Islamabad: Pakistan`s National Assembly on Thursday passed a bill that will give intelligence and security agencies sweeping powers to conduct surveillance and collect data from SMSs and emails, with the premier saying the law was aimed at "enemies of humanity and terrorists" and not against ordinary citizens.
The National Assembly or lower house of parliament approved the Fair Trial Bill 2012 after incorporating amendments proposed by the main opposition PML-N and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, which is part of the ruling coalition led by the Pakistan People`s Party.
"This bill will prove helpful in sending a message to terrorists that the whole country is united against them and accepts their challenge," Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf said after the bill was passed.
The main purpose of the bill is to eliminate terrorism, he said.
Against the backdrop of concerns expressed by some political parties and civil society groups, Ashraf said the bill was aimed against "enemies of humanity and terrorists, and not against ordinary citizens".
"It will protect the lives of ordinary citizens and save them from terrorists," he said.
"We have given a message to the whole world by passing this bill that we want to strengthen our law enforcement agencies and security agencies in every way so that they are successful in the war against terrorism".
He criticised terrorists and questioned why they were targeting people like vaccinators involved in a nationwide anti-polio drive.
Over the past three days, nine health workers, many of them women, have been gunned down in attacks in Sindh and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa provinces.
The bill will have to be passed by the Senate or upper house of parliament and approved by the President before it can become law.
Earlier this month, a parliamentary panel had approved the Fair Trial Bill that will allow intelligence and security agencies to conduct covert surveillance and present electronic data from SMSs and emails as evidence in court.
The cabinet approved the bill in September.
The government has said the bill will allow intelligence and security agencies to use "modern techniques and devices" in investigating cases of terrorism.
Rights activists, civil society groups and some political parties have argued that the bill poses a serious threat to privacy as it seeks to authorise security agencies to tap phone calls and intercept other private communications.
The government has said "existing laws neither comprehensively provide for nor specifically regulate use of advanced and modern investigative techniques such as covert surveillance and human intelligence, property interference, wire-tapping and communication interception that are used extensively in other countries, including the US, the UK and India".
Under the proposed law, SMSs, phone calls, emails and audio-visual recordings will be admissible as evidence in court while suspects can be held for six months after a warrant is issued by a provincial High Court at the request of heads of intelligence and security agencies.