ISLAMABAD, Dec 20: Amid a big show of political accommodation, the National Assembly passed a bill on Thursday to permit state interception of private communication mainly to track terrorists, after the government accepted 32 amendments proposed by the main opposition party.
The Investigation for Fair Trial Bill, which needs approval also by the Senate to become law, will allow security agencies to collect evidence “by means of modern techniques and devices” like wire-tapping and intercepting emails and SMS text messages that will be accepted in a court in cases registered under five security-related laws.
The PPP-led coalition government had ensured presence of enough numbers in the 342-seat house to rush through the bill soon after the house standing committee on law and justice presented its report recommending the adoption of the legislation to which the Pakistan Muslim League-N did not agree in its present shape.
The bill had become controversial amid fears voiced by critics and human rights groups for perceived threat to people’s privacy and misuse against political opponents.
But after a fiery speech and warning by Leader of Opposition Nisar Ali Khan against any attempt to bulldoze what he called a “black law”, three ministers immediately held a conference with him and some of his PML-N colleagues on a back row of desks inside the house that resulted in a compromise in which the government, according to the opposition leader, accepted all but two or three of the amendments sought.
But after the bill’s passage, which was occasionally marked by some confusion about the numbering, or renumbering, of several of its 39 clauses, besides four schedules, due to so many minor or significant changes, Chaudhry Nisar proudly spoke of a total of 32 of his party’s amendments accepted by Law and Justice Minister Farooq H. Naek, including making the use of collected information outside the scope of the new law a cognisable offence punishable with up to three years’ imprisonment.
Despite earlier opposition objections and fears, there was no “no” in the final voice vote on the bill, which was followed by a rare exchange of mutual thanks in speeches by Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf and the leader of opposition for the two sides accepting each other’s points of view and about the necessity of first such law in Pakistan, whose passage came on the heels of deadly killings of at least seven workers of anti-polio campaign in Karachi and some parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa apparently by religious fanatics over the past two days.
The prime minister called the bill’s approval a warning to terrorists who, he said, had become a challenge to the “whole system”, and a message to the world that “we want to strengthen our security forces so they could eradicate terrorism”.
“It is the resolve of the whole nation not to allow any attempt to disfigure the life and face of Pakistan,” he said.
Chaudhry Nisar acknowledged the necessity of such a law which he said had provided a framework of surveillance by security agencies, under warrants from a high court, although previously even presidents and prime ministers had not been spared informal surveillance.
Yet, the present bill, he said, was not an ideal document and still had “some holes”, and called for a monitoring system to ensure its success as well as for its review by the next government.
The bill cites among its objectives provision for “investigation and collection of evidence by means of modern techniques and devices to prevent and effectively deal with offences” falling under five existing laws: The Private Military Organisations and Prohibition Act, 1974; Prevention of Anti-National Activities Act, 1974; Anti-Terrorism Act, 1997; Pakistan Nuclear Regulatory Authority Ordinance, 2001; and National Command Authority Act, 2010, to the extent of the Anti-Terrorism Act only.
The existing laws, it says, “neither comprehensively provide for nor specifically regulate advanced and modern investigative techniques such as covert surveillance and human intelligence, property interference, wire-tapping and communication interception that are used extensively in other jurisdictions” to successfully prevent offences and as an indispensable aid to law enforcement and administration of justice.
While the bill, as earlier cleared by the 18-member house standing committee on law and justice, to which the PML-N did not agree, cited the Inter-Services Intelligence, three services intelligence agencies, the Intelligence Bureau, police and the Federal Investigation Agency as agencies that could seek surveillance warrant against any person, the FIA was omitted on PML-N’s insistence because of what one of its lawmakers called bad reputation of the agency.
One amendment came from the government-allied MQM which was accepted by the minister.
Acts that could be allowed by a warrant of surveillance or interception are: interception and recording of telephone communication of “the suspect with any person and of that person with any other person”; video recording of any person, persons, premises, event, situation etc; and interception or recording or obtaining of any electronic transaction, including, but not limited to, emails, SMS etc; interception and taking over of any equipment used in the communication in respect of which the warrant is issued, including, but not limited, to telephone, mobile Sims or electronic database belonging to the person in respect of whom the warrant has been issued; collection of evidence through any modern devices in addition to the ones mentioned; use of human intelligence; covert surveillance and property interference; access to any information or data in any form related to a transaction, communication or its content; and any other form of surveillance or interception notified by the federal government.
As an apparent move to ensure sufficient attendance for the passage of the bill, the government had arranged for their breakfast at the Parliament House before the start of the sitting, while the prime minister’s presence proved an added attraction for many lawmakers who kept him busy during most of his time in the house to sign their applications.
During an earlier speech following protests over the absence of some ministers to respond to questions related to their ministries during the question hour, Chaudhry Nisar had threatened strong opposition also to a controversial long-pending government bill seeking the creation of an independent National Accountability Commission as well as a recently introduced bill to grant amnesty to tax evaders.
The house, which was originally due to be prorogued on Thursday, was adjourned until 10am on Friday. But there was no official word if the National Accountability Commission Act, which has already been approved by the house standing committee on law and justice over PML-N objections, would be brought for passage on Friday.