Pakistani authorities are clamping down on discussion of excesses committed by law enforcement personnel as the country struggles with its half-hearted battle against terrorism. A woman activist was killed on April 24th just hours she hosted an event for a dissident from the embattled province of Baluchistan. Pakistan’s establishment considers advocates of Baloch autonomy as separatists and have focused more resources on fighting them than in confronting Islamist terrorists, who were Pakistan’s allies in Afghanistan and in India in Kashmir.
On April 18th 2015, a member of a religio-political group, Tariq Mehboob died in the custody of the paramilitary Rangers in Karachi. He was arrested from a residential area of Karachi by the Rangers with other party and family members. This was not the first custodial death in Pakistan’s commercial, Karachi. The city’s dominant political, the avowedly secular Mutahidda Qaumi Movement (MQM) that represents the city’s predominantly Urdu-speaking population, has filed several complaints in the courts against forced disappearances and custodial killings.
Although MQM won an overwhelming reaffirming vote from Karachi’s voters in a crucial by-election on April 23rd from its heartland Azizabad, and majority of cant local government election on April 25th. MQM has mostly looked upon with suspicion by the establishment because of its anti-establishment stance. The military has accused MQM of being involved in criminality for years, often arresting its members and trying to prop up opponents. The party has become one of the major victims of forced disappearances and extra-judicial killings even though the military and Police deny all the allegations.
The repression now seems to have received approval from Pakistan’s elected parliament, which was expected by the people to lead them towards a more democratic future. Instead, recent legislations and laws have granted cover to abduction, disappearance and torture for investigation to the military and civil forces in Pakistan.
In 2013, Pakistan’s Parliament approved the Pakistan Protection Act 2013 (PPA). The Bill was ostensibly aimed at countering terrorism and punishing those raising arms against the state. But many Clauses of PPA contradict the citizens’ legal rights. Clause 3 of PPA allows the Armed Forces and Civil Armed Forces to use necessary force after giving a prior warning to arrest a person who was likely to commit a crime. A person can now be arrested without committing a crime just because the arresting authority believes he or she might commit a crime in the future. The law also grants security forces the permission to search the property of arrestees without a warrant.
In January 2015, after the attack on Army Public School in Peshawar, Pakistan’s military forced the civil government to authorize military courts. Pakistan’s Parliament amended the Constitution and enacted the Army Act Amendment, which allowed military courts to conduct speedy trials and executions of people already in Pakistani jails, facing terrorism charges. This Act also gives absolute power to the federal government of Pakistan to transfer the case to a military court of any person who according to the government is using religion or sect and is a threat to Pakistan.
The PPP (Bhutto’s party) parliamentary leader in the Senate, Raza Rabbani, termed the Army Amendment Act as ‘death day’ for parliament.
The law is already being used selectively. Mumtaz Qadri, the convicted killer of former secular Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, is still sitting in jail without likelihood of being executed. But activists of secular parties disliked by the military, such as MQM, have been arrested without warrants and tried in the Anti-terrorism Courts.
Now Pakistan’s parliament Standing Committee of Information Technology and Communication has approved a Bill ostensibly to control Cyber Crime. The bill is yet to be tabled before the National Assembly but its contents have attracted huge backlash. The Convener of Pakistan’s Internet Service Providers Association, Wahajus Siraj described the bill as “draconian”, and the Board Member of Pakistan Software Houses Association, Afaq Ahmad termed it “wrong and senseless.” According to many analysts, many clauses of this bill negate Article 19 of the Constitution of Pakistan, which is about “Freedom of Speech and Press”.
The Cyber Crime Act, which may be called as “Electronic Crime Acts 2015 allows Police, the Federal Investigation Agency or any other agency to arrest or search any person without any warrant. Clauses 17, 18 and 19 of the Bill bar use of social media to share ‘false information’ or intelligence. Pakistan’s Federal government alone will decide what constitutes false information or intelligence. This would be tantamount to denying people the right to raise voice against any wrong doing or corruption against any institution or government of Pakistan (whether federal or provincial). Political debate, criticism, analysis, blogs, commentary, cartoons and caricatures would be considered criminal acts.
According to clause 26, 27 and 28, the ISPs, restaurants, hotels and other public places will have to keep the data of their customers for three months and an assigned officer of the government will have permission to raid and arrest any person related to above mentioned businesses. Clause 31 allows the government to block or remove access to any website or online information if it is deemed ‘inappropriate in the interest of the glory of Islam, or the integrity and security of Pakistan.’
Pakistan has an entrenched tradition of military dominance and many authoritarian laws have been made in the past by one of the four military dictators, who between them governed the country for 33 years. Civilian governments have often tried to regain space from dictatorships albeit haltingly whenever they have been given a chance. But this time around it seems that elected members of parliament are the ones surrendering to the authoritarian culture and give up the few freedoms and rights Pakistanis have been left.