ISLAMABAD: Days after it faced fierce opposition by government and opposition lawmakers, the bill to amend the Official Secrets Act, 1923 was passed by the Senate on Sunday, albeit with few changes to the original amendments.
The most significant amendment, made by a Senate committee, prior to its approval by the House was the removal of a clause giving intelligence agencies the power to arrest suspects or search without warrants.
Another amendment has been made to clause 5 of the bill, which earlier stated: “[A] person may be presumed to have been in communication with enemy or a foreign agent if he has, either within or without Pakistan visited the address of a foreign agent or consorted or associated with enemy or a foreign agent…”
After the amendments, the word ‘knowingly’ has been added to this clause which will now read “…if he has either within or without Pakistan ‘knowingly’ visited the address…”, according to Law Minister Azam Nazir Tarar, who moved the bill on behalf of Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah.
Amendments to Official Secrets Act passed; lawmakers decry ‘flaws in census’; Rabbani seeks clarity on polls timeline
He emphasised the revised bill empowered the Federal Investigation Agency to conduct investigations into individuals suspected of violating the Official Secrets Act.
The ‘amended’ bill failed to placate the lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who continued to raise questions over the wide-ranging powers being given to the intelligence agencies.
“The spirit of the bill remains intact despite superficial amendments. Entire Pakistan will turn into a cantonment if the bill is passed as it is,” Senator Mushtaq Ahmad of Jamaat-i-Islami warned.
He said the extraordinary powers of intelligence agencies will affect human rights, political liberties and media freedom. “It would be nothing short of a legal martial law.”
The lawmakers of JUI-F and PPP — both of whom are part of the ruling coalition — censured the government for moving the legislation in haste.
Senator Kamran Murtaza of JUI-F said if the legislation was so essential, the government should have realised it 15 months ago.
PPP’s Rukhsana Zuberi added that action must be taken against investigation agencies and officials if they filed dubious cases under this law.
Recriminations over census
At the outset of the proceedings, Mr Murtaza rejected the census approved one day ago by the Council of Common Interest (CCI) — a body with all four chief ministers and federal ministers as its members.
Calling the number “flawed,” he claimed Balochistan’s population had been reduced by 6.4 million.
“What message are we sending to the people of the province,” he asked and criticised the government for approving the results.
He questioned how the caretaker chief ministers of two provinces — Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa — represent their respective provinces at the CCI meeting.
Later, he staged a walk-out from the House with other senators.
Hinting at the possibility of delayed general elections after the approval of the new census, PPP’s Raza Rabbani warned any such move would be disastrous for the federation.
On a point of public importance, he said after the census’ approval by the CCI, there were speculations that elections will be delayed by at least 6 to 7 months. “If elections go beyond the 60 or 90 days constitutional timeline, then it would be a violation of the Constitution.”
Voicing support for the concerns raised by Senator Murtaza, Mr Rabbani said he did not want to go into how the CCI meeting took place and how approval was given to the census but unfortunately, it was being felt that the elections would be delayed.
“The ECP should now break the silence and immediately come forward to explain how much time it needs for delimitation. They must try their utmost to do the needful within 90 days so that polls are conducted on time.”
Addressing the lawmakers’ concerns on the census, Mr Tarrar, the law minister, clarified that JUI-F’s Maulana Asad Mahmood was present in the CCI meeting. “The census team [from PBS] had given a briefing for two hours, after which the decision to approve the census was taken unanimously.”
He said the highest rate of population growth — 3.20 per cent — was recorded in Balochistan and the province’s population has increased to 15 million.
Mr Tarar said the government has left the decision of delimitation to the ECP.
He agreed with Mr Rabbani that the ECP should state what would be their future course of action keeping in view articles 51 and 224 of the Constitution.
While Article 51 outlines the seat distribution in the National Assembly, Article 224 gives the timeline of elections from the day assemblies were dissolved.
“All parties in the allied government have resolved to hold the elections as early as possible,” the law minister emphasised.
Separately, Finance Minister Ishaq Dar, who is also the leader of the house in the Senate, said the Balochistan chief minister was also present in the CCI meeting.
The census details were sent to the provinces, he explained, adding the enumeration process was carried out in light of extensive data.
Earlier, PTI’s Saifullah Abro strongly protested over the arrest of his party chairman, Imran Khan. He indirectly blamed PPP and PML-N for “trampling the Constitution, the law and democratic norms”.
He urged the JUI-F senator to realistically review the data and said the CCI approved the census after all chief ministers were satisfied. He clarified that the previous PTI government had decided that the 2023 polls would be held based on the fresh census.
Published in Dawn, August 7th, 2023