Agencies get sweeping powers to raid, detain

Published August 2, 2023
Parliamentary Affairs Minister Murtaza Javed Abbasi in the National Assembly on Tuesday. — APP
Parliamentary Affairs Minister Murtaza Javed Abbasi in the National Assembly on Tuesday. — APP

• Amendments to Official Secrets Act passed after being presented ‘quietly’ in NA despite lawmakers’ protests
• Definition of ‘enemy’ widened; ‘unwritten, electronic’ communications also included in bill’s ambit
• New draft extends punishments given in wartime to peacetime as well; ‘inadvertent’ espionage made punishable

ISLAMABAD: The outgoing government on Tuesday quietly got a bill to amend the century-old secrets act approved by the National Assembly in a bid to grant blanket powers to intelligence agencies, which will be able to raid and detain any citizen, even under suspicion of them breaching the law.

The bill seeking to amend the Official Secrets Act 1923 was tabled in the National Assembly by Parliamentary Affairs Minister Murtaza Javed Abbasi through a supplementary agenda on private members’ day and it was passed on the same day.

A number of MNAs, including Maulana Abdul Akbar Chitrali, protested the government’s move to push the amendment through in haste, saying that they had not even been provided copies of the proposed legislation. However, Deputy Speaker Zahid Akram Durrani ignored the protest and continued with legislative business, while directing his staff to provide copies of the bill to members.

The lower house of the parliament also passed two other government bills; the Toshakhana Management and Regulation Bill, 2023, and the Airport Authority Bill, 2023, both through a supplementary agenda. The two bills have already been approved by the Senate.

The amendments in the secrets act have broadened the definitions of military installations and bring digital and modern means of communication into the law’s ambit. According to experts, this could bring vloggers and bloggers within the ambit of the law as well.

The definition of a “document” has been widened as it now includes “any written, unwritten, electronic, digital, or any other tangible or intangible instrument” related to the military’s procurements and capabilities.

‘Enemy’ changed

Likewise, the definition of “enemy” introduced in the proposed law states: “Any person who is directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally working for or engaged with a foreign power, foreign agent, non-state actor, organisation, entity, association or group guilty of a particular act… prejudicial to the safety and interest of Pakistan.”

Experts term this section “against the principles of natural justice” as it treats unintentional contact at par with planned espionage.

The proposed law is going to empower the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and Intelligence Bureau (IB) to raid and arrest a citizen over the suspected breach of official secrets, while simply disclosing the name of a secret agent will also be considered an offence.

Through an amendment in Section 11, the lower house gave vast powers to officials of intelligence agencies as they would be allowed to “at any time, enter and search any person or place, without warrant, and if necessary, by use of force, and seize any document, sketch, or like nature, or anything which is or can be evidence of an offence committed or suspecting of been committed, under this act”.

An amendment in Section 6 proposes a penalty on a citizen with a prison term of three years for disclosing the “identity of the members of the intelligence agencies or the informants or sources”.

Moreover, clauses related to prohibited areas have also been amended and it would be an offence if “someone access, intrude, approach or attack any military installation, office, camp office or part of building”.

At present, the offence is restricted to such movement during the time of war only, however, the proposed legislation has expanded this to peacetime as well.

Section 3 is being renamed from “penalties for spying” to “offences”.

With slight amendments to the existing offences, it has also added the photography through drone cameras of prohibited areas as a crime.

The amendments in Section 4 also term a visit to the address of a foreign agent within or outside Pakistan as an offence.

FIA to probe violations

The proposed law empowers the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) and the officials of intelligence agencies to investigate suspects for violation of the Official Secrets Act.

It says: “An investigating officer under this act shall be an officer of the Federal Investigation Agency not below the rank of BPS-17 or equivalent. The said officer shall be designated by the Director General [of] FIA for the purpose of investigation. If the Director General [of] FIA deems necessary, he may constitute a joint investigation team, convene by such officer and consisting [of] such other officers of intelligence agencies as he may appoint.”

The JIT is supposed to complete the investigation in 30 working days and the challan would be submitted to the special court through public prosecutor.

The law also deals with the admissibility of the evidence and states: “All material collected during the course of inquiry or investigation, including electronic devices, data, information, documents, or such other related material, which facilitates the commission of any offence under this act, shall be admissible.”

A bare perusal of the proposed law suggests as it was drafted while keeping in mind the May 9 violence, which erupted after the arrest of PTI chief Imran Khan in a corruption case.

However, legal experts believe that it could not be used against those who had attacked military installations on May 9 since the law could not be invoked retrospectively.

A lawyer well-versed with the Official Secrets Act said that the definition of documents and providing legal cover to the raids of intelligence agencies has been changed as the superior courts passed some judgements on these subjects. However, legal experts did not rule out the possibility of these sections being applied to politicians or activists in the future.

Published in Dawn, August 2nd, 2023

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