Pakistani court strikes down sedition law in win for free speech

Ruling says the colonial-era law, which governments have used against their political opponents, is ‘unconstitutional’.

Journalists and employees of a private news channel ARY hold a protest against their channel being taken off-air by the Pakistan media regulator authority
Journalists and employees of the private news channel ARY hold a protest in August in Islamabad against their channel being taken off the air. Pakistani authorities revoked its broadcast permit for airing an interview with an opposition party official who was accused of inciting soldiers and officers against the military leadership. [File: AP]

A court in Pakistan’s eastern city of Lahore has struck down a colonial-era sedition law, calling it “inconsistent” with the constitution, in a verdict hailed by free speech advocates and journalists.

A single-judge bench of the Lahore High Court on Thursday declared the sedition law unconstitutional. The court’s verdict will be applicable across the country unless the Supreme Court overturns the high court’s decision.

The ruling from Justice Shahid Karim came in response to several similar petitions filed against the law by citizens on the grounds that the government uses it against its political opponents.

Former Prime Minister Imran Khan, who has organised mass rallies to force the government to announce national elections, faces more than 100 cases, including the charge of sedition.

The government of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif has also tried to limit the powers of the Supreme Court, which has taken suo motu notice against executive decisions. A suo motu is when a court itself commences proceedings on a matter that it considers in the public interest.

The sedition law, which was enacted in 1860 during British colonial rule of the Indian subcontinent, states: “Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise, brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards, the Federal or Provincial Government established by law shall be punished with imprisonment for life to which fine may be added, or with imprisonment which may extend to three years, to which fine may be added, or with fine.”

The law is more than 150 years old, is “obsolete and unconstitutional, and deserved to be struck down,” Abuzar Salman Niazi, the lawyer for one of the petitioners told Al Jazeera.

“You cannot have a law which does not allow dissent or free speech,” the Lahore-based lawyer said.

“This law was in patent violation of Article 19 of Pakistan’s Constitution, which protects free speech,” he said.

Law ‘abused to silence dissent’

In recent years, the law had been used by successive governments to target opposition politicians and journalists.

Journalist Arshad Sharif, who was shot dead in Kenya in October, was among the most prominent names booked under the law.

Usama Khilji, a free speech activist, said Thursday’s ruling would allow people to “exercise their constitutional right without fear of repercussions”.

“The sedition law was abused to no end to silence any dissent from journalists, political activists and human rights defenders,” he told Al Jazeera from the capital, Islamabad.

Human rights lawyer Imaan Zainab Mazari-Hazir called on Pakistan’s Parliament to consider amending or scrapping other colonial-era laws in the penal code.

She also supported doing away with provisions in the Army Act, the law that governs the affairs of Pakistan’s army, including one that allows for court martial trials of civilians in certain narrow categories.

“The executive needs to ensure abuse of power comes to an end because, evidently, amending or striking down draconian provisions is not enough,” he said.

Al Jazeera’s Abid Hussain contributed to the report from Islamabad

Source: Al Jazeera