The parliament today passed into law a controversial anti-terrorism bill that opposition MPs fear could be used to prosecute citizens for exercising the constitutional rights to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.
Opposition MPs warned that the new law would restrict fundamental rights and render the penal code redundant. The “dangerous” law could be used to suppress anti-government activities and jail politicians on trumped up charges, they said.
But pro-government MPs defended the legislation, insisting that it was necessary to effectively combat terrorism and assuring that it would not be used to target political opponents.
The anti-terrorism law was passed today amidst heightened tension in the wake of Vice President Ahmed Adeeb’s arrest on Saturday. He is under police custody on suspicion of plotting to assassinate President Abdulla Yameen.
The government-sponsored legislation was passed with 49 votes in favour, 22 against, and three abstentions. The ruling Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) and coalition partner Maldives Development Alliance control 49 seats in the 85-member house.
MPs of the main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) had submitted 11 amendments to the bill, all of which were rejected.
Opposition MPs proposed exempting activities of political parties, civil society organisations, and the media, as well as advocacy for constitutional rights, from being considered terrorism.
At a press conference prior to the vote, MDP MP Imthiyaz Fahmy expressed concern with the law’s broad definition of terrorist activities. It would allow the authorities to interpret “legitimate peaceful political activities” as terrorism, he said.
Inciting violence at demonstrations and threatening the country’s independence and sovereignty will be considered acts of terrorism. The offence carries penalties of up to 25 years in jail.
Encouraging terrorism, an act which carries a jail sentence of between 10 to 15 years, is defined as “a speech or statement perceived by the public as encouragement of terrorism.”
Questioning the government’s intent, Fahmy said the bill does not properly address either terrorism financing or Maldivians joining foreign militant organisations.
Terrorism offences include endangering lives, kidnapping or abduction, hijacking vehicles, damaging property, endangering public health or safety, disrupting public services, and damaging critical infrastructure.
Committing any of these offences for the purposes of “exerting an undesirable influence on the government or the state,” terrorising the public, and “unlawfully promoting a political or religious ideology” will be considered terrorism.
The MDP had previously noted that disruption to traffic caused by street protests in Malé could be interpreted as terrorism.
The MDP had also 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.
The new law restricts 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 will 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.
Musthafa had said the purpose of the bill is “to keep MPs at gunpoint.” Politicians could be jailed for up to 20 years over rhetoric deemed to have encouraged terrorism, he warned.
The national security committee held a meeting yesterday and approved the bill again without addressing any of the concerns raised by MPs. The committee approved an amendment stating that the law will come into force upon ratification by the president.
The bill previously stated that it would come into force three months after ratification and publication in the government gazette.
A PPM MP had proposed the same change during yesterday’s sitting, but it was not put to a vote after the proposal to send the bill back to committee was passed.
Musthafa was meanwhile reportedly removed from the PPM Viber group yesterday for refusing to sign an impeachment motion against Vice President Ahmed Adeeb.
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 Prevention of Terrorism Act, which will now be replaced by the new anti-terrorism law passed today.
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.
Jumhooree Party (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.