The Pakistan government is facing a backlash from MPs and senators after introducing an amendment to a colonial-era secrets act that critics have said will grant “draconian” powers to its military intelligence agency to detain and arrest citizens with impunity.
The amendment was quietly added in a parliamentary session and passed without providing copies to MPs, creating concern among parliamentarians on both sides of the aisle.
It is now before a standing committee before it is presented to the Senate to formally become law or be rejected.
The amendment empowers the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and Intelligence Bureau (IB) agencies to “at any time, enter and search any person or place, without warrant, and if necessary, by use of force” for anyone suspected of breaching the Official Secrets Act, such as leaking the name of an agency official.
It also defines an “enemy” broadly as “any person directly or indirectly intentionally or unintentionally working for or engaged with the foreign power, foreign agent, non-state actor, organisation [or] a group guilty of a particular act tending to show a purpose that is prejudicial to the safety and interest of Pakistan”.
Activists, politicians and lawyers said the bill would further trample democracy and human rights in Pakistan. Salahuddin Ahmed, a lawyer, said: “It is a draconian law that will give impunity to Pakistan’s feared intelligence agencies and formalise and enhance their already oversized influence over all of Pakistan’s affairs.”
The interior minister who had signed and introduced the amendment did not respond to a request for comment.
Military and security agencies such as the ISI already enjoy extensive unchecked power in Pakistan, but up to now had no legal protection for the enforced disappearances, abductions, torture and lengthy detentions that they have long been accused of carrying out.
Attempts to make enforced disappearances and abductions by military agencies illegal have previously been blocked by the powerful military establishment.
Tahir Bezinjo, a senator, said the government was “setting a very dangerous precedent” with this amendment. “This gives a legal cover for security agencies such as ISI to raid, abduct, and detain people,” he said. “I am 100% sure the same law will be used against anyone, be it politicians, activists or lawyers, who confront the military and its power. It is indeed a black chapter in the history of Pakistan.”
Senator Mushtaq Ahmed accused the government of trying to force the bill through the lower and upper houses of parliament without any discussion or deliberation. “The bill makes parliament redundant,” he said. “I see it as a strategic amendment which would have a lasting impact on human liberty and dignity, fundamental rights, democracy and free speech.”
The bill is among several that have been presented in parliament this week by the ruling coalition, led by the prime minister, Shehbaz Sharif, granting greater powers to the military and security establishment.
Sharif’s government is due to hand over power to a caretaker government next week, which will govern until elections by November, which will be taking place against a backdrop of severe economic and political turbulence.
The ruling government of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) enjoys a close relationship with the military establishment that has opposed the media and groups promoting democracy and human rights.
The military is overseeing a crackdown against the former prime minister Imran Khan, who was highly critical of its grasp over Pakistan’s politics and openly condemned the country’s powerful army chief, Gen Asim Munir. The military has attempted to dismantle Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party by arresting and pressurising many of his close aides, but Khan and his party remain a challenge in the elections.
Ammar Ali Jan, a historian and political activist, said this law showed that Pakistan was moving backwards in terms of democracy and human rights. “The act institutionalises enforced disappearance and erodes any hope of things getting better,” he said.