The Senate on Monday touched upon the problems caused by an executive policy that direly needed to be addressed. Senator Rehman Malik called for a restructuring of the Exit Control List (ECL) policy, pointing out that the present policy is replete with flaws. Senator Malik argued that the names of all those on the ECL for more than three years, with no decision from the court, should be immediately removed from the list, and that the policy of placing names on the ECL should be reformed so that those accused should be granted a right of representation to defend themselves before pre-emptive placement.

For a border control measure, the ECL does become an issue of controversy extremely often. The ECL derives its jurisdiction from the Exit from Pakistan (Control) Ordinance, 1981, which empowers the Federal Government to prohibit any person from proceeding abroad. However, since inception, the process is plagued with complications.

The fact that somebody or the other, often for non-criminal and non-violent reasons, is unexpectedly placed on the ECL every week should suggest that reformation of the policy is due. Senator Rehman Malik is right in recommending revisiting the rules, the criteria and the standard operating procedures for placing people on the ECL. There needs to be transparency and accountability for those who decide the names on the ECL so that the placement is not arbitrary or based on inconclusive knowledge. Currently, the competent authority under the ECL law is the Federal Government- indicating that anybody in the Cabinet has the power to place names. Narrowing the scope of authority in the law to just the Interior Ministry would be one way of increasing accountability, and thus preventing frivolous placements.

Due to the wide scope of powers, and little transparency of the process, the ECL has often been at the heart of cases of political victimisation as well. We have seen numerous cases of some politicians being repeatedly placed on the ECL for political pressure- while more seasoned law-breakers are given a pass.

Freedom of movement is central to democracy. Restricting anyone’s movement without a conviction over a serious crime seriously damages the precedents we hold dear in our justice system; the freedom of movement is not a right to be taken away arbitrarily and selectively. The policy should be reformed so that placements should only be done in serious circumstances-and where immediate representation and appeal for the accused individuals is present.