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Parliament approves changes to anti-terror law

Lawmakers baulked at detaining suspects for 48 hours.



Parliament on Monday approved changes proposed to the anti-terrorism law, granting new powers to law enforcement bodies and introducing procedures to rehabilitate jihadi fighters.

Government-sponsored amendments to the 2015 Anti-Terrorism Act were passed unanimously with 52 votes in favour. The amendment bill was introduced earlier this month after parliament was called back from recess.

Upon ratification by the president, police can arrest terror suspects and search private property without a court warrant. But the bill was revised at the committee stage to scrap a provision that would have authorised detention of suspects for 48 hours before they have to be taken before a judge. The detention period was shortened to the 24 hours allowed by the constitution.

Persons suspected of learning a terrorist act or tactic and manufacturing or using weapons and explosives can be arrested without a court order. Invasive body searches can also be conducted without a warrant if there was reasonable cause.

It will be a crime to express support for a terrorist organisation.

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

Not a single suspected jihadi fighter 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 revised law states that recorded confessions, statements provided to investigative agencies and police intelligence reports will be admissible at court. The current administration has also made public a list of designated terrorist organisation, the absence of which was a hurdle in securing convictions.

Two new chapters dealing with repatriation, de-radicalisation and rehabilitation of jihadi fighters and their families were added to the law. A risk assessment must be conducted to classify returnees as fighters or victims and new centres must be set up to house 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 existing National Counter-Terrorism Centre is 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 order the suspect to undergo a rehabilitation programme. The counter-terrorism risk assessment committee must 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.

President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih announced plans to amend the anti-terrorism law 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.

The proposed changes prompted concerns over the restriction of constitutional freedoms and the potential for abuse to serve political ends. Some ruling party lawmakers raised concerns about approving the amendments with the current chief prosecutor in office, who was accused of abusing the anti-terror law during the previous administration to prosecute opposition leaders.

During the final debate on Monday, several ruling party lawmakers noted provisions intended to prevent politically motivated prosecutions by revising the definition of terrorism. A monitoring mechanism was also included for parliament to exercise oversight over police, they noted.