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Fair Trial Act gives Pakistan authorities wiretapping powers

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Pakistani parliamentarians have passed a bill that would allow authorities to obtain a warrant for wiretapping communications of suspected terrorists.

The Fair Trial Act 2012, which the National Assembly passed December 20, would give Pakistani security agencies a new weapon against terrorism by letting them tap and record phone conversations and electronic communications involving suspected terrorists, proponents of the bill say. It requires Senate and presidential approval to become law.

Existing Pakistani laws prohibit the authorities from using modern investigative techniques - such as covert surveillance, intelligence gathering and communication intercepts - that other countries use to prevent terrorism and to enforce the law, Farooq H. Naek, the minister for law, justice and parliamentary affairs who introduced the bill, told the National Assembly.

"We direly need effective legislation as the incumbent laws were not so helpful in this regard," Federal Minister for Information and Broadcasting Qamar Zaman Kaira told Central Asia Online.

Under the proposed law, the authorities could present evidence, such as intercepted emails and faxes, as probable cause to get a warrant that would enable authorities to mount wiretaps and eavesdropping operations to gather counter-terrorism evidence, proponents say.

Safeguarding citizen's rights

To prevent abuses of power, the Fair Trial Act would set a deadline for security agencies to gather evidence in anti-terrorism operations and would require them to abide by laws that protect civil liberties and privacy rights, the bill says.

The bill details a procedure meant to ensure lawful application of authorities' new powers. An official wanting to monitor a terrorism suspect's communications would present a report through his or her department head to the interior minister.

The minister would then decide whether to approve requesting a warrant from a judge or to halt or modify the request, according to the bill.

If the interior minister approves the request, the bill says a judge would have to consider several issues before deciding whether to issue the warrant. These questions would include: Would a warrant enable the authorities to collect evidence? Is there a threat of a planned offence? Would a warrant unduly interfere with someone's privacy or property?

While the proposed law would help track down, monitor and prosecute suspected terrorists, Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao, a National Assembly member and former interior minister, cautioned that it must be used only for the purpose of combatting terrorism,

The bill is designed to help Pakistan improve its conviction rate in terror cases.

In December, Pakistani media reported that Swat courts had returned convictions in only nine of 914 terrorism-related cases in the past five years and in Khyber Pakhtunkwa (KP), the terror conviction rate is only 4%. The KP government is also considering measures that would strengthen the Anti-Terrorism Court.

Extensive scope

Although it has safeguards for civil liberties built in, the act would cast a wide net. If enacted, the law would apply to all Pakistani citizens at home and abroad and aboard any Pakistani-flagged ship or aircraft. It also would apply to all transactions or communications made between Pakistan and elsewhere, regardless of who conducts them.

Security agencies empowered under the bill include Inter-Services Intelligence, the police, Intelligence Bureau and the three military intelligence agencies.

Internet or telephone service providers who fail to assist with the execution of a warrant would face imprisonment of up to one year or a fine of up to Rs. 10m (US $103,000).

The act would enable authorities to access the phone, fax and email records of terrorism suspects, Sherpao observed.

"Such kinds of evidence would be presented before the court to seek punishment for the terrorists," he told Central Asia Online.

This article was originally published by Central Asia Online

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Tags: Pakistan