The Supreme Court on Thursday overturned Adhaalath Party leader Sheikh Imran Abdulla’s 12-year jail sentence on a terrorism charge raised over his speech at the 2015 May Day anti-government rally.
A three-judge panel ruled unanimously that the lower courts failed to properly assess the prosecution’s evidence.
Imran was found guilty of inciting violence at the 25,000-strong protest march. The widely condemned verdict in early 2016 marked the first terrorism sentence passed in the Maldives over a speech made at a political gathering.
Imran joined several other politicians to be released from prison or return from exile after former president Abdulla Yameen’s heavy defeat in September’s polls. The Supreme Court suspended the sentence on November 1 to review its previous decision to reject Imran’s appeal.
Imran’s appointment as home minister last Saturday sparked debate as a criminal conviction bars appointment to the cabinet. Thursday’s judgment settles the dispute and clears the way for his approval by parliament.
There were heated exchanges between the prosecutor and Imran’s lawyer last Monday when the Supreme Court reviewed the case.
The act of “speaking in a manner that encourage terrorism” cannot be considered a crime under the 1990 Anti-Terrorism Act, defence lawyer Noorul Salam argued.
The state also failed to specify how Imran committed the alleged crime, he continued, as prosecutors needed to prove the intention of inciting violence and show that protesters committed acts of terror as a direct result of the speech.
Imran was further denied the opportunity to call witnesses, cross-examine prosecution witnesses, and the criminal court judge was prejudiced, the lawyer contended.
The conviction also violated Imran’s constitutional rights to free expression and freedom of assembly, he said.
Sheikh Imran cannot be held criminally liable for the actions of a group of people who acted after the protest ended, Noorul Salaam insisted.
Responding to the arguments, prosecutor Safa Ibrahim argued Imran’s speech constituted “encouraging terrorism.”
It was shown beyond doubt that he incited violence based on transcripts of his speech and video footage of protesters assaulting a policeman, which were submitted as evidence during the trial, she said.
Imran was blamed for violent clashes between protesters and riot police.
He was transferred to house arrest in July. According to an Adhaalath Party, source, Imran had rejected a presidential pardon from Yameen, who tried to woo him over to the ruling party before September’s election.