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What are the amendments made to Army Act and Official Secrets Act?

Bills to amend both the laws were reportedly approved by the president, with him now claiming that he did not sign the bills.
Published August 20, 2023

After President Arif Alvi’s astonishing remarks on Sunday that he did not sign the bills amending the Official Secrets Act and the Pakistan Army Act into law, it’s worth knowing what changes these bills proposed.

Both bills, widely criticised by both the opposition and treasury benches, were passed by the Senate and National Assembly and sent to the president for his approval a few weeks ago.

Official Secrets (Amendment) Bill, 2023

The amendments in the secrets act have broadened the definitions of military installations and brought 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.

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.

Section 6-A of the Official Secrets Act amendment bill 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.

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.

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 (JIT), 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 first arrest of PTI chief Imran Khan that day.

Pakistan Army (Amendment) Act, 2023

The Army Act amendment bill 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 bars 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 bill proposes introducing Section 26-B to the law, which 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”.

It further says those who “remained posted, employed, seconded, tasked or otherwise attached on sensitive duties” are forbidden from taking part in “political activity of any kind, during a period of five years from the date of his retirement, release, resignation, discharge, removal or dismissal from the service”.

In case of violation, a court constituted under the army act can punish them with “rigorous imprisonment for a term which may extend to two years”.

Section 55-A forbids any person subject to the army act in the past five years from “directly or indirectly enter[ing] into employment, consultation or other engagement with an entity having a conflict of interest” with the activities of the army or its affiliates. However, the law does not apply to those who seek prior approval from the army chief. A person guilty of the said offence can be imprisoned for up to “two years with fine not exceeding Rs500,000 or with both”, the bill states.

Section 55-B states that any person, who is or has been subject to the army act, and commits an offence under the Peca 2016 “with the mala fide intention to undermine, ridicule, or scandalise the armed forces” shall be punished in the manner as prescribed in the Peca law.

Section 55-C states that a person who is or has been subject to the army act, “intentionally ridicules, scandalises, brings into hatred or otherwise attempts to lower the armed forces of Pakistan or any part will be punished with imprisonment which may extend to two years or fine or with both”.

A clause introduced to Section 176-C proposes that the army chief “may delegate any of his powers and functions conferred by, or delegated under this act, to any officer or authority subordinate to him”.

Meanwhile, the addition of Section 176-E proposes that the laws under the act “shall have effect notwithstanding anything inconsistent contained in any other law, rules or regulations for the time being in force”, adding that any such inconsistent law shall, “to the extent of any inconsistency, cease to have effect”.

Section 175-E of the legislation says that the army, upon direction from or with the concurrence of relevant authorities of the federal or provincial governments, may directly or indirectly carry out activities related to national development and advancement of national or strategic interests.

“Provided that all such activities already undertaken shall be deemed and always to have done under this Act,” the clause says.