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Update to Pakistan anti-terror law permits conviction solely on texts, emails

As if those in Pakistan did not have enough to worry about when it came to the security of their communications, recent changes to Pakistan’s anti-terror law could see people convicted for terrorism solely on the basis of incriminating text messages, phone calls, or email.

As part of a drive to increase the number of convictions of terror suspects, the government of Pakistan has recently beefed up its anti-terror laws through a presidential ordinance that will permit prolonged detention of terror suspects and the expanded use of email and phone evidence in certain criminal trials. It is just another indication of Pakistan’s drift toward authoritarianism and the government’s total disregard for the human rights of their citizens.

Most worrying to Privacy International are the amendments to the Anti-Terrorist Act will make it lawful for a person to be convicted of terror-related crimes with only electronic evidence, such as text messages, phone calls or emails. The new section 27B of that Act states:

… the conviction of an accused for an offence under this Act solely on the basis of electronic or forensic evidence or such other evidence that may have become available because of modern devices or techniques referred to [in the evidence law] shall be lawful.”

The amendments also add a new dimension to the misuse of anti-terror legislation against civil society groups, undoubtedly heightening fears that groups opposed to the government will be targeted for prosecution. But even without increased prosecutions, these types of laws generate a “chilling effect” on the exercise of the right to freedom of expression as the fear of persecution silences opposition voices.

In a country where nearly all modes of communication are subject to some level of government monitoring and control, much to the thanks of Western surveillance companies, the risk that electronic evidence will be misinterpreted, misused or fabricated to further the goal of increasing the rate of terror convictions is very real.

This law change comes only weeks after Pakistan, in a blatant attempt to restrict privacy and freedom of expression rights, made a joint statement in the UN Human Rights Council calling for greater regulation of the internet. Pakistan’s extensive censorship and surveillance regime is subject to little true oversight, providing few avenues for people to challenge electronic evidence produced against them.

The government of Pakistan is relentless when it comes to deploying measures to censor and spy on its own citizens. Taken all together, the censorship and surveillance regime in place in Pakistan is increasingly creating a society where the rights to privacy and free expression are eroded until they are essentially non-existent. This development is yet another indication of the government’s increasingly authoritarian tendencies and illustrates that Pakistan is prepared to go to unacceptable lengths to prove its commitment to the “war on terror”.

Privacy International’s partner in Pakistan is Bytes For All, a human rights organisation that focuses on the relevance of information communication technologies for sustainable development and strengthening human rights movements in the country.

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