Pakistan’s Lahore High Court has declared the colonial-era sedition law unconstitutional, in a verdict that has been celebrated by free speech advocates and journalists. The court’s decision, which was made in response to several petitions filed against the law, will be applicable across the country unless it is overturned by the Supreme Court. The law, which dates back to British colonial rule of the Indian subcontinent, had been used by successive governments to target opposition politicians and journalists. The court’s ruling has been welcomed as a victory for freedom of expression.
The sedition law, also known as section 124-A, was enacted in 1860 and states that anyone who “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 has been criticised as being “obsolete and unconstitutional” by Abuzar Salman Niazi, a lawyer for one of the petitioners. He argued that “you cannot have a law which does not allow dissent or free speech”. The law was in violation of Article 19 of Pakistan’s Constitution, which protects free speech, he added.
The sedition law has been used in recent years to target opposition politicians and journalists. 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. 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 that the court’s ruling would allow people to “exercise their constitutional right without fear of repercussions”. He added that the sedition law had been “abused to no end to silence any dissent from journalists, political activists and human rights defenders”.
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,” she said.