Parliament on Sunday moved ahead with new anti-terror legislation submitted by the government despite reservations about the proposed restriction of constitutional rights and longer detention periods for terror suspects.
The bill, which seeks to revise the 2015 Anti-Terrorism Act, was accepted unanimously with 54 votes in favour and sent to the national security and foreign affairs committee for review.
The proposed changes would authorise police to arrest terror suspects without a warrant, conduct invasive body searches, deny private consultations with legal counsel and detain suspects for 48 hours before taking them before a judge. Expressions of support for terrorist organisations as well as the sporting of banners, photos, literature or clothes deemed a declaration of support would be criminalised.
The scope of crimes outlined in the existing law would be widened along with two new chapters dealing with repatriation, de-radicalisation and rehabilitation of jihadi fighters and their families.
During the floor debate, most lawmakers backed the proposed changes but recommended adding more oversight provisions during the committee stage. Some ruling party lawmakers raised concerns about approving the amendments with the current chief prosecutor in office.
“I am concerned about giving these powers to the Prosecutor General. I hope this parliament will remove the prosecutor general. In my view, it is concerning to give more powers without [the appointment of] a new prosecutor general,” said MP Moosa Siraj from the Maldivian Democratic Party, which controls a nearly three-quarters majority of the 87-member house.
The former defence lawyers accused PG Aishath Bisham of abusing the anti-terror law during the previous administration to prosecute opposition leaders. The previous government used the “over-broad anti-terror law as a blunt-force tool to arbitrarily and indiscriminately silence perceived political threats to his regime,” the International Commission of Jurists observed after a fact-finding visit in 2016.
In the wake of former president Abdulla Yameen’s defeat in last year’s elections, lawmakers sought the removal of Bisham, accusing her of failing to perform her duties. But the no-confidence motion was later withdrawn.
Opposition MP Ahmed Shiyam meanwhile expressed concern about the possible consequences of the new amendments.
“This bill proposes to arrest a Maldivian based on the way he walks down the street. After he is arrested, he is forced to take off his clothes. Is this what good governance is?” the MP for Naifaru asked.
But there were no provisions in the draft legislation that allows arrest based on manner of walking.
Opposition MP Adam Shareef Umar defended the former government’s decision not to publish a list of designated terrorist organisations. A provision that required the president to make the list public was scrapped in 2016. The law was amended for the military and the national security council to keep a secret list.
Shareef, who was defence minister at the time, said the security services feared making the list public would “cause more harm than good.” It was believed that designating terrorist organisations would heighten the risk of attack from listed groups, he said.
Last Thursday, President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih published a list of 17 designated terrorist organisations, including al-Qaeda and Islamic State and other militant groups fighting in Syria and Iraq.
Other MPs meanwhile proposed changes during the committee stage, including the removal of the provision that allows detention for 48 hours. The constitutional right to be taken before a judge in 24 hours should be respected, they argued.
The constitution allows parliament to “limit the rights and freedoms to any extent only if demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.”
MDP MPs supported the removal of a provision in the current law that withholds the right to remain silent.
MPs also called for more oversight over police, including the addition of a clause that would require a police officer above the rank of assistant commissioner to approve arrests without a court order. The proposed amendments require the approval of a police officer above the rank or sub-inspector for warrantless arrest or search and seizure.
The criminal justice system needs sweeping reforms to earn public trust, lawmakers concurred, and many warned of the abuse of counter-terrorism powers.
The bill was introduced earlier this month after parliament was called back from recess. A further extraordinary sitting will be scheduled to put the bill to a vote after the committee completes its review with public feedback and consultations with stakeholders.