Senate Committee on Information Technology Calls For Mutual Legal Assistance Treaties For Cybercrimes Investigation

Read this story in Urdu here.

(Islamabad, 25 Nov 2019) Pakistan needs to urgently sign Mutual Legal Assistance Treaties (MLATs) with foreign countries for the investigation and prosecution of cybercrimes related to child sexual abuse, according to the Senate Standing Committee on Information Technology and Telecommunication.

The committee meeting was chaired by Senator Rubina Khalid on Monday at the Parliament House.

Committee members were briefed by Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) officials on the child pornography rings operating on the Dark Web, in the context of the recent Sohail Ayaz case.

Rawalpindi police had arrested Ayaz on 12 November on the allegation of sexually assaulting and filming the sexual assault of a 13-year-old boy. During interrogation, the suspect confessed he had sexually abused 30 minors. Police are looking into evidence he might be connected with a Dark Web child pornography racket.

Police now know the suspect plead guilty to charges of child sexual abuse and was sentenced to four years in prison by British authorities in 2009. He was later deported but local law-enforcement was unaware of his criminal record. He is now believed to have also been wanted by police in Italy for similar offences. Pakistan and these foreign countries do not have any mechanism to mutually share criminal records of sex offenders or persons convicted of cybercrimes.

Ms. Khalid, the People’s Party senator who heads the standing committee, said it is important for Pakistan to sign MLATs on cybercrimes with other countries. 

Officials from the FIA National Response Centre for Cybercrimes told the committee Pakistan should sign agreements with European countries and the US on this matter. They said the FIA had previously written to the government about it. FIA will be able to assist on the Dark Web front if a joint investigation team is formed to follow the Sohail Ayaz case, the FIA officials said.

People’s Party Senator Rehman Malik said laws need to be strengthened and investigation methods need to be modernised to ensure swift justice in child abuse cases. Officials should have known if a convict was deported back to Pakistan, he said. The committee directed the FIA to prepare a briefing on the deportation process for the members.

Committee member Senator Faisal Javed, who belongs to the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf, said the Ministry of Human Rights and the Ministry of Law has prepared a draft bill for child protection, titled the “Zainab Alert Bill”. He said the draft was pending in the National Assembly standing committee on human rights.

Customs Duty on Imported Mobile Phones

The committee recommended that Pakistanis should be given a customs duty exemption for one imported mobile phone. The Ministry of Information Technology & Telecommunication also endorsed the recommendation. The federal secretary for information technology said one duty-free imported phone should be allowed.

In July, the Federal Board of Revenue (FBR) had revised the Personal Baggage Rules for air travel to impose a customs duty on any foreign-purchased phones brought into the country by overseas Pakistanis. Earlier in December 2018, citizens and expatriate Pakistanis were only required to pay customs duty on additional imported phone sets if they had carried more than one phone. The government also applied regulatory duties on imported phones in March.

The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority had set up a Device Identification Registration and Blocking System to register imported cell phones. The entire process came under scrutiny and received criticism when FIA officials admitted in July that their own airport officers were found involved in stealing the personal data of passengers to register smuggled phones on the system.

Member Customs FBR told the committee members that mobile phone fees for commercial imports and personal-use sets have been reduced. The FBR official said the government earned Rs. 28.8 billion in revenue from the import of 10 million phone sets in 2018 and Rs. 15 billion from the import of 6.7 million cell phones in the first four months of 2019.

Mr. Malik said Pakistanis studying abroad should be exempted from customs duty on mobile phones. He said if the customs officials confiscate one container of smuggled goods, they would probably collect the same amount as the duties paid on imported phones by 400,000 citizens. He said the government does not collect duties on iPads, which are more expensive. Committee chairperson Ms. Khalid said Mr. Malik was putting ideas in the government’s head.

Independent Senator Taj Afridi said members should not be adamant about duty exemptions. The standing committee had first brought up the customs duty discussion in its 28 October meeting.

Other Agenda Items

A detailed briefing by Chairman PTA on the “agreement made with Sandvine Company to build surveillance system to monitor Internet Traffic of whole country, comprising users’ data security” was also on the meeting agenda. The agenda also carried an item to discuss rules framed under section 37 and 51 of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016. However, sources said these items were not brought up during Monday’s meeting.

Waqas Naeem is a program manager at Media Matters for Democracy, which runs the Digital Rights Monitor website.

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