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Maldives bans street protests

Home Minister Umar Naseer’s ban on street protests has sparked an outcry with human rights advocates saying the restriction is unconstitutional.



Home Minister Umar Naseer’s ban on street protests has sparked an outcry with human rights advocates saying the restriction is unconstitutional.

“The streets should be safe and peaceful. It is public property, not grounds for political activities and disorder,” Naseer told local media today. The government will end the prevailing culture of street protests as a means of political action, he went on.

Political activity can only take place in confined public spaces, he said, and political parties will only be allowed to promote their ideologies through parliament and “political podiums.”

“This government wants to develop this country, find opportunities for the public and bring them prosperity. This is not possible if political activities are carried out on the streets,” he said.

The ban comes amidst a continuing protest by Maldivian Democratic Party urging President Abdulla Yameen to release former President Mohamed Nasheed and other political prisoners.

Riot police fired tear gas to disperse unarmed protesters on Saturday. The MDP protest was peaceful, but police have indiscriminately used pepper-spray, arrested 13 individuals and beat several protesters, including an opposition MP over the past two days.

The MDP and human rights advocates have decried the crackdown as illegal.

MDP spokesman Hamid Abdul Ghafoor said: “The deterioration of democratic rights is increasingly evident as the Government uses a Police service the president himself claimed to be compromised to arbitrarily restrict the right to assembly.”

The party has condemned “the unlawful disruptions and harassment of its continuous peaceful protest and the police’s use of excessive force against protesters.”

MDP members have been circulating a video of Naseer urging a crowd of people to take up wooden planks and iron rods during violent anti-government protests in 2012 that culminated in a police mutiny and Nasheed’s resignation.

“Take these, take it up. If they attack, they will get attacked tonight, real good,” he says in the video.

Noting that the government has gradually stepped up unlawful restrictions on peaceful protest, including a ban on the use of four-wheeled vehicles, use of speakers beyond 11pm, and restricting protesters to pavements, Shahindha Ismail of the Maldivian Democracy Network, said: “This is outrageous and illegal.”

“The Maldives has a law on freedom of assembly. It is prohibitive, but none of these new restrictions fit within the law. These conditions are arbitrary and unconstitutional. These are the kind of actions that should prompt no-confidence motions against ministers.”

Ahmed Tholal, the former vice president of the human rights commission, has called on the watchdog to “look into how the right to protest is being abrogated by police without legal precedent.”

The HRCM issued a statement yesterday, but only to urge parents to refrain from taking their children to political rallies. The statement came after the police’s use of tear gas at the Artificial Beach, which includes a swimming area and a playground, affected several children.

The MDP as well as parents of the affected children haver said they were not taking part in the protest.

Tholal described the statement as “embarrassing.”

The government has justified the crackdown saying such restrictions are permitted in other democratic societies. The foreign ministry also claimed security threats in imposing restrictions, pointing to several bomb scares and the discovery of weapons earlier this month.

In a statement on Saturday, the foreign ministry said: “The Government of Maldives respects and fully supports the right to protest, the right to freedom of expression, and the right to assembly, and would not seek to restrict those rights. 

However, such rights are not absolute in any democratic country. Reasonable restrictions can and are placed upon demonstrations where it is appropriate to do so, to ensure the security of the public.

Such parameters are not unreasonable, and were set so as to balance the right of individuals to protest and voice their opinion, with the rights of those individuals who did not wish to take part, and sought to go about their usual daily business.

As noted, such actions by the authorities are not unique to the Maldives; it is in fact a usual practice in any democratic society that public demonstrations are set within controlled parameters.”