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Pakistan Reader# 648, 21 August 2023

President and the Controversy over his assent to two bills



The amendments made to the bill where in light of the prolonged political turmoil facing Pakistan

Femy Francis

What has the President said?
On 20 August, President Arif Alvi denied that he assented the amendments to the Official Secrets Act and the Pakistan Army Act. He expressed his concerns on social media platform formerly known Twitter now X stating that he did not sign the bills as he disagreed with the laws and that he ordered his staff to return the bills unsigned within the 10-day stipulated period as to make them abortive. Additionally, he claimed that he repeatedly inquired whether they returned the bill and was assured by his staff that they were, contrary to his knowledge he found: “that my staff undermined my will and command.”
 
What has been the response from the caretaker government?
On 20 August, President Alvi’s claims were refuted by Interim Law Minister Ahmed Irfan Aslam and Information Minister Murtaza Solangi that he was unaware of status of the two bills and stated that he: “chosen to discredit his own officials” and he should “take responsibility for his own actions”. In a joint press conference to clear the ambiguity the legal and constitution interim heads informed that they had not received any of the bills within the 10-day time period and therefore the bills become law. In accordance with Article 75 of the Pakistan’s constitution when a bill reaches the president for approval, he can either assent or reject it by returning the bill unsigned and provide with suggested observations and the second time the bill reaches him he is obliged to sign it. Legal and constitution representatives Ahmed and Murtaza informed that president Alvi did not resort to any or the recourse and kept the bill pending therefore it automatically passed by assuming “Deemed Assent”.
 
What do the legal experts say and response by political parties?
The amendments made to the bill where in light of the prolonged political turmoil facing Pakistan, Since the attack on military establishment on 9 May by PTI members, there has been a crackdown against the party leaders and activists. The current changes in the bill stands to further facilitate and strengthen the army establishment and other security agencies of Pakistan like FIA. The reproduced “cipher” transcript influence can be reflected in the amendment, with the clause bringing in stringent measures against the actors who violate these laws. The discrepancy in the current issues lays that President Alvi claims to have ordered the return of the bill to his staff and in accordance to which it was supposed to be reconsidered by Majlis-e-Shoora (parliament). If the bill was again passed the parliament without any changes, president would either have to assent within 10 days or it would be deemed to be assented. Which means the “deemed to be assented” claims made by the current interim government is invalid as it only applies after the bill reaches the president for the second time.
 
After President Alvi’s post political chaos ensued Pakistan with former Finance Minister Ishaq Dar finding Alvi’s statements as “unbelievable” and urged him to resign posting on ‘X’: “Unbelievable —minimum morality warrants Alvi Sb to resign, having failed to run his office effectively, efficiently and as per Rules of Business — official work is conducted on files and implementation ensured — such statements only indicate playing with the gallery.” Sherry Rehman president of PPP questioned Alvi’s ability to hold office. That if someone signed the bill from under his nose and he has no control over his staff then he should resign owing to his incompetency. Several leaders expressed their dissatisfaction with President Alvi’s statement and questioned if his loyalties still laid with PTI.  PPP leader Raza Rabbani stated that the allegation made by president are very serious and the concerned players should appear before court. 

PTI expressed solidarity with President Arif Alvi who contested from PTI in 2018. They thanked him for “rising above fears and taking a stand for the Constitution and law, the fundamental rights of citizens and the survival and security of democracy and the Parliament.” General Omar Ayub Khan PTI secretary demanded legal actions against those who disobeyed president’s order.
 
What are the bills about?
The amendment to Official Secret Act includes a definition for “enemy” where one would be considered if: “Any person who is directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally working for or engaged with a foreign power, foreign agent, non-state actor, organization, entity, association or group guilty of a particular act… prejudicial to the safety and interest of Pakistan.” In addition to that 6-A amendment to the bill states that disclosure of identities of intelligence agency members, informant or source without authorization will be dealt with punitive actions with up to three years of jail and an additional fine of PKR 10 million. A clause has been added prohibiting access to military installations and office not only in time of war but during peace times.
 
The Pakistan Army Act amendment outline stricter punishable measures, where a suspect if found guilty of divulging any information that they acquired in official capacity and or the information will affect the security and interest of the country or arms forces will be facing five years of rigorous imprisonment. Furthermore, the act forbids a person subject to Army Act to engage in political activities for the period of five years since probed and that any individual who defames, ridicules or scandalize armed forces will face punitive actions in accordance with the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act and face up to two years of imprisonment. Both the bills have gained criticism as they empower the establishment more to further their influence.  

References
“Caretakers rebuff claims,” Dawn, 21 August 2023
“What are the amendments made to Army Act and Official Secrets Act?” Dawn, 20 August 2023
Nadir Guramani, “‘As God is my witness’: President Alvi says he did not assent to bills amending Army Act, secrets law,” Dawn, 20 August 2023
“PTI Announces To Approach Supreme Court Over 'Unsigned' Official Secrets, Army Act Controversy,” The Friday Times, 20 August 2023

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