Senate Retreats From 'Controversial' Anti-Extremism Bill After Opposition

Senate Retreats From 'Controversial' Anti-Extremism Bill After Opposition
The upper house of parliament on Sunday dropped from its agenda a bill against violent extremism after it was slammed by parliamentarians across the aisle for being 'anti-democracy' rather than just anti-extremism.

During Sunday's session of the Senate, which is working overtime to push through a flurry of government bills prior to the end of the National Assembly's tenure next month, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) Minister of State Shahadat Awan tabled the Prevention of Violent Extremism (Amendment) Bill 2023.

Senate Chairman Sadiq Sanjrani invited comments from house members.

But ruling coalition member from Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl Senator Kamran Murtaza opposed the bill on the floor of the house.

He insisted that the bill would be an insult to all parties, even if, underneath, it was aimed at targeting a particular party.

"Fundamental rights will be affected in this bill," he maintained, adding: "I don't know about my party, but I can't support this bill."

He lamented how the government had failed to take its allies into confidence over the bill.

He soon received a vote of confidence from his party, with JUI-F Senator Maulana Abdul Ghafoor Haideri noting that the allied parties had no way of knowing what would happen to them tomorrow should this bill pass.

"JUI opposes this bill," he remarked confidently, adding that if the rest of the government pushes ahead with the bill, they will walk out in protest.

They received support from across the aisle from the Jamaat-e-Islami. Senator Mushtaq Ahmed said the bill was not just against the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, but against all political parties.

He termed the bill the last nail in the coffin of democracy in Pakistan. "The government did not even take its allies into confidence," he maintained, adding that it could become a noose around every political party tomorrow.

Senator Tahir Bizinjo complained that whoever talks about the supremacy of the Constitution will be the first target under this bill.

He then said he would stage a token walkout if the bill was approved.

Dr Humayun Mohmand of the PTI claimed the bill was clearly aimed at barring his party from contesting elections. He demanded the bill be sent to the relevant committee for discussion first.

The bill's fate in the house was sealed when a ruling party senator too deemed the bill unconscionable. PML-N's Senator Irfan Siddiqui said that it imposes bans on everyone, including politicians.

"If the law passes in its current form, it will prove to be a big problem," he remarked, adding it has yet to be presented in the National Assembly.

PPP's Sherry Rehman, however, said it had been agreed to convene the session in the presence of parliamentary leaders, adding if the bills go to standing committees, they will lapse.

She noted that the National Assembly's term is about to expire, and the bills passed there have to be approved.

The Senate has the option to amend the law later, Rehman advocated.

But as senators protested on the floor of the house, Rehman got up and left.

The MQM, though, did not oppose the bill.

The opposition demanded it be sent to the committee first.

Chairing a session of the Upper House on Sunday, Sanjrani said: "I'm dropping the bill whether the government does it or not."

Before he dropped it from the agenda, however, he asked members whether it should be sent to the relevant committee prior to deciding on the fate of the bill.

Bill contents

As per the bill, no public servant will allow himself or his family to be involved in violent extremism; content related to violent extremism will be immediately removed or blocked from social media.

A punishable offence shall be triable by a sessions court, while the matter will be investigated and inquired by the police or any other agency.

The bill further states that a person guilty of violent extremism will be sentenced to three to 10 years and fined up to Rs2 million.

A person who violates this law will be imprisoned for one to five years and fined up to Rs1 million.

The bill stipulates that an organization involved in violent extremism will be fined Rs5 million, and it will the organization should be dissolved.

An organization violating the law will be fined up to Rs2 million, it adds.

The document further says that upon conviction, the property and assets of the individual or organization will be confiscated.

A person aiding or abetting or inciting will also be liable to imprisonment for a term which may extend to 10 years and to a fine of Rs2 million.

A person harbouring a person who commits an offence shall also be liable to imprisonment and a fine.

A person providing information or assistance to the government will be protected.

The government can arrest a person or leaders and members of an organization on the list and keep them in custody for up to 90 days. The detention can extend up to 12 months.

The aggrieved person will have the right to appeal to the high court.

Senate agenda

The Senate was scheduled to take up a 20-point agenda during the Sunday session.

According to the agenda of the session released, an amendment bill regarding the prevention of violent extremism is on the agenda, as well as one for the establishment of a Pakistan Aviation Authority.

The House is also expected to approve the Pakistan Air Safety Investigation Amendment Bill, while the Pakistan Crescent Sighing Amendment Bill is also expected to be presented for approval.

Moreover, reports of several standing committees will also be presented in the Upper House.

'Dangerous bill'

Earlier in the day, Senator Mushtaq Ahmed of the Jamaat-e-Islami had expressed fears that the government may not send the bill to the committee concerned, allow debate on it and have it bulldozed during the session.

He called the bill dangerous, as he claims it will not end violent extremism but increase it.

He also called sections 5 and 6 of the bill draconian, adding it is meant to ban the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf.

The senator said the government's attempts to eliminate or minus any political leader or party through state force are wrong.

He demanded the government send the bill to the committee concerned at all costs and not flour rules and regulations.

"Don't make parliament a rubber stamp and redundant," Senator Ahmed said.