The Islamabad High Court (IHC) on Wednesday hinted at initiating proceedings against the director of the cybercrime wing of Federal Investigation Agency over alleged violation of prescribed standard operating procedures (SOPs) while dealing with complaints.
Announcing a five-page order in response to a plea seeking the court directives over misuse of section 20 of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, (PECA) 2016, the IHC Chief Justice Athar Minallah said, “ The plea has raised questions of paramount public importance in the context of exercise of the powers vested in the FIA under section 20 of the PECA, 2016”.
HE said, “The offence has criminalized defamation and the abuse of the powers by the Agency has profound consequences for the fundamental rights of the citizens, particularly relating to Articles 19 and 19-A of the Constitution”.
Citing an order of the IHC, the Chief Justice Athar Minallah expressed that earlier the court had given specific directions so as to prevent the abuse of powers by the Agency and to safeguard the fundamental right of free speech and freedom of expression.
“However, regrettably no action seems to have ensued either by the Agency or the Federal Government. Despite repeatedly advising the Agency to exercise care, this Court has been receiving grievances regarding abuse of the powers by the Agency”, the CJ said.
He further noted, “The actions of the investigating officers while dealing with the complaints relating to section 20 of the Act of 2016 has, prima facie, created a perception as if powers were being exercised to suppress dissent or specific undesirable political opinions”.
The CJ said in the order that grievances brought before the court have, prima facie, made it obvious that the complaints were not being dealt with fairly and in a professional manner. “Such conduct was likely to have serious consequences for the constitutional guaranteed rights of the citizens, particularly under Articles 19 and 19-A of the Constitution”, the bench observed.
The CJ said that earlier in a case, Babar Barkat, Director of the Cyber Crime of the Agency had appeared and had assured that in order to ensure that the powers are not abused, Standard Operating Procedures would be prepared to guide the Investigating Officers while dealing with complaints relating to section 20 of the Act of 2016. The bench said that during the last date of the matter in hand the court had been informed the Standard Operating Procedures had been duly prepared and circulated throughout the country to prevent abuse of powers by the investigating officers.
“This Court has been informed that persons engaged in the profession of journalism had been kept in illegal confinement and harassed by officials of the Agency in Lahore in violation of the assurances given before this Court and the Standard Operating Procedures prepared and circulated by the Cyber Crime Wing of the Agency”, the CJ said in the order.
He expressed dismay over the situation and stated in the order the reckless exercise of powers during inquiry under section 20 of the PECA 2016 the CJ said it has serious consequences for the guaranteed fundamental rights.
The CJ sought a report from the DG FIA over alleged abuse of powers by officials in violation of the assurances given before the IHC. The Court also directed the Additional Attorney General to inform the bench whether the FIA high-ups have taken any action against the officials involved in violation of SOPs. The court also directed federation’s law officer to come up with a detailed report during next hearing explaining why proceedings may not be initiated against the Director, Cyber Crime of the Agency for, prima facie, misleading this Court and allowing the officials, directly or indirectly, to violate the prescribed SOPs.
The CJ directed the AAG to explain in his report whether the earlier judgment about SOPs was brought to the attention of the Prime Minister and the Cabinet. Later, the bench adjourned hearing of the matter till September 27.
The writer heads a leading news wire service ‘The Law Today Pakistan’ commonly known as TLTP. He has a special focus on news relating to superior courts adjudication, access to right of information, civil, political, social and economic rights under the approach that existing cyber regime realization ensures procedural fairness in administrative law. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org