The state human rights watchdog has called for amendments to the new anti-terrorism law in order to “remove obstacles” for citizens exercising fundamental rights enshrined in the constitution.
The Human Rights Commission of Maldives (HRCM) said it had shared concerns over the draft legislation with the Attorney General’s Office in April.
The commission submitted a paper on safeguarding human rights in the anti-terror law based on the constitution, domestic laws and international conventions, but its concerns were not addressed when the bill was passed and ratified last week.
“We note that a bill being passed into law like this is a very big challenge posed to this commission’s efforts to ensure the rights of the Maldivian people,” the HRCM said in a statement on Thursday.
Five new members were appointed to the HRCM last month after the terms of its previous members expired. Ahmed Tholal, a former commissioner, said on social media that the commission had told the government “the bill goes against all the constitutional rights and should not be passed.”
The opposition has warned that the new law could be used to stifle dissent and jail politicians. The law also undermines the rights to privacy, free speech, and free assembly, the main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) contends.
But Foreign Minister Dunya Maumoon told the AP on Thursday that the anti-terror law is an important step to address the outflow of Maldivians joining militant organisations in Syria and Iraq. About 100 Maldivian Islamic State (IS) sympathisers have traveled abroad, she said.
“Safety of the society as a whole has to be taken into consideration and given priority over some individual rights which may be temporarily not available,” she said.
Dunya said protecting civil liberties and effectively combating terrorism was a difficult balance. She also expressed willingness to amend the law “if legitimate issues are raised.”
Under the new law, any individual caught attempting to leave the Maldives to join a foreign civil war could be jailed for 10 to 15 years.
Meanwhile, following an outcry on social media last week, Home Minister Umar Naseer said the government “will not abuse” the law.
“The knife in the kitchen can be used to cut vegetables or kill a person. Every law is like that,” he tweeted.
At a press conference on Wednesday night, Adhaalath Party Spokesperson Sheikh Ali Zahir said the home minister’s remarks was an acknowledgement that the law could be misused for political purposes.
He noted that the party’s president, Sheikh Imran Abdulla, was charged with terrorism and accused of inciting violence at an anti-government rally on May 1. Imran was charged under the under the 1990 anti-terrorism law, he said, which was a much “weaker” law.
Zahir said the party is considering challenging the constitutionality of some provisions in the new law at court.
The purpose of the law is to silence opposition parties, he contended.
The MDP had also expressed concern with the law’s broad definition of terrorist activities, arguing that it would allow the authorities to interpret “legitimate peaceful political activities” as terrorism.
Disruption to traffic caused by street protests in Malé could be interpreted as terrorism, the party said.
MP Anara Naeem, the sole representative of the Adhaalath Party in parliament, expressed concern with provisions that state that exerting undue influence on the state and inciting fear will be considered acts of terrorism.
“But it fails to define what may be considered as ‘undue influence’ and ‘fear-inciting activities,'” she said.
Inciting violence at demonstrations and threatening the country’s independence and sovereignty 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.”
Terrorism offences specified in the law 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 law authorises the government to seek a ‘monicon’ (monitoring and control) order from the High Court to fit electronic tags to terror suspects, conduct secret surveillance, and intercept their communications.
It also 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 president can meanwhile declare any group a terrorist organisation. Any member of that group could then face up to 15 years in prison.