Pakistan | ‘As God is my witness’: President Alvi says he did not assent to bills amending Army Act, secrets law

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DAWN NEWS

In a startling turn of events, President Arif Alvi said on Sunday that he did not sign the bills amending the Official Secrets Act and the Pakistan Army Act into law as he “disagreed with these laws”. He alleged that his staff “undermined” his will and command.

In a post on social media platform X (formerly Twitter), Alvi said: “As God is my witness, I did not sign Official Secrets Amendment Bill, 2023 and Pakistan Army Amendment Bill, 2023 as I disagreed with these laws.”

The president said he asked his staff to return the bills unsigned within the stipulated time to make them “uneffective”.

“I confirmed from them many times that whether they have been returned and was assured that they were. However, I have found out today that my staff undermined my will and command. As Allah knows all, He will forgive Insha’Allah. But I ask forgiveness from those who will be affected,” the president said.

So far, the President House has not released a statement.

According to a Dawn report, Alvi had given his assent to the Of­­ficial Secrets (Amend­m­ent) Bill, 2023 and the Pakistan Army (Amend­ment) Bill, 2023 on Saturday, although their current legal status in light of the president’s remarks has since become unclear.

Both the bills were approved by the Senate and National Assembly and sent to the president for his approval amid criticism by opposition lawmakers a few weeks ago.

Section 6-A of the secrets act creates a new offence of unauthorised disclosure of the identities of members of intelligence agencies, informants or sources. The offence would be punishable by up to three years in jail and a fine of up to Rs10 million.

The Army Act paves the way for the punishment of up to five-year rigorous imprisonment to any person guilty of disclosing any information, acquired in an official capacity that is or may be prejudicial to the security and interest of Pakistan or the armed forces.

One of the amendments in the act accords more powers to the army chief and barred ex-servicemen from engaging in politics as well as taking up ventures, which could come into conflict with the army’s interest. It also proposed imprisonment for defamation of the army.

The new law also forbids any person subject to the army act from engaging in any kind of political activity for two years from the date of their “retirement, release, resignation, discharge, removal or dismissal from the service.

The president’s statement comes a day after PTI Vice Chairman Shah Mehmood Qureshi was picked up in connection with a first information report registered on Aug 15 under the Official Secrets Act against the former foreign minister and PTI Chairman Imran Khan.

The case was registered after an American news outlet The Intercept rece­ntly published what was clai­med to be the diplomatic cable which had reportedly gone missing from Imran’s possession.

Imran, who was interrogated by Federal Investigation Agency a few days ago in the cipher case in Attock jail where he was lodged after his conviction in the Toshakhana case, claimed he was ousted from office last year under a “US conspiracy”. The PTI alleges that cipher contained the threat from the United States to oust Mr Khan from power.

Last week, the president had returned over a dozen bills for reconsideration by Parliament. The returned bills had been passed by both houses of parliament at the fag end of the PML-N-led government’s term, and their fate will be decided after general elections when a new National Assembly is in place.

Law ministry notes claims with ‘grave concern’

The law ministry expressed “grave concern” over the president’s post and said he should “take responsibility for his own actions”.

In a press release, it said “as per Article 75 of the Constitution, when a bill is sent for assent, the president has two options: either give assent, or refer the matter to the parliament with specific observations”.

“Article 75 does not provide for any third option.”

It noted that in the instant matter, neither of the requirements were fullfiled. “Instead, the President purposely delayed the assent,” it alleged. “Returning the bills without any observations or assent is not provided for in the Constitution. Such a course of action is against the letter and spirit of the Constitution,” it added.

It said if the president had any observations, he could have returned the bills with his observations like he did in the recent and distant past. “He could have also issued a press release to that effect. It is a matter of concern that the president has chosen to discredit his own officials. The president should take responsibility for his own actions,” it concluded.

PTI to take matter to SC, declares full support for President Alvi

The PTI, the party to which President Alvi belonged prior to the start of his presidential term in 2018, announced on X that it would take the matter to the Supreme Court.

It thanked the president 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.”

The party also declared “complete support” for the president at national and judicial levels.

Meanwhile, PTI Secretary General Omar Ayub Khan called for legal action against the president’s staff for “disobeying” his orders.

He also demanded that an inquiry be launched to ascertain “how and why the orders regarding such a sensitive issue were disobeyed”.

‘Tumultuous times ahead’ as legal experts weigh in

Meanwhile, legal experts also weighed in on the development and its implications.

Lawyer Usama Khawar recounted the process of how a bill becomes law after being passed by the Senate and National Assembly and then being signed by the president.

However, in the “present controversy”, he said the president was placed in a “powerful position” due to the dissolution of the National Assembly. “If he returned the bills, he would essentially have killed them because there was no National Assembly to pass the bills,” he said.

“Alleged committing of a forgery of presidential assent is a new low in our statecraft and politics. This is worrisome at so many levels. If the president, who in theory is the highest official of the state — his status is so high that according to the Constitution, all the executive authority of the Federation is to be exercised in the name of the president and he is commander in chief of the armed forces — is not safe from forgery, then it does not bode well for the health of the rest of the state,” Khawar said.

He also said that in case of a constitutional challenge to the validity of the two laws, there now existed strong legal grounds for the court to declare that the Official Secrets (Amendment) Act, 2023, and Pakistan Army Act (Amendment) Act, 2023 were not validly enacted acts.

“The president should initiate criminal and disciplinary proceedings against the officials of the President House. Forgery is a criminal offence under Pakistan Penal Code and carries a penalty of imprisonment for seven years.

“The president’s seriousness about this issue would be gauged if he initiates criminal proceedings against his staff. Because just apologising to the victims of these anti-democratic and expansive laws is not sufficient.

“Moreover, the President should also communicate this forgery to the legislative branches, the Senate and the Assembly Secretariats, executive branches, Cabinet Secretariat, the relevant ministries — law and defence — and to the Printing Corporation of Pakistan to not publish the forged acts in The Gazette of Pakistan,” Khawar said.

Lawyer Basil Nabi Malik said the situation was “troubling to say the least”. “With that said, without his consent as president, it cannot be said that the bills in question have passed into law. Tumultuous times ahead,” he observed.

Barrister Rida Hosain said that the Constitution sets out a clear procedure for the passage of bills and explained how Article 75 works. “Under Article 75, the president can within 10 days either assent to a bill or return it to parliament with a message that the bill be reconsidered,” she said.

“If the president decides to return the bill, there are two stages: the first stage is returning the bill to parliament for reconsideration under Article 75(1)(b). The second stage is a joint sitting of parliament actually reconsidering the bill and (with or without amendment) passing it again under Article 75(2).”

She also explained the concept of “deemed assent” even if the president does not in fact give his assent. She said the deeming provision “only kicks in once the bill has been reconsidered and passed by parliament in a joint sitting under Article 75(2). There is no automatic deemed assent attached to an unsigned bill”.

Barrister Hosain added: The president claims he has not signed and assented to the Official Secrets Act and the Army Act amendments. Neither of these two bills were ever reconsidered and passed by parliament in a joint sitting. There can be no deemed assent in this case.

“If the President’s claims are true, neither of these laws are valid pieces of legislation.”

Barrister Asad Rahim Khan also noted that within the scheme of Article 75, “deemed assent is relevant to the second time the president is sent a bill, and not the first”.

He added: “As this was the first round, the president’s express assent was essential for the bill’s passage into law — anything less is to have returned it under Article 75(1)(b), which does not mandate that any specific provision be addressed.”

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