Outrage follows as Pakistan allows spy agency to tape citizens’ calls

ISLAMABAD — Pakistan has officially authorized its military-run main spy agency to intercept citizens’ phone communications, sparking outcry and concerns from political opponents and advocates of civil liberties. 

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s coalition government has defended the controversial measure, saying the new powers for the Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, will enable authorities to track “anyone who misuses the law.” 

Federal Law Minister Azam Nazeer Tarar told parliament on Tuesday that phone monitoring would be restricted to tracking criminal and terrorist activities. He said the government would ensure it does not violate Pakistanis’ privacy. 

According to the July 8 directive, “The federal government, in the interest of national security and in the apprehension of any offence, is pleased to authorize [ISI] officers … to intercept calls and messages or to trace calls through any telecommunication system.” 

Critics have slammed the notice as unconstitutional and an assault on civil liberties, saying it would enable ISI to further strengthen its alleged hidden role in national politics. 

Politicians, including former Pakistani prime ministers, have long accused the ISI of manipulating or undermining elected governments at the behest of the powerful military, which has staged several coups and governed the country for nearly half of its independent history. 

Lawmakers affiliated with the opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf Party of jailed former prime minister Imran Khan strongly opposed the phone tapping permission given to the ISI and promised to launch a legal challenge against it.  

The independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, or HRCP, said in a statement Wednesday it was “deeply concerned” by the government’s decision to give intelligence personnel “carte blanche” to intercept phone calls of any citizen.  

The watchdog decried the measure as a “flagrant violation of citizens’ constitutionally protected rights to liberty, dignity and privacy.”  

The HRCP stated, “Given the poor track record of governments and intelligence agencies alike, this measure will invariably be used to clamp down on political dissent through means of blackmail, harassment, and intimidation.” 

Several members of the Pakistan Bar Council, the country’s highest elected body of lawyers, issued a joint statement dismissing the government’s notice as a “blatant disregard” for the rule of law and judicial independence. 

“Such sweeping powers granted are alarming and unjustified. The issuance of this notification is in direct violation of the fundamental rights guaranteed under the Constitution of Pakistan,” the council said. 

Pakistan’s renowned English-language newspaper Dawn criticized the granting of new powers to ISI as another “example of how extensively constitutional freedoms are being encroached upon” in the country.  

“To be clear, this was already being done, albeit without warrants or legal sanction. It will now continue with legal sanction, but likely still without warrants,” the paper said Wednesday in an editorial.  

“Suppressing a restless public and blocking dissent will only create more frustrations, which may spill over in unforeseen ways,” the editorial cautioned. 

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