On the surface of it, there is no explanation for barring Jalila Haider, founder of We The Humans, from travelling abroad other than harassing her. The Federal Investigation Authority (FIA) detaining her for “anti-state activities” and releasing her later on without any explanation suggests the arbitrary nature of the Exit Control List (ECL). This is not the first time that the authorities have barred someone from travelling abroad on the extremely vague charges of involving in the “anti-state activities.” In early December of 2018, two members of the National Assembly (NA) were offloaded from a flight under the same allegations.

Pakistan’s ECL regime is not transparent; barring people from travelling, without show cause notices or explanations to them, amounts to arbitrary detentions. Stopping the rights activist, Ms Haider, thus not only looks a case of unlawful detention but also an act of harassment. Unfortunately, ECL nowadays is viewed as a tool in the hands of the government to victimise either its political opponents or those who dissent against the status quo.

At present when the ECL has become a highly controversial thing, worth recalling is the original purpose of the ECL. ECL was introduced to restrict the movement of those alleged to have committed financial fraud. Another issue with the ECL regime is a clause under the ordinance under which the state is under no obligation to allow a person to show cause. This, in turn, provides the government with a blanket cover to create inconvenience and cause distress to people whom it wants to kneel before it. The fact that the state is under no obligation to allow an individual to show cause contradicts the fundamental rights guaranteed by the constitution.

Moreover, the ordinance says that an order to prevent anyone from travelling out of the country “shall not be called in question before any courts or other authority”. Such opaque provisions are an open invitation to abuse. And this we have seen in the case of the rights activist. Apart from causing her inconvenience and mentally torturing her, the authorities let her go at the end of the day. The present government, which is so keen on reforming institutions and change, must work on restoring the original intent of the list. If that is not possible because of the needs of the present the least the state can do is to make the procedure for inclusion in the ECL more transparent and rationalise its modus operandi without any further delay.