Official secrets bill sent to standing committee after fierce opposition in Senate

Contempt of parliament bill

ISLAMABAD: A bill to amend a colonial-era law and grant sweeping powers to intelligence agencies was referred to a Senate committee on Wednesday after facing fierce opposition from lawmakers in the upper house of parliament.

The current government had passed the Official Secrets (Amendment) Bill, 2023 in the National Assembly on Tuesday, aiming to broaden the scope of the Official Secrets Act of 1923 and allow intelligence agencies to raid and detain anyone suspected of breaching official secrets.

The bill was presented in the Senate by Law Minister Azam Nazeer Tarar in the absence of Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah Khan, but met with strong resistance from senators across the political spectrum, who questioned its legality and necessity.

Senate Chairman Sadiq Sanjrani announced that the bill would be sent to the relevant standing committee for further scrutiny.

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The proposed amendments would widen the definitions of military installations, documents, and enemies, bringing digital and modern means of communication under the purview of the secrets act. Experts warn that this could potentially include vloggers and bloggers within its ambit.

The bill would also grant vast powers to intelligence agencies, such as Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and Intelligence Bureau (IB), allowing them to enter and search any person or place without a warrant and seize any related documents or evidence of an offence.

The bill would also propose penalties, including imprisonment of up to three years, for disclosing the identity of intelligence agency members or informants.

Moreover, the amendments would extend the offence related to prohibited areas from wartime to peacetime and add drone photography of such areas as a crime.

Legal experts say that the proposed law appears to have been drafted with the recent May 9 violence in mind, triggered by the arrest of PTI chief Imran Khan in a corruption case. However, they stress that the law cannot be applied retroactively to those who attacked military installations on that day.

Before the bill’s presentation, senators from both the ruling and opposition benches criticised the legislative process in the upper house of parliament, expressing concerns about the rushed handling of significant bills with far-reaching effects.

The Federal Urdu University of Arts, Sciences and Technology, Islamabad (Amendment) Bill, 2023, and the HEC Amendment Bill 2023 also faced opposition and were referred to the relevant standing committees for further review. (Reporting by [name]; Editing by [name])

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