Dawn Editorial 3rd August 2023

A terrible law

THE National Assembly — a forum elected, empowered and entrusted by the nation to safeguard the public interest — has once again capitulated to unelected powers to pass legislation that gravely undermines civil rights.

The amendments to the Official Secrets Act passed by the Lower House on Tuesday read like an autocrat’s wish list: sweeping powers to search and detain; to brand anyone an ‘enemy’ of the state on mere suspicion; to pry into citizens’ personal affairs without a court-issued warrant; to freely use force against suspects who resist such intrusions; and to treat anyone as guilty until they are proven innocent.

It is deeply troubling that whoever had this law drafted clearly not only felt that such extreme measures were ‘appropriate’ against citizens of this country, but that they should also be given sanction. Thankfully, the Senate has refused to abdicate its responsibility. Facing stiff opposition from both government and opposition benches, the Senate chairman has referred the NA-passed bill to the relevant Senate committee for further debate.

It is unfortunate that so few legislators are speaking out while Pakistani democracy is being frogmarched into the shambles by their own hands. A law which empowers the state to consider anyone an ‘enemy’ — even if they have unintentionally interacted with any person or entity deemed to be working against the country — not only runs counter to the established principles of justice, it is dangerous in the hands of a state that routinely brands its own citizens, including elected prime ministers, ‘traitors’.

Likewise, any law that gives intelligence agencies carte blanche to “enter and search any person or place, without a warrant, and if necessary, by use of force, and seize any document, sketch, or like nature, or anything which is or can be evidence” on the basis of mere suspicion is excessive and will only serve to create a climate of perpetual fear.

The same bill also pushes for all materials collected by intelligence agencies during their investigations to be considered admissible as evidence, even when they may not have been collected by legal means. This would include secretly taped conversations or video recordings done without a warrant from a court of law.

Do our lawmakers really want to give intelligence agencies complete impunity to conduct surveillance operations against anyone, which would include themselves, and conveniently justify their intrusive activities later by calling them part of an ongoing investigation?

Even in the worst period of oppression in Pakistan’s history, such a brazen attempt to jettison civil liberties would have prompted an outcry from the thinking segments of society. When the implications are this serious, it is critical that this law is debated further — not just in parliament, but by civil society too. The Senate, meanwhile, must do its duty.

Published in Dawn, August 3rd, 2023

Poll delay?

THE prime minister’s assertion that general elections will be held according to the results of the recently concluded digital census has thrown up a slew of questions, the most important of which concerns the timely holding of polls. Up until recently, ministers had been saying that elections would be conducted as per the 2017 head count. However, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, while talking to a local TV channel, threw a curveball on Tuesday when he categorically said that elections would be held “on the basis of the new census”. If this is to be done, then the results of the fresh head count will have to be notified, a constitutional amendment passed, and new delimitations conducted by the ECP. Considering that the information minister has said that the National Assembly will be dissolved early, can all this be achieved within the available time frame? After all, the current parliament only has days left to its tenure, while the House lacks the numbers to pass an amendment authorising new delimitations. Do the rulers plan on resorting to more constitutional ‘wizardry’, similar to what was seen in the case of the Punjab and KP caretaker set-ups? Will the caretakers at the centre be around for longer than the legally mandated 90 days? A fresh legal and constitutional crisis confronts the nation if the outgoing rulers insist on holding polls as per the 2023 numbers.

The government must also consider that the MQM, PPP and other parties have reservations about the latest census results, and it is unlikely there will be consensus on the issue when the Council of Common Interests meets to deliberate on the head count. This leaves the door open for political engineering, particularly if the caretakers call a meeting of the CCI to approve the 2023 census. While it would have been ideal to hold elections according to the latest census, under no circumstances must polls be delayed beyond the constitutionally mandated period available to the caretakers to hold them. The census controversy must not be used as an excuse to further violate the Constitution, and delay polls indefinitely. The PML-N needs to dispel the confusion and forge consensus around holding the polls as per the 2017 figures so that a clear time frame emerges for general elections.

Published in Dawn, August 3rd, 2023

Dark reality for migrants

IN yet another story that highlights the perils of trafficking and the plight of economic migrants leaving Pakistan, nearly 400 Pakistanis were rescued in a raid in Libya this week. It was reported that these migrants were locked in a smugglers’ warehouse. Libyan authorities released them in an early morning raid in the port city of Tobruk. Most of them have been moved to a deportation centre in Benghazi, from where they will be sent back to Pakistan.

The relief organisation that spoke to this paper described the migrants’ heartbreaking condition. There are reports that the migrants, 11 of whom are children, have scabies and other ailments, and were living in dismal, cramped conditions as they were kept in a warehouse. Unfortunately, this is a reality many migrants are aware of before they embark on the dangerous journey from Pakistan to Mediterranean waters via Libya. Since the recent drowning of hundreds of Pakistani migrants off the Greek coast, there has been pressure on Islamabad to dismantle these trafficking networks. It is regrettable that the action taken so far has been limited to token raids and arrests. Pakistan’s politicians must commit to cracking down on trafficking networks and ensure that the requisite measures and legislation are in place to enable their dismantling. A proposed 14-point National Action Plan Against Migrant Smuggling has been drafted by experts but has yet to be put into action. Clearly, this issue is low on the list of our leaders’ priorities, as it is a matter that largely concerns the poor. This attitude has to change. In Europe, lawmakers are viewing the issue of illegal migration seriously and have also criticised Pakistan’s lack of cooperation to take back deported migrants. The fact that migrants take these risks of their own volition speaks volumes for their lack of confidence in our political leaders who can’t be bothered to strive for a better future for their constituents.

Published in Dawn, August 3rd, 2023

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