‘As God is my witness’: President Alvi says he did not assent to bills amending Army Act, secrets law
In a startling turn of events, President Arif Alvi on Sunday denied approving changes to the Official Secrets Act and the Pakistan Army Act while the law ministry, functioning under a caretaker setup, rebuked his statement and asked him to “take responsibility for his own actions”.
In a post on social media platform X (formerly Twitter) around 2pm, Alvi said: “As God is my witness, I did not sign Official Secrets Amendment Bill, 2023 and Pakistan Army Amendment Bill, 2023 as I disagreed with these laws.”
The president said he asked his staff to return the bills unsigned within the stipulated time to make them “uneffective”.
“I confirmed from them many times that whether they have been returned and was assured that they were. However, I have found out today that my staff undermined my will and command. As Allah knows all, He will forgive Insha’Allah. But I ask forgiveness from those who will be affected,” the president said.
So far, the President House has not released a statement.
Alvi was said to have given his assent to the Official Secrets (Amendment) Bill, 2023 and the Pakistan Army (Amendment) Bill, 2023 on Saturday, although their current legal status in light of the president’s remarks has since become unclear.
Hours after President Alvi’s statement, a gazette notification issued by the Senate Secretariat surfaced, stating that the two bills were “deemed to have been assented by the president”.
According to the notification, a copy of which is available with Dawn.com, the Official Secrets (Amendment) Bill, 2023 was deemed to have been approved by the president with effect from August 17 and the Pakistan Army (Amendment) Bill, 2023 from August 11.
Section 6-A of the secrets act creates a new offence of unauthorised disclosure of the identities of members of intelligence agencies, informants or sources. The offence would be punishable by up to three years in jail and a fine of up to Rs10 million.
The Army Act paves the way for the punishment of up to five-year rigorous imprisonment to any person guilty of disclosing any information, acquired in an official capacity that is or may be prejudicial to the security and interest of Pakistan or the armed forces.
One of the amendments in the act accords more powers to the army chief and barred ex-servicemen from engaging in politics as well as taking up ventures, which could come into conflict with the army’s interest. It also proposed imprisonment for defamation of the army.
The new law also forbids any person subject to the army act from engaging in any kind of political activity for two years from the date of their “retirement, release, resignation, discharge, removal or dismissal from the service.
The president’s statement comes a day after PTI Vice Chairman Shah Mehmood Qureshi was picked up in connection with a first information report registered on Aug 15 under the Official Secrets Act against the former foreign minister and PTI Chairman Imran Khan.
The case was registered after an American news outlet The Intercept recently published what was claimed to be the diplomatic cable which had reportedly gone missing from Imran’s possession.
Imran, who was interrogated by Federal Investigation Agency a few days ago in the cipher case in Attock jail where he was lodged after his conviction in the Toshakhana case, claimed he was ousted from office last year under a “US conspiracy”. The PTI alleges that cipher contained the threat from the United States to oust Imran from power.
Last week, the president had returned over a dozen bills for reconsideration by Parliament. The returned bills had been passed by both houses of parliament at the fag end of the PML-N-led government’s term, and their fate will be decided after general elections when a new National Assembly is in place.
Law ministry notes claims with ‘grave concern’
Later in the afternoon, the law ministry expressed “grave concern” over the president’s post, saying that he had “chosen to discredit his own officials” and he should “take responsibility for his own actions”.
In a press release, it said “as per Article 75 of the Constitution, when a bill is sent for assent, the president has two options: either give assent, or refer the matter to the parliament with specific observations”.
“Article 75 does not provide for any third option.”
It noted that in the instant matter, neither of the requirements were fullfiled. “Instead, the President purposely delayed the assent,” it alleged. “Returning the bills without any observations or assent is not provided for in the Constitution. Such a course of action is against the letter and spirit of the Constitution,” it added.
It said if the president had any observations, he could have returned the bills with his observations like he did in the recent and distant past. “He could have also issued a press release to that effect.
It is a matter of concern that the president has chosen to discredit his own officials. The president should take responsibility for his own actions,“ it concluded.
PTI to take matter to SC, declares full support for President Alvi
The PTI — the party on whose ticket Alvi contested the 2018 elections before being made president — announced on X that it would take the matter to the Supreme Court.
It thanked the president for “rising above fears and taking a stand for the Constitution and law, the fundamental rights of citizens and the survival and security of democracy and the Parliament”.
The party also declared “complete support” for the president at national and judicial levels.
Meanwhile, PTI Secretary General Omar Ayub Khan called for legal action against the president’s staff for “disobeying” his orders.
He also demanded that an inquiry be launched to ascertain “how and why the orders regarding such a sensitive issue were disobeyed”.
Will not seize record of president’s office: information minister
Addressing a press conference on the matter in the evening, interim Information Minister Murtaza Solangi said a perception was being created that some sort of “constitutional tremor” had occurred.
“But I assure you there’s no tremor of any kind, it is a clear situation.”
Speaking alongside him, caretaker Law Minister Irfan Aslam said the interim government’s mandate was to stay away from politics and that the president was the head of the federation whom everyone respected.
He said the president had received the army act amendment bill on August 2 and the secrets law amendment bill on August 8, adding that according to the Constitution, Alvi had 10 days to either give his assent or send them back with his observations. There was no third option, he added.
Aslam said the present situation was unprecedented.
The two ministers further said they would refrain from any political talk and could not speculate about the president’s wishes or intentions.
Solangi added that it would be “very sad” if the caretaker government was expected to seize the record of the president’s office, adding that “we absolutely will not do any such thing, we have respect for the Constitution and his office”.
However, he did say that the caretaker government could respond within its constitutional bounds to anyone “attempting to create confusion”.
Politicians and journalists reacted with incredulity and despair at Alvi’s claims.
PTI leader Farrukh Habib called the development “extremely shocking” and akin to the “collapse of whole system”.
“Lawyers community of the country should stand up for the supremacy of the constitution now,” he added.
Former finance minister Ishaq Dar said the president’s remarks were “unbelievable” and urged him to resign on account of “having failed to run his office effectively”.
PPP Vice President Sherry Rehman said the president’s statement had raised questions about his capability to manage the presidential office.
“Does he want to say that someone else signs the bills under his nose? If this is so then the president should immediately resign from his office. If your staff is not in your control then leave the presidential office,” she said in a statement, adding that the president was no longer fit to continue in his constitutional position.
Senator Mushtaq Ahmed of the Jamaat-i-Islami said the post “has opened a new pandora box, if the situation is really like what the president has written, then it is an insult to the state of Pakistan, parliament, legislation, as well as 240 million Pakistanis”.
He added: “Matters will once again go to the courts. The situation of Pakistan can be estimated from this situation of the highest office. May Allah have mercy on Pakistan.”
PML-N Senator Irfan Siddiqui called on the president to resign. “President Alvi speak openly. If there was disagreement with the bills, why didn’t he register his objections? What was the purpose of sending back the bill without a yes or no? Why did he remain silent for two days despite the news [of the bills being signed] coming in the media?
“Now that he has spoken, the matter became more confusing. If his staff is not in his control, then [he should] resign and go home.”
Veteran PPP leader Farhatullah Babar said in fewer than 100 words, the president has done “what no one could do in the last decade”.
“OMG, in less than 100 words tweet Arif Alvi did what no one could do in last decade. Atomic bomb exploded. Besides immediate annihilation of many it’s lethal radiations will continue to kill and maim in years ahead. No matter what happens now Alvi earns deep respect of many.”
He later said after the law ministry’s “rejoinder” about the president’s statement “ it is unavoidable to launch a parliamentary probe“ into the matter.
Former chairman Senate and senior PPP leader Raza Rabbani, in a statement, said “the allegations levelled by the President are very serious and have far reaching effects on the entire system”.
He said an inquiry should be conducted by the Senate. “The President and his concerned staff should appear before the Bar of the Senate.”
“If the investigation reveals that the President has misrepresented the facts he should be processed against under the Constitution and law,” he added.
Additional reporting by Haseeb Bhatti