Status unclear

Published September 12, 2023

EVER since the president made it known that recent amendments to the Army Act and Official Secrets Act were enacted without his assent, the legal status of both laws has been open to question. Given the state’s refusal to acknowledge the issue and the president’s inability or unwillingness to take action after his startling disclosure, it seems the Supreme Court will ultimately decide whether or not presidential assent can be ‘deemed’ to have been given in this case. The amendments in question, bulldozed through parliament by the PDM government despite allies’ and civil society’s vocal protests, have far-reaching implications. Through the amendments, the movers of the bills sought to cede considerable new powers to the Pakistani military and the army chief, including powers to retaliate more forcibly against critics and suppress dissent, as well as the power to control armed forces personnel’s professional and political decisions even after their career in the forces had ended. Other provisions had given blanket cover to the armed forces’ ‘extracurricular’ activities, as long as they could be argued to be in relation to national development or strategic interests.

The Supreme Court registrar had returned an earlier petition against the amendments on technical grounds, but two recent petitions, filed by the Sindh Bar Council and PTI chief Imran Khan, seem to mount a more serious challenge. Both petitions have argued that the amendments should be struck down on the grounds that the two bills through which they were enacted never received presidential assent. They have also argued for the amended laws to be suspended while the court deliberates this matter, considering that they allow the state to aggressively encroach on a slew of civil rights. It is regrettable that the president himself has chosen to remain quiet despite being responsible for much of the confusion surrounding the laws. Meanwhile, separate challenges against the trial of civilians in military courts are also pending before the apex court, but the Supreme Court is unlikely to issue any judgements anytime soon owing to the impending change of guard at the institution. Until the new chief justice is sworn in and sets these matters for deliberation, the apex court should issue an interim injunction suspending the application of the assailed laws to prevent any grave injustice. Fundamental rights should not remain in jeopardy until the judiciary sets its house in order.

Published in Dawn, September 12th, 2023

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