The Fair Trial Act 2012 – a bill that will authorise the state to tap people’s phone calls and intercept all other private communications in order to catch terrorists – was unanimously passed in the National Assembly on Thursday.
The controversial bill, which sounded alarm bells in certain quarters due to concern that it will pose a serious threat to people’s privacy, vests unprecedented powers with the security agencies to conduct surveillance of citizens.
The federal cabinet had already approved the “Fair Trial Act 2012” in September, arguing that it would allow security agencies to use “modern techniques and devices” for investigations.
Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf lauded the passage of the bill, saying, “A message has been sent to terrorists today that the entire nation is united against them.” He added that the bill will demonstrate Pakistan’s resolve against terrorism and its commitment towards strengthening its law enforcement agencies to the international community.
Under the new law, intelligence and law enforcement agencies will now be able to tap phone calls, emails, SMS, internet communication and conduct human intelligence of any individual on suspicion of their involvement in terrorist activities. The evidence collected through such surveillance will also be admissible in a court of law, subject to issuance of prior surveillance warrants by a judge.
The collection of evidence, under the bill, would be done through any modern device in addition to human intelligence, covert surveillance and property interference. Moreover, the provisions of the legislation will apply to all citizens within and outside Pakistan, all persons on board a ship or aircraft registered in Pakistan and to all transactions or communications originating or concluding in Pakistan by any person.
Despite the unanimous passage of the bill, lawmakers feared that the bill could be misused by security and intelligence agencies for political purposes, while it could also affect the fundamental rights of citizens as enshrined in the Constitution.
The bill, which now incorporates 31 amendments proposed by the opposition Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N), does not contain a proper definition of “terrorism” and, therefore, it provides vast powers to security and intelligence agencies to pick up a person at their will.
However, the political setup had its own interest in the long-delayed accountability bill because it would determine how the accountability of public office holders would be done in future. For the first time in the country’s history, there would be punishment for the misuse of authority by intelligence agencies – an amendment added to the bill by the opposition. Under a clause of the bill, any person found in violation with the provisions of the warrant of surveillance shall be punishable with imprisonment of up to five years or with fined up to ten million rupees or both.
However, legislators were seemingly convinced about non-implementation of the law with the leader of the opposition, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan recalling instances when the “phones of a sitting Prime Minister and President” were monitored. He added that implementation of the law was “the biggest challenge.”
MQM leader Iqbal Qadri and Zafar Baig Bhittni from Fata also endorsed the view that the bill could be misused in the future. Other changes forced by the opposition, included decreasing the list of approved agencies to six from the original 16 agencies proposed by the government. Now only the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), three services intelligence agencies, the Intelligence Bureau (IB) and police would have the capability of implementing a warrant of interception to be issued by a high court judge.
Similarly, intervention of the opposition reduced the period of the warrants issued by a sessions and district judge to 60 days from the original 180 days. Two additional amendments proposed by the opposition were rejected by the government after it refused to decrease the life of the bill to one year against the proposed three years.
The government also rejected an opposition proposal for limiting the applicability of the bill to offences under the Anti-Terrorism Act.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 21st, 2012.
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