawad is not the first and will probably not be the last politician to have been targeted through sedition laws. Many before him have been silenced — from politicians to activists and journalists to owners of media houses. The politics of revenge is not new, and we need to escape this vicious cycle. It is progressively poisoning our society.

Arrest sedition

Rather than arresting Fawad, we should arrest sedition. A respected lawyer, a family man, a former federal minister, and most importantly, a citizen of Pakistan was brought into court with a white veil forcefully put on his face by the police as if he were a hardcore terrorist. This imagery should infuriate us all, whether it is Fawad or any other victim of political revenge. We let it happen. We must demand better — better policy, not more policing.

Arresting Fawad is a mere diversion — a short-sighted, tried and tested solution to divert attention from the real issues he raised a voice for. This unfortunate incident exposes this government’s inability to craft laws, its failure to live up to the historical economic crises of our times, its incompetent partisan agenda, blatant nepotism, and its continued stubbornness to not hold free and fair elections.

Sedition law has done enough damage and shunned many voices. Let’s work to end it. The government should release Fawad honourably and swiftly, fulfil its responsibilities to the people, guarantee constitutional rights and announce a date for elections.

Header image: Photo courtesy PTI Twitter account