Earlier this month, Pakistan's powerful Lower House of Parliament passed what analysts have dubbed Pakistan's Patriot Act. Its name here is "Investigation for Fair Trial Bill."
It has been presented to the Pakistani people as a way to update existing law and usher the rules for investigation in Pakistan into the 21st century. Among other things, it makes electronic eavesdropping admissible as evidence in court.
To American ears, the argument for the new law should sound vaguely familiar. Pakistani officials say that in order to fight the war against terror, they need to be allowed to capture emails, listen in on cellphone calls, and track suspects so they can stay one step ahead of the terrorists.
That's the same argument FBI Director Robert Mueller made before members of Congress when the FBI sought changes in the Patriot Act.
Already A Common Practice
The difference is that the Pakistani version has been introduced into an entirely different societal context. To begin with, it is an open secret that security agencies in Pakistan already tape phones and monitor email with impunity.
They are supposed to get warrants to do this, but they rarely do. The bill is seen as legal cover for what is already common practice. Another difference: This being Pakistan, the feeling among those who are following the bill is that the investigative powers won't be limited to terrorists. Politicians, they believe, are likely to be the main targets.
"There are two sides of the argument. One is that this is a country at war — a war within and war in the region — so you need certain laws to protect people from terrorist activity," says Harris Khaliq, a poet and columnist in Islamabad. "At the same time, Pakistan has a checkered political history and we as citizens are really wary of a situation where these laws or such policies could be actually used to oppress political opponents of whoever is in power."
It is common to use criminal charges as a brickbat against powerful politicians. Bribery and corruption charges are routinely filed and then dismissed. Smear campaigns are frequent. Democracy in Pakistan is too fragile to allow these kinds of sweeping powers, says Aasim Sajjad, a professor of political economy at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad.
"Frankly, to be honest, it is not as if this act per se would be required for this sort of big-brother apparatus to operate. I think it operates in any case," Sajjad says. "The worry is that the state and the intelligence apparatus here has historically been so powerful and so unaccountable that there is a feeling that we would be totally surrendering every last remaining bit of independence or civil liberties" by passing the law.
Limited Opposition To Date
While Sajjad's concern about civil liberties would be common in the United States, in Pakistan it is unusual. Aside from university professors and the liberal elite, opposition to the bill has been, at best, muted. While its passage in the lower house made the front pages of the English-language papers here, there was barely a whisper about it in the Urdu-language press.
"Amongst a fairly limited circle — activists and observers — there has been concern," Sajjad says. "But it hasn't generated or garnered the kind of response that I think would be necessary for some sort of countervailing pushback to prevent something like this from going through. It will pass the Senate and the president will sign it."
Mohman Hussein Baluch is a Ph.D. candidate in Pakistani studies at the university, and his reaction is typical of the students there. He says if he isn't doing anything wrong, he has nothing to fear.
"I am a peaceful citizen of Pakistan. I bleed in peace, so I am not worried about this," he says.
The Senate is more conservative than the Lower House in Pakistan, and it is expected to approve the bill and send it to the president for his signature early in the new year.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
On top of their concerns about terrorism, sectarian violence, the Taliban and their painful relationship with the United States, people in Pakistan are talking about privacy.
The lower house of Pakistan's Parliament passed what's called the Investigation for Fair Trial Bill. It is the Pakistani version of the Patriot Act. It clears the way for intelligence and law enforcement agencies to tap phones, monitor Internet traffic and follow people they suspect are terrorists.
Of course, it's an open secret that security agencies in Pakistan already do this, but the new bill will give them legal cover. NPR's Dina Temple Raston-Raston reports from Islamabad.
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: The Investigation for Fair Trial Bill has been presented to the Pakistani people as a way to update existing law and bring the rules for investigation in Pakistan into the 21st century. Officials say that in order to fight against terror, they need to be allowed to capture emails, listen in on cell phone calls and track Internet searches so they can root out terrorists.
HARRIS KHALIQ: I'm Harris Khaliq and I'm a poet and columnist.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Khaliq has been watching the bill wind its way through Parliament.
KHALIQ: There are two sides to the argument. One, is that this is a country at war, a war within a war within the region. So, you need certain laws to protect people from terrorist activity.
TEMPLE-RASTON: That side of the argument should sound familiar, but it is the other side of the argument that makes it distinctly Pakistani. The concern is not that ordinary citizens might get caught up in this, the worry is that security agencies in Pakistan will use the new powers to blackmail politicians. Harris Khaliq explains.
KHALIQ: Pakistan has a checkered political history, and we, as citizens, are really wary of a situation where these laws or such policies are actually used to oppress political opponents, or whoever is in power.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Aasim Sajjad is a professor of political economy at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad.
AASIM SAJJAD: Frankly, to be honest, you know, it's not as if this act, per se, would be required for this sort of, sort of big brother apparatus to operate. I mean, if they can operate in any case...
TEMPLE-RASTON: He's worried the security agencies will use the law as an excuse to go even further.
SAJJAD: The state, the intelligence apparatus is historically been so powerful and so unaccountable that there's a feeling that, you know, this is sort of - we're just totally - would be surrendering every last remaining bit of independence of civil liberties.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Still, aside from university professors and the liberal elite, opposition to the bill has been muted. While news of the bill made the front pages of the English language papers here, there was barely a whisper about it in the Urdu press.
SAJJAD: Amongst a fairly limited circle, you know, activists and observers, there's been concern...
TEMPLE-RASTON: Again, Aasim Sajjad of Quaid-e-Azam University:
SAJJAD: ...but it hasn't generated or garnered the kind of response that, you know, I think would be necessary for there to be actually some kind of countervailing push-back to prevent something like this from going through.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Mohman Hussein Baluch is a Ph.D. candidate in Pakistani studies as the university, and his reaction was typical. If he isn't doing anything wrong, he said, he has nothing to fear.
MOHMAN HUSSEIN BALUCH: If I'm not doing anything wrong - I'm a peaceful citizen of Pakistan - I believe in peace, that I'm not worried about this.
TEMPLE-RASTON: The bill passed the lower house of Parliament and is awaiting approval from the Senate. That's expected to happen in the next week or so, and the president is expected to sign it into law.
Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News, Islamabad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.