A contentious law that will sanction wiretapping as a tool in the fight against crime was passed in the National Assembly last night after a fiery debate weighing the need for increased protection against the potential trampling of the rights of citizens.
The government played up the Interception of Communications Bill 2008 as a major initiative to enhance intelligence gathering by the security forces, while members of the main opposition PNCR-1G and the AFC withheld support because of serious reservations about its constitutionality, its potential for abuse by the state and the absence of accompanying provisions for oversight.
A major concern was also the lack of wide consultation on the legislation, in light of its reach. Although similar concerns were raised about the Telecommunications (Amendment) Bill 2008, intended to aid the tracking and identifying of persons in possession of the cellular phone devices, it was also passed during yesterday’s sitting with the guarded support of the PNCR-1G.
The AFC did not support either bill, saying that they represented an erosion of civil rights, similar to situations in Zimbabwe, Venezuela, Uganda and even the US where such laws have been heavily criticised.
Members from the two sides of the house butted heads for a little more than five hours and after a shouting match led to a brief suspension of the proceedings PNCR-1G MPs walked out of the parliamentary chamber shortly before the wiretapping bill was passed. It received its final reading around 10.35 pm, after an anti-climactic few minutes were spent sorting out amendments that were approved.
The laws were formulated in response to the widespread use of mobile phones in the planning and commission of major crimes.
The wiretapping law will effectively prohibit the interception of communication unless a warrant is issued by a judge based on an application. Intercepted communication obtained on a warrant will also be made admissible in any criminal proceedings.
Government members argued the absence of the law was one of the reasons why it was difficult to do anything about the illegal tapping of former Police Commissioner Winston Felix’s phone, which created a scandal when his private calls were released to the public - a situation that was cited by several opposition speakers who bemoaned the fact Felix ended up facing the brunt of the resulting persecution.