President Arif Alvi on Sunday claimed he did not sign the bills amending the Official Secrets Act and the Pakistan Army Act into law, alleging his staff had “undermined” his desire for the legislations to be returned unsigned.
“As God is my witness, I did not sign Official Secrets Amendment Bill, 2023 and Pakistan Army Amendment Bill, 2023 as I disagreed with these laws,” he wrote on Twitter, adding he had asked his staff to return the bills unsigned within the stipulated timeframe to make them “ineffective.”
He added: “I confirmed from them many times that whether they have been returned and was assured that they were. However, I have found out today that my staff undermined my will and command. As Allah knows all, He will forgive Insha’Allah. But I ask forgiveness from those who will be affected.”
On Saturday, multiple media outlets had reported that Alvi had assented to the Official Secrets (Amendment) Bill, 2023 and the Pakistan Army (Amendment) Bill, 2023, within the stipulated time period after their approval by the Senate and National Assembly in the waning days of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM)-led government.
The controversial bills had drawn outrage from rights defenders and civil society, who had stressed that they were draconian and infringed upon the rights of the public. Under the amended secrets act, “unauthorized” disclosure of the identities of members of intelligence agencies, informants or sources has been made illegal, potentially implicating whistleblowers. The offense is punishable by up to three years in jail and a fine of up to Rs. 10 million. Similarly, the amended Army Act has also imposed a five-year imprisonment for anyone found guilty of disclosing any information they acquired in an official capacity that may be prejudicial to the national interest of Pakistan or its armed forces.
Alvi’s disclosure has attracted severe criticism, though the demands in its wake have differed based on political affiliation. While PTI leaders have decried it as an attack on the Constitution and called for protests and resistance, leaders of rival parties have called for his resignation, stating that he should step down over his inability to “control” his own staff.
In a statement, the Law Ministry said it had noted with “grave concern” Alvi’s tweet. “As per Article 75 of the Constitution, when a bill is sent for assent, the president has two options: either give assent or refer the matter to the Parliament with specific observations,” it said, adding that Article 75 did not provide for any third option.
“In the instant matter, neither of the requirements were fulfilled,” it said. “Instead, the president purposely delayed the assent. Returning the bills without any observations or assent is not provided for in the Constitution,” it said, adding this would be against the letter and spirit of the Constitution. “If the president had any observations, he could have returned the bills with his observations like he did in the recent and distant past,” it said, noting Alvi could also have issued a press release to this effect.
“It is a matter of concern that the president has chosen to discredit his own officials. The president should take responsibility for his own actions,” it added.
It is likely that the matter would be taken up in court. Even if Alvi doesn’t file a reference—as has been suggested by some legal experts—the issue could be taken up by the apex court as a suo motu reference as it directly impacts the fundamental rights of the public. A citizen, owing to the seriousness of the allegations, could also file it as a petition. Questions have also been raised about the gap between Alvi registering his protest and reports of the bills being signed into law, with critics noting he waited over 24 hours since the news broke to say anything.