The parliament voted today to amend provisions in the new anti-terror act requiring the president to make public a list of organisations linked to terrorism.
The list of designated terror groups will now be known only to the national security council and the Maldives National Defence Forces.
Some 43 MPs of the ruling coalition voted in favour, while 16 voted no.
The new law states that the home minister must compile a “positive list” comprising of organisations that Maldivians are permitted to join. These include international bodies the government is party to and NGOs registered in the Maldives.
An individual who wants to join or promote an unlisted group has to seek permission from the home ministry.
MP Mohamed Saud Hussain of the ruling Progressive Party of the Maldives, who sponsored the amendments, said he had suggested the changes on the advice of the national security council, a body that consists of cabinet ministers and the heads of the army and the police force.
The council had said that the list’s publication would pose threats to national security, he said.
Opposition MPs had criticised the change as absurd, with the main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party arguing that the amendment would “give the opportunity for growth of Islamic radicalism in the Maldives.”
MP Abdulla Riyaz of the Jumhooree Party, who is also a former police chief, during a March 7 debate said: “Every Maldivian has a right to know which organisation is considered a terror group. That is why this law expressly stated so initially. I cannot support an amendment that would penalise individuals for joining a terror group when they do not even know the group is designated a terror group.”
Joining terror groups is punishable by up to 20 years in jail.
Some MPs contended that the secret list would also encourage the promotion of groups that are internationally considered as terror outfits.
“How many Maldivians have gone off to fight with the Islamic State? Other countries and the UN have listed that group as a terror organisation. But we are unable to do even that much… When a person joins such a group, who is in the wrong here?” asked Abdul Ghafoor Moosa, an MDP MP.
The few ruling coalition MPs who spoke contended that making the list public may pose risks to the Maldives, without specifying the nature of the risks.
“It is not easy for a small, poor country like the Maldives, which is dependent on other foreign governments, to publicly announce such a list,” said PPM MP Ali Saleem.
MP Anara Naeem of the Adhaalath Party meanwhile argued that a secretive list would allow the government to list dissident groups as terror bodies.
Former police intelligence chief Mohamed ‘MC’ Hameed previously said that the amendments were not in “line with best practices.”
“It is extremely important to list these organisations and publicise them as a deterrent and so that the public clearly know which groups are involved in such illegal activities,” he said.
“The government’s decision to make such a U-turn after passing a bill with such stringent, perhaps draconian measures, can be interpreted as passively furthering the agendas of organisations with terrorist links.”
The Maldives has seen a steady outflow of would-be militants to Syria over the past few years. The opposition claims the number is as high as 200, which would make the country the highest per capita supplier of militant fighters.
The government disputes the figure, with ministers offering various estimates, from 35 to 100. The new law sets jail terms up to 20 years for attempting to leave the country to fight in a foreign war, but it is not clear if any individual has been arrested on the charge so far.
The MDP has also claimed it has evidence that the government is involved in terrorism financing. Citing an investigation carried out by an unnamed intelligence organisation, the party said a man hired by the government to commit political crimes was also “directly involved in terrorist recruiting and financing related to the so-called Islamic State or ISIS.
“He has coordinated and funded more than 100 Maldivians to travel to Syria.”
Corrupt immigration officials were used to facilitate their travel and to ensure they are able to re-enter without the risk of arrest and prosecution, the party added.
The president’s office has denounced the claims as baseless.
The watchdog Human Rights Commission of the Maldives has meanwhile urged changes to the law, arguing it presented obstacles for fundamental freedoms, while opposition politicians said they feared the vague definitions of terrorism in the law could be used to silence dissent.