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Tuesday July 16, 2024

Govt, PTI trade barbs in NA over nod for call tracing

"I will support phone-tapping in the prevalent situation," says Defence Minister Khawaja Asif

By News Desk & our correspondents
July 10, 2024
(Left to right): Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly Omar Ayub, Minister for Law and Justice Azam Nazeer Tarar and Defence Minister Khawaja Asif. — APP/file
(Left to right): Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly Omar Ayub, Minister for Law and Justice Azam Nazeer Tarar and Defence Minister Khawaja Asif. — APP/file

ISLAMABAD: In response to the government’s formally allowing the top intelligence agency to tap phones of citizens to counter threats to national security, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) on Tuesday announced to challenge the move.

Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly Omar Ayub Khan said he would challenge the notification through his lawyer Babar Awan, as it was unconstitutional and against the fundamental rights envisaged in the Constitution, Geo News reported.

The federal government has given its nod to the country’s premier spy agency Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to intercept and tap calls and messages in the apprehension of an offence against national security. The federal cabinet has approved the circular allowing a designated officer of ISI to carry out the call tapping under Section 54 of the Telecommunication (Re-organisation) Act 1996. However, the officer nominated by the agency must be a Grade-18 officer. The said section of the Telecommunications Act allows the federal government to authorise any person or persons to intercept calls and messages or to trace calls through any telecommunication system in the interest of national security.

Omar Ayub said those authorising phone tapping would themselves fall victim to it. He also said those authorising the intelligence agency to trace calls would be put behind bars. “Asif Zardari, Nawaz Sharif, Shehbaz Sharif, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and Maryam Nawaz will also go to the prison because of this law,” Ayub said, adding that all of them would be seen pursuing their cases in courts.

In a related development, the Sunni Ittehad Council (SIC)’s parliamentary party meeting rejected outright the notification to allow tapping phone calls of citizens, billing it a subversion of their constitutional rights to privacy. The meeting, presided over by Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly Omar Ayub Khan, reviewed the latest political scene, cases against PTI leadership and other issues.

The forum adopted a unanimous resolution, which said that the parliamentary party wholly rejects notification No1005(1)/24 regarding giving unbridled powers to tap communication of any citizens on the pretext of national security interests. “This amount to subverting the constitutional rights of citizens to privacy. Furthermore, who will monitor misuse of such powers as no parameters have been specified,” it emphasised.

It also adopted a resolution against the attempt to arrest Omar Ayub by Islamabad and Mianwali police on false and frivolous charges and described them as an insult to the opposition leader’s office. It also contended that the PTI would not retreat from the struggle to achieve its constitutional rights through such nefarious actions by the government and that the party was united under the leadership of founder chairman Imran Khan.

“It is further resolved that the pending Iddat case against Imran Khan and Bushra Bibi and the delaying tactics employed by the prosecutor has raised question marks on the credibility of entire judicial system and has made us a laughing-stock in the entire world,” the resolution noted.

The parliamentary party condemned, what it called, the inhumane treatment of Vice Chairman Shah Mehmood Qureshi while taking him from Adiala jail to the anti-terrorism court in Lahore. “Qureshi has even been denied water during the 20-hour journey, and such criminal conduct of the police requires stern action.”

Lastly, it was resolved that “PTI strongly believes that the ECP’s act of denying the symbol has not only affected the political rights of PTI candidates but also its voters. The reserved seats case is pending before the Supreme Court of Pakistan and it is expected that this injustice would be undone. PTI expects that verdicts will be announced at the earliest by the Supreme Court of Pakistan.”

The opposition leader also registered a protest over a police raid at his residence in Islamabad saying that he would move a privilege motion in the House against the incident. He pointed out that as per rules, the speaker should be informed before the arrest of any member of the House. Omar Ayub also alleged that permission of a colonel or a major rank officer sitting in Adiala jail was required to meet the PTI founder. He said that he, along with other parliamentarians, were forced to wait at a police post outside the prison for four hours to meet their top leader. He went on to say that four persons including Mazhar Mashwani who is an educationist and Ghulam Shabbir Gill have been subjected to enforced disappearance.

On the other hand, Minister for Law Azam Nazir Tarar defended authorising the premier intelligence agency to intercept and trace calls in the national interests after the opposition recorded a protest, terming the same black and draconian law on the floor of the National Assembly. Responding to Omar Ayub, the law minister said that according to Section 54 of the Pakistan Telecommunication Reorganisation Act 1996, which reads that in the interest of national security or the apprehension of any offence, the federal government may authorise any person or persons to intercept calls and messages, trace calls through any communication system. He said that in other parts of the world also, with regard to national security and crime detection, the right to privacy is subject to law.

Tarar said the intelligence agencies and law enforcement agencies operate according to the same law and approach related data, adding that none of the governments in the last 28 years changed this provision, which is part of the Pakistan Telecommunication Reorganisation Act 1996. He said that from time to time, notifications are issued to authorise officers of intelligence agencies under the law.

He said that instead of authorising every agency, the government has authorised the premier intelligence agency of the country. The intelligence agency has also been bound to provide the name of the deputed officer of BS-18 or above or the area allocated to him for the task so that there is no misuse of authority.

He said that according to the summary of the cabinet sent to the ministry concerned, such authorisation would enhance harmonisation and coordination with law enforcement agencies, thereby, promoting a more integrated and effective approach to address national security threats. “Such interception of telecommunication would legally enable agency to receive information about possible threats and take effective measures to apprehend culprits,” the minister, while reading out the summary, said.

He said it was also stated that the right to privacy of people would be taken care of and action would be taken whosoever misuses the authority. “There can be checks on misuse of authority and law,” he said. At the same time, the federal law minister mentioned that the assassin of Benazir Bhutto was also traced through telephonic interception while the person who killed DIG Mobin in Lahore was also traced with the help of geofencing.