A controversial new anti-terrorism bill that opposition MPs warned could be used to stifle dissent and target political opponents has been returned to committee for further review.
A proposal by ruling party MP Mohamed Musthafa to send the the government-sponsored legislation back to committee was passed unanimously with 55 votes in favour at today’s sitting of parliament.
The bill was up for a vote today after the national security completed its review and sent it to the People’s Majlis floor last week. It was widely expected to be passed into law.
During the final debate on the bill, MP Musthafa of the ruling Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) said the bill was shaped to “keep MPs at gunpoint.” Provisions in the bill could be used to jail politicians for up to 20 years over political rhetoric deemed to have encouraged terrorism, he warned.
“I spoke directly to the attorney general about this problem. He said the points that you are noting will be removed when [the bill] comes back from the committee [stage],” he said.
But the pro-government-majority committee approved the bill without any changes, Musthafa said.
Other PPM MPs did not speak during the debate, but voted in favour of Musthafa’s proposal. The PPM and coalition partner Maldives Development Alliance control 49 seats in the 85-member house.
Expressing concern with the broad definition of terrorism in the bill, opposition MPs meanwhile called the proposed law “dangerous” and “unconstitutional” as it could be used to criminalise free speech and free assembly.
MP Ibrahim Mohamed Didi of the main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) said he had submitted 60 amendments during the committee stage, but pro-government MPs rejected all of them.
“If this bill is passed in its current form, I believe all Maldivian citizens will become terrorists,” the retired brigadier general said.
MDP MP Rozaina Adam warned that criticism of the government’s actions or policies could be interpreted as an act of terrorism.
The bill states that an act committed with the purpose of “exerting an undesirable influence on the government or the state” is terrorism.
Anti-government demonstrations could also be considered terrorist activities, Rozaina said.
Empowering an “anti-democratic” administration at a time of unprecedented political turmoil would be “like giving a sword to a madman,” she said.
Jumhooree Party (JP) MP Ali Hussain said the proposed law would make the penal code redundant.
“There will be few crimes committed in this country that cannot be fitted under this law,” he said, adding that a person arrested for possession of a razor blade could be charged with terrorism.
Adhaalath Party MP Anara Naeem meanwhile noted that statements made on social media could also be interpreted as having a negative impact on the government. Citizens could face a 20-year jail term over a tweet or a Facebook post, she said.
The anti-terrorism bill was up for a vote today amidst heightened tension and uncertainty in the wake of Vice President Ahmed Adeeb’s arrest on Saturday. He is under police custody on suspicion of links to an attempt to assassinate President Abdulla Yameen.
The MDP had previously expressed concern with the bill authorising the president to declare groups as terrorist organisations without either a court order or based on the findings of an investigation.
Once the president declares a group a terrorist organisation, the MDP noted that the association or group’s leaders, members, and benefactors will be guilty of terrorism.
As disruption of public services is also considered an act of terrorism, the MDP noted that disruption to traffic caused by street protests in Malé could therefore be interpreted as terrorism.
The bill states that inciting violence at demonstrations and threatening the country’s independence and sovereignty will be considered acts of terrorism. It specifies penalties of up to 25 years in jail.
Encouraging terrorism, an act which carries a 10 to 15 years jail sentence, is defined as “a speech or statement perceived by the public as encouragement of terrorism.”
The bill also proposes restricting constitutional rights upon arrest for terrorism suspects – including the right to remain silent and access to legal counsel. Suspects will not have the right to remain silent or access to a lawyer for 96 hours after the arrest.
The home minister would meanwhile have powers to apply for a ‘monicon’ (monitoring and control) order to tag and intercept communications and conduct surveillance on terrorism suspects.
The minister can seek a monicon order from the High Court if the suspect commits an act that endangers the community.
The minister does not have to inform the suspect and the court is not obliged to summon the suspect before issuing the order. The court must also issue the order in 24 hours.
In March, former President Mohamed Nasheed was sentenced to 13 years in prison over the arrest of a judge during his tenure. He was charged under the 1990 anti-terrorism law.
Adhaalath Party President Sheikh Imran Abdulla is also facing trial on a terrorism charge. He is accused of inciting violence at a mass anti-government demonstration on May 1.
JP deputy leader Ameen Ibrahim, and JP council member Sobah Rasheed were charged with terrorism in late May. Ameen and Sobah have since been living in self-exile in the UK with the latter seeking asylum.