THE PDM coalition government’s unprecedented legislation spree deserves space in the Guinness Book of World Records. A political party, some ministers and legislators who claimed to be champions of human rights presented bills that contradicted their assertion. This is a new development in Pakistani politics, where all political actors surrender themselves to align with the centre of power.
The law minister made an interesting excuse when the Prevention of Violent Extremism Bill, 2023, was, fortunately, rejected by the Upper House following the timely intervention of a few senators. He said the PTI government drafted the bill, with every single clause and punctuation mark placed by the party. However, he still needs to answer who dusted off the bill and presented it on behalf of the treasury benches.
Although a few courageous legislators had blocked the bill, which was solely intended for political use, the treasury and opposition failed to prevent the amendment of the Official Secrets Act, 2023. It remains to be seen whether the PDM has earned itself breathing room for its future politics and, if so, how much space and for how long; the power holders are impulsive and lose interest if political actors take divergent steps.
The PML-N is specifically facing a test case in the upcoming elections. The party had previously demanded a level playing field before entering the electoral process. However, it has since fully supported cracking down on its political opponents and has obediently served the power holders. It is unclear at the moment what the PML-N will gain from it.
The country has a history of misusing security-related laws to target politicians.
Security-related legislation in Pakistan has broad scope — the country has a history of misusing such laws to target politicians. This fear led a few senators to block the extremism bill in the Upper House. It was a rare example of politicians standing up to the government on such an issue. In most cases, however, politicians have willingly or unwillingly supported security-related legislation, even when they know it could be used against them. For example, in January 2015, the Senate voted in favour of the 21st Amendment, allowing the creation of military courts. PPP Senator Raza Rabbani recorded his protest, stating that he was voting at the behest of his party, otherwise the amendment went against his conscience, and he had never felt more ashamed in his life than while voting for the establishment of military courts. However, political pragmatism is so entrenched that such sane voices also compromise when they see their benefit or if political opponents are the target of the legislation.
It was not the first time security-related legislation was suddenly introduced in parliament without prior debate or input from the law ministry. Much of this legislation is outsourced to private law firms and then endorsed by security institutions. Many security-related laws that have been passed by parliament, such as the Protection of Pakistan Act, 2014, and the Fair Trial Act, 2013, have empowered law-enforcement agencies at the expense of human rights. LEAs continue to demand even more extensive legal powers, and the government has responded by amending the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA), 1997, multiple times. In addition, military courts have been established to speed up terrorism-related trials. However, these legal measures still need to address the high acquittal rate in terrorism-related cases, which remains a serious concern.
The irony is that political parties know that security-specific laws will eventually be used against them, and even then, they forge ahead. Many politicians and political workers have been tried under the ATA, including the architect of the law, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. In 1999, military ruler Gen Pervez Musharraf introduced two amendments to the ATA and added conspiracy-related clauses to charge Nawaz Sharif under the law.
On the other hand, the trial of hard-core sectarian terrorists has suffered long delays. Many of the accused operated from prisons, such as Malik Ishaq, one of the founders of the sectarian terrorist organisation Lashkar-i-Jhangvi. He was released on bail in December 2014 after spending over 13 years behind bars on more than 70 charges of sectarian killings. He was shot and killed in an encounter with law-enforcement personnel in July 2015.
Pakistan’s power holders have a binary perspective, which manifests itself in paradoxical ways. Their approach of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ militants is a manifestation of this perspective. This approach has been applied to both international and regional militant forces. The power holders apply a similar approach to political actors in the country, using the same legal regimes against them when needed. The context determines who is considered a threat and who is not.
Political parties and lawmakers are not so naive to support such legislation without the prospect of some benefit accruing to them; ie, they expect something in return. This could be further political engineering in their favour or the approval of private bills, such as those related to private universities.
The treasury benches also supported the amendments in a bill by far-right religious parties. The Senate approved amendments to the Pakistan Penal Code, 1860, and the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1898, to enhance punishments for those who disrespect the ahle bait or sahaba-i-karaam. These amendments were passed without discussion, raising concerns about the expansive nature of religious-related legislation. Such legislation has serious implications for peace and harmony in the country. However, at the same time, these could also be used against political opponents, as there is a history of this in Pakistan.
Surprisingly, parliament and the establishment have yet to take the Supreme Court’s advice, dispensed in 2019, to develop a new and comprehensive legal definition of terrorism. It is indeed ironic that a country that has been fighting a war on terrorism for two decades has extensive legislation and a wide range of policies without a proper definition of the term.
The writer is a security analyst.
Published in Dawn, August 13th, 2023