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Maldives government seeks sweeping counter-terrorism powers

The proposed changes have prompted concerns over civil rights and due process.



The government has proposed legal changes to grant law enforcement bodies sweeping powers to arrest and detain terrorism suspects.

A bill to amend the 2015 Anti-Terrorism Act was introduced on Thursday after parliament was called back from recess and an extraordinary sitting was scheduled at the request of 29 MPs from the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party. Debate is expected to begin next week.

The proposed changes include a slight alteration to the definition of terrorism and new provisions that would criminalise forms of speech in support of terrorist groups as well as organising rallies or meetings in support of such organisations. Sporting of banners, photos, literature or clothes deemed a declaration of support for terrorist organisations would also be criminalised with jail sentences of up to five years.

The government would be mandated with publishing a list of terrorist organisations and war zones, which would have to be reviewed annually by the president under advice from the national security council. A provision in the original law that required the president to publish such a list was scrapped in 2016.

The offence of taking part in foreign wars would be broadened by criminalising the act of assisting a person to join a foreign war as well as unsanctioned presence in a war zone, with a few exceptions for humanitarian assistance, journalism and other work related to international relations. Permission would be needed from the defence ministry ahead of travel for those purposes.

Not a single suspect charged with the offence has been convicted since the anti-terror law was passed five years ago, despite estimates of around 200 to 250 Maldivians thought to have joined militant groups in Syria and Iraq.

The new amendments also propose granting wider discretion to the police, including powers to arrest suspects and enter private property without a court warrant. The suspects could also be detained for 48 hours before being presented to court, after which extension of detention must be sought from a judge. But terror suspects could not be released on bail, pardoned or paroled. 

Under the existing law, suspects can be questioned without a lawyer after six hours of the arrest if legal counsel is not present without an acceptable reason. The amendments would extend the period to 12 hours and remove a provision that withholds the right to remain silent.

The military would be declared the lead agency during an emergency related to the possible use of weapons or bombs. The Maldives National Defence Force would also be responsible for public safety and security but the Maldives Police Service would still be responsible for investigation of the crime.

– Rehabilitation and de-radicalisation –

Other changes include adding two new chapters to the law to deal with the repatriation of foreign fighters and to conduct rehabilitation and reintegration programmes for Maldivians returning from war zones. A risk assessment must be conducted to classify returnees as fighters and victims, the amendments state.

Adults who underwent training or fought in battles would be considered suspects. Children would be classified as victims unless they took part in fighting or underwent training.

The amendments mandate the creation of centres to house repatriated fighters and their families. Separate centres would have to be designated for children and adults who committed acts of terrorism and for women and children who are deemed victims.

A new counter-terrorism risk assessment committee would assess whether repatriated individuals took part in acts of terrorism, or might be inclined to commit such acts in the future. The committee would be comprised of representatives from police, MNDF, home ministry, gender ministry, health ministry, education ministry and the Prosecutor General’s office.

The existing National Counter-Terrorism Centre would be mandated with taking action to mitigate potential risks due to the repatriation or foreign fighters. Investigators and prosecutors must be provided with special instructions to fast-track the trials of individuals suspected of committing acts of terror, including returnees.

If a defendant is acquitted, courts would have to be asked to order the suspect to undergo a rehabilitation programme stipulated in the law. The counter-terrorism risk assessment committee would decide on the length and type of rehabilitation on a case-by-case basis and determine whether an individual is ready for reintegration into society.

The proposed changes have prompted concerns over the restriction of constitutional freedoms and the potential for abuse to serve political ends.

Former foreign minister Dr Ahmed Shaheed, now UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, warned on Twitter that criminalising expressions deemed to encourage support for a terrorist organisation would contravene the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

“Criminal justice laws are the state’s response when a crime is committed. But terrorism laws are made to prevent acts of terrorism such as the bombing in Lanka,” Defence Minister Mariya Ahmed Didi replied on Thursday morning.

“Human rights people criticise terrorism laws in most countries in the world.”

President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih announced plans to amend both the terrorism law and criminal procedures law earlier this week in light of alarming findings disclosed by an independent commission that probed the abduction of a journalist in August 2014. Maldives Independent journalist Ahmed Rilwan was murdered at sea by a local extremist group affiliated with al-Qaeda, the presidential commission concluded after a 10-month inquiry.