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Of deemed assent and an apology: Legal experts weigh in on Army Act, secrets act debacle

Some call for legal action against President House's staff, others debate the legal status of the bills.
Published August 20, 2023

Law experts have called for action against President Arif Alvi’s staff after, in a startling revelation, he denied giving his assent to bills for amending the Official Secrets Act and the Pakistan Army Act.

The two bills, which were passed by the Senate and National Assembly (NA) during the tenure of Shehbaz Sharif’s government amid opposition from both sides of the aisle in Parliament, were sent to the president a few weeks ago.

Alvi had 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.

Earlier in the day, he said that he did not sign the two bills and had asked his staff to return the bills unsigned within the stipulated time to make them “uneffective”.

Following his statement, legal experts questioned the validity of the legislations as laws and were of the view that Alvi should initiate action against the President House staff involved in the matter.

“Alleged committing of a forgery of presidential assent is a new low in our statecraft and politics. This is worrisome at so many levels. If the president, who in theory is the highest official of the state — his status is so high that according to the Constitution, all the executive authority of the Federation is to be exercised in the name of the president and he is commander in chief of the armed forces — is not safe from forgery, then it does not bode well for the health of the rest of the state,” lawyer Usama Khawar said.

“The president should initiate criminal and disciplinary proceedings against the officials of the President House. Forgery is a criminal offence under Pakistan Penal Code and carries a penalty of imprisonment for seven years.

“The president’s seriousness about this issue would be gauged if he initiates criminal proceedings against his staff. Because just apologising to the victims of these anti-democratic and expansive laws is not sufficient.

“Moreover, the President should also communicate this forgery to the legislative branches, the Senate and the Assembly Secretariats, executive branches, Cabinet Secretariat, the relevant ministries — law and defence — and to the Printing Corporation of Pakistan to not publish the forged acts in The Gazette of Pakistan,” he added.

Khawar recounted the process of how a bill becomes law after being passed by the Senate and NA and then being signed by the president.

However, in the “present controversy”, he said the president was placed in a “powerful position” due to the dissolution of the National Assembly. “If he returned the bills, he would essentially have killed them because there was no National Assembly to pass the bills,” Khawar explained.

He added that in case of a constitutional challenge to the validity of the two laws, there now existed strong legal grounds for the court to declare that the Official Secrets (Amendment) Act, 2023, and Pakistan Army Act (Amendment) Act, 2023 were not validly enacted acts.

Likewise, lawyer and rights activist Jibran Nasir interpreted President Alvi’s statement as an allegation of “fraud and subterfuge”.

“The president of the country claims that the staff assigned to serve his office and follow all lawful commands not only deliberately flouted his orders but worse misinformed him about the actions taken,” he said in a post on Instagram, adding, “The commands also did not relate to any ordinary assignment such as planning a visit or appointment for the president but relates directly to manipulating the legislative and parliamentary scheme of law making in our country”.

“In simple terms, the president is saying that key legal amendments have become law through fraud and subterfuge.”

Now, the president “must immediately sack all those involved”, he asserted.

He also rebuked the PPP and PML-N “for their part in introducing these and other bills in the NA and Senate in the first place”.

They “will be remembered [as] collaborators of the establishment who for the sake of seeking relief for their leaders conceded unprecedented space to the establishment”, Nasir said.

Separately, Nasir also shared the mechanism through which a bill becomes a law.

‘No deemed assent in this case’

Lawyer Basil Nabi Malik said the situation was “troubling to say the least”.

“Without his consent as president, it cannot be said that the bills in question have passed into law. Tumultuous times ahead,” he observed.

Barrister Rida Hosain said that the Constitution sets out a clear procedure for the passage of bills and explained how Article 75 works. “Under Article 75, the president can within 10 days either assent to a bill or return it to parliament with a message that the bill be reconsidered,” she said.

“If the president decides to return the bill, there are two stages: the first stage is returning the bill to parliament for reconsideration under Article 75(1)(b). The second stage is a joint sitting of parliament actually reconsidering the bill and (with or without amendment) passing it again under Article 75(2).”

She also explained the concept of “deemed assent” even if the president does not in fact give his assent. She said the deeming provision “only kicks in once the bill has been reconsidered and passed by parliament in a joint sitting under Article 75(2). There is no automatic deemed assent attached to an unsigned bill”.

Barrister Hosain added: “The president claims he has not signed and assented to the Official Secrets Act and the Army Act amendments. Neither of these two bills were ever reconsidered and passed by parliament in a joint sitting. There can be no deemed assent in this case.

“If the President’s claims are true, neither of these laws are valid pieces of legislation.”

Barrister Asad Rahim Khan also noted that within the scheme of Article 75, “deemed assent is relevant to the second time the president is sent a bill, and not the first”.

He added: “As this was the first round, the president’s express assent was essential for the bill’s passage into law — anything less is to have returned it under Article 75(1)(b), which does not mandate that any specific provision be addressed.”

Barrister Ali Zafar was also of the view that if the president had not signed the two bills, they had not become laws.

“Article 75 of the Constitution says so. Deemed assent only applies after joint Parliament sends bills back,” he highlighted in a post on X.

Likewise, lawyer Reema Omer referred to a press conference held by interim law and information ministers after the president’s denial, noting that the government, too, had confirmed the he did not give his assent to the two bills.

“Article 75 doesn’t provide for ‘deemed assent’ if the president fails to give [his] assent within ten days in the first instance.

“How can these two bills be considered acts of Parliament?” she questioned.