Vol. 5 Num 550 Tue. December 13, 2005  
Front Page

Tele-tapping legalised
President's ordinance termed black law

President Iajuddin Ahmed has promulgated an ordinance, with immediate effect, allowing intelligence and law enforcement agencies to tap telephone conversations of any individual amid a national outcry.

The president on Sunday night signed the ordinance, labelled as black law by legal experts, rights activists, political, social and business leaders, fearing harassment and misuse of the telecoms act.

The ordinance has to be passed by the Jatiya Sangsad (JS) in its next session due in January next year.

Telephones can be tapped only with the permission of the chief executive of the home ministry, the ordinance says.

The cabinet on December 5 approved the proposed amendments to Bangladesh Telecom-munications Act, 2001, allowing law enforcers eavesdropping on phones. Although the amendments were supposed to be passed in the next session of the JS, the government promulgated this ordinance.

The telecoms act, 2001 however provides that phone tapping is an offence and punishable with either a six-month imprisonment or fine not exceeding Tk 50,000 or both.

The ordinance has been passed with immediate effect to help combat criminal activities, sources said.

The proposed amendment also includes a new section 97 (a) in the act, which says the government can authorise an official of intelligence agency, national security intelligence, investigating organisation or person to tap and collect conversation, and to resist the phone service operators from sending messages and conversations in the interest of national security.

The authorised official can order the phone service providers and the service providers would be compelled to carry out the orders.

Section 97 (2) of the existing act said if the president declares an emergency, the government may suspend any licence or certificate or permit issued under this act, or suspend any particular activity of, or a particular service provided by an operator, but the government shall pay compensation for the suspended service.

The proposed amendment also said if the president declares an emergency or if the government feels that the state's security and law and order situation are in danger, it can suspend or amend any licence or certificate or permit issued under this act, or suspend any particular activity of, or a particular service provided by an operator, and it will not have to pay any compensation for doing so.

Barrister Rokanuddin Mahmud, vice chairman of Bangladesh Bar Council, apprehends misuse of the power. He told the Daily Star over phone last evening the power has created the opportunity to harass the people and certain political leaders.

The people will not even understand how their phones are tapped and feel harassed as a consequence, Rokan said.

Meanwhile, former law minister Abdul Matin Khashru said the government has promulgated the ordinance bypassing parliament and will harass the opposition and the people.

"This ordinance is ultra vires to the constitution being violation to the fundamental rights guaranteed by article 43 (B)," he said, adding, privacy will be violated.

Earlier, leading jurist Dr M Zahir had also opposed the issue saying, "It will obviously hamper people's right to privacy and there is a possibility of its misuse."

Eminent rights activist and legal expert Shahdeen Malik said, "If the government thinks it necessary on security grounds or for investigations, it might have sought court permission to tap phones." He sees no necessity of such a law.

In a democratic society, these restrictions are very limited, he pointed out.

Outgoing President of Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and Industry Kutubuddin Ahmed casts doubts over proper enforcement of the law. He said it should be ensured that there is no scope for the law enforcement agencies to misuse it.

President of Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) Tipu Munshi said the ordinance would curtail the people's fundamental rights. The government should take necessary measures so that there is no misuse for political gains, he added.

Maybe 500 subscribers are misusing cellphones but eight million others cannot be penalised for them, said a top executive of a leading cellphone operator.

Twenty-eight eminent citizens under the banner of Sammilita Samajik Andolan (united social movement) on December 6 protested against the government move to tap telephones.

Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal (JSD) and Jatiya Mukti Council yesterday condemned the promulgation of the ordinance and urged the government to withdraw it.