KARACHI: The Sindh High Court (SHC) directed on Thursday the interior ministry and concerned Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) authorities to file comments on a petition filed by civil society members against the crackdown on social media activists for allegedly criticising the armed forces online.
A two-judge bench, headed by Justice Syed Hasan Azhar Rizvi, granted them time till July 7 to file comments.
On June 7, the court had issued notices to the interior secretary and FIA director-general to file comments but on Thursday the lawyers sought more time to do so.
The petition was filed by human rights and social media activists, journalists and others, including Farieha Aziz, Zohra Yousuf, Ghazi Salahuddin and Jibran Nasir, who had sought direction for the interior and FIA authorities to stop arrests and detentions of online critics in a fresh crackdown.
Naming Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan and the FIA director-general as respondents, the petitioners said in mid-May Khan ordered the FIA to initiate action against persons running ‘anti-military’ campaigns on the internet.
They said the minister claimed to have taken notice of the online criticism against the armed forces. This action followed an announcement made by the military’s media affairs wing on the withdrawal of a tweet published by the Inter-Services Public Relations rejecting the inquiry report issued by the prime minister’s office regarding a news report published by Dawn newspaper in January, 2017 on the alleged differences between the government and armed forces regarding counter-terrorism strategies.
Since then, the petitioners had informed the court, the FIA had detained dozens of people involved in what it calls ‘an organised campaign’ against the country’s armed forces on social media. They added that, according to their information, no FIR had been registered against most of the individuals who were detained in the crackdown, nor has the FIA disclosed their identities.
They cited the case of activist Adnan Afzal Qureshi, who was arrested from Lahore on May 31 and charged under sections 20 and 24 of the Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act and Section 419 and Section 500 of the Pakistan Penal Code. The FIA claimed that the activist was arrested for anti-military tweets and abusive language against military personnel and political leaders.
The judges were told that the FIA had also sent inquiry notices to a number of political and social activists, directing them to appear at the FIA’s Counter-Terrorism Wing police station by a specified time and date. The court was informed that the FIA had also seized laptops, phones and other electronic devices owned by the detained individuals without any lawful authority or court warrant in sheer violation of the law.
The petitioners’ lawyer, Barrister Salahuddin Ahmed, had argued that this arrest was an example and indicative of how the respondents intended to misuse the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2015, (PECA) to quell freedom of speech. The lawyer added that Section 20 of the PECA pertained to an offense against the dignity of a natural person, while Section 24 pertained to cyber stalking.
The PECA does not prohibit criticism of the armed forces, therefore, it provided no basis for the arrest whatsoever, Barrister Ahmed had said, adding that the alleged criticism of the armed forces could form the basis of charges under Section 419 (punishment for cheating by personation) and Section 500 (defamation) of the Pakistan Penal Code.
The court was pleaded to declare that criticism of the armed forces did not, by itself, amount to a criminal offence and could not be subjected to any coercive action by the state. They also pleaded to restrain the interior ministry and FIA authorities from carrying on investigation, inquiry and taking or threatening any coercive action against any persons, including arrest, detention or seizure of property, merely on the basis of having criticised the armed forces.
A request was also made to direct the respondents to produce a list of the all persons arrested in connection with the crackdown, if any.