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In Pakistan, government takes license with ‘public order’ law

By Michele Langevine Leiby,

ISLAMABAD — A gathering of young people in a hookah bar, an annual kite-flying festival heralding the arrival of spring, and an outbreak of deadly sectarian violence. These three scenarios share an unlikely nexus: They have all been declared subject to a catch-all law that allows Pakistani authorities to restore “public order.”

Headlines saying “Section 144 Imposed” turn up frequently in the local press, referencing the part of Pakistan’s Code of Criminal Procedure that allows the government to act immediately to halt any activity that poses a threat to health, safety or public order.

Last week, Section 144 was imposed when sectarian violence broke out between majority Sunni and minority Shia Muslims in Gilgit in the north of the country after an attacker lobbed a hand grenade and then opened fire on a group of protesters. Shia-Sunni tensions have been running high in the Gilgit-Baltistan region since February, when Sunni gunmen ambushed a Gilgit-bound bus, ordered 18 Shia passengers to get off and shot them dead by the side of the road.

But the law has also been used in less obvious circumstances. The Supreme Court cited Section 144 when it banned kite flying after multiple reported injuries and deaths caused by the razor-sharp metal strings favored by kite enthusiasts. Metal strings are coated with chemicals and then covered by shards of glass to get an edge in kite-flying competitions. But they also pose a serious risk of injury to spectators and motorists.

Beginning April 1 in Karachi, Section 144 is being imposed as part of a government crackdown on the smoking of hookah pipes, a trend that has become increasingly popular with young people in the region. Full color advertisements in local newspapers featuring photographs of young men and women blowing sinister clouds of deadly tobacco smoke warn that violators of the no-smoking order risk “six months vigorous imprisonment.” The ads urge citizens to call the listed telephone numbers immediately to inform authorities if they see hookahs being used in hotels or restaurants.

The section can even be invoked in efforts to limit political activities: A petitioner in a court case next week in Lahore is asking a judge to rule that a march by the country’s opposition party violated Section 144.

The regulation is a holdover from the days of colonial rule when the British implemented a version of the law in India to inhibit public gatherings among Indian inhabitants. The law has since found its way into the penal code of Pakistan and its reach has expanded to include not only public assembly but also other activities.

Pakistani international law expert Ahmar Bilal Soofi said Section 144 is correctly used when there is imminent danger or apprehension of civil unrest. “People have the right to protest and have peaceful assembly, but the moment the protest in no longer peaceful or there is damage to property, [the use of the law] could become reasonable.”

But the law can also be applied inappropriately, he added — as in the context of kite flying. The Supreme Court recently lifted the kite-flying ban, at least partially, to allow revelers to fly kites during the springtime festival of Basant — but only if they do not use the hazardous glass-coated twines.

Not all invocations of Section 144 conform to the constitution, according to Soofi.

“It makes sense to use it to restore a law and order situation. But I think it can also be used in ways it was not meant to be used,” he said. “Whether or not it is used appropriately is a question of fact.”

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