Imagine walking down a street near your home when you realize that you’re being followed. A motorcycle pulls up and two guns point at your head demanding your wallet. You hastily hand over the contents of your pocket and the muggers ride off. You spot a policeman and run towards him and start telling him your story. But he looks at you with suspicion. He asks you to prove your identity. Unfortunately your only ID was in the wallet those thugs stole. Very unfortunate for you, as the policeman starts to cuff you stating that you are now considered an “enemy alien”. You repeat your plight and inform the policeman that your ID was just stolen. He thinks you’re resisting arrest and promptly pulls his gun out and shoots you point blank.
According to a law making its way through the Pakistani legislature, this scenario would become completely legal and normal. The police and military are being granted wide powers and immense discretion all on the pretext of combating the threat of terrorism. A government functionary can now shoot someone cold dead and there will be no legal action against him, even if they were in the wrong. They can arrest you, take all your belongings, your computers, your files, your money, seize your bank accounts, and they can detain you in an undisclosed location for a period of 90 days (extendable), all on the basis of “reasonable suspicion”.
To top it off, you will be treated as guilty until proven innocent — by yourself of course — in a secret court, the location or details of which will not be revealed to the public, including your relatives. Bail and Habeas Corpus are both suspended. Even today, government agencies are accused of kidnapping citizens and whisking them away to secret locations, but this law will make that action completely legal. Moreover, law enforcement agents will not be liable for any acts they commit during their duties.
The vast swathe of offenses termed “terrorist acts” is worrying. Anyone from a protester speaking out against government injustice to a person tweeting about it would fall under the same crime of “terrorism”. The vague definitions in the bill leave a lot of wiggle room for prosecutors and government agents. Of course this law has plenty of potential to suppress political opposition, something I’m sure the ruling PML government would use to its advantage. In fact, they’re already moving to appoint their favorites as secret court judges.
The Protection of Pakistan Ordinance (PPO) is poised to strip citizens of their fundamental human rights. Having been hastily rushed through the National Assembly, amid walkouts and stiff protests, it will be tabled in the Senate soon, where it will meet with some resistance from the opposition. Unfortunately, from what I have seen and read of the statements from the opposition, there seems to be no real substance to the protest. The PPP intends to oppose the bill in the Senate, but it has no problem enforcing the bill in the province of Sindh where the PPP is in power. Most other protest amounts to “our recommendations were not added to the bill”. No one seems to realize that this law does not need amendments, this law needs to be struck down completely and the people who wrote it made to answer to the public.
Yes, Pakistan is faced with a real problem of terrorism. Explosions rock major cities every week if not every day. Thousands of innocent people have died since America’s “War On Terror” started in 2001. But considering every single person in Pakistan an automatic criminal is not the answer. I thought we were supposed to be fighting terrorism not becoming terror ourselves. There are already laws on the table that address terrorism. The Anti-Terrorism Act of 1997 is still in force. But as Babar Sattar pointed out in a recent TV interview (link is in Urdu), a law does not abolish terrorism. The need is not for another draconian law which will only give more power to law enforcement agencies and legalize their existing brutality.
Human Rights Watch has condemned this law, stating that it “violates fundamental rights to freedom of speech, privacy and peaceful assembly, and due process protections”. Defence of Human Rights, a Pakistani NGO, has condemned the bill and has prepared an annotated version of it. Civil liberties organizations across Pakistan are calling out for the abolition of this bill. But if it passes, all those voices of dissent could be considered “enemies of the state” and prosecuted.
In fact this is an excellent illustration of Robert Higgs’ thesis “Crisis and Leviathan”. The state of Pakistan is seizing on this crisis opportunity to increase its powers to an unimaginable level. This is what the US did with the PATRIOT act, but not to such an extent. Pressure from civil liberties groups and the general public kept the PATRIOT act limited.
Unfortunately, there is not a lot of public awareness in Pakistan about civil liberties or why they are important. Pakistanis trust the government too much and would rather give up their rights for vague promises. While there is no independent polling, this is apparent from the numerous articles and TV interviews published on the topic. Almost everyone is in agreement on the necessity of such a bill, or the necessity of giving up their rights and granting immense powers to the state as the only solution to terrorism. Ironically, they are all using the PATRIOT act as an example to justify the PPO, the assumption being that the US as a democracy can do no wrong, so it must be a good idea. Only a few people are talking about governmental abuse of the law, but no one wants to scrap it completely.
The manner in which this law is being rushed through the legislature could lead one to think there is an ulterior motive behind passing the bill. In any case, the ruling party is poised to gain a huge amount of power which, if it wanted to, could be used to maintain its rule for years to come, depending on the gullibility of the public. And the public in Pakistan is extremely gullible. The next few days should prove to be decisive as the bill goes through the Senate. If it passes, then Pakistan would go down in history as one of the more totalitarian of states.