A new anti-terrorism law proposed by the government could be used to suppress political activities and jail politicians, opposition MPs have warned.
The draft legislation states that inciting violence at demonstrations and threatening the country’s independence and sovereignty will be considered acts of terrorism and specifies penalties of up to 25 years in jail.
During the preliminary debate on the bill at today’s sitting of parliament, several MPs noted that the existing anti-terrorism law has been used to jail or prosecute opposition leaders, and said politicians could become victims of the new law if the government exerts political influence over the judiciary and law enforcement bodies.
Former President Mohamed Nasheed was found guilty of terrorism over the military’s detention of a judge during his tenure and sentenced to 13 years in prison in March, whilst Adhaalath Party president Sheikh Imran Abdulla, Jumhooree Party (JP) deputy leader Ameen Ibrahim, and JP council member Sobah Rasheed were charged with terrorism in late May.
Imran and the JP leaders were accused of inciting violence at a mass anti-government protest on May 1. Ameen and Sobah have since been living in self-exile in the UK with the latter seeking asylum.
Speaking during the debate, JP MP Abdulla Riyaz accused the current administration of misusing the existing terrorism law to jail opposition leaders and bar rivals from contesting in the 2018 presidential election.
Riyaz said the draft is also not in line with international standards and does not state that the police and military will be the primary enforcement agencies.
Riyaz also criticised the lack of provisions to prosecute foreigners who plan or carry out acts of terrorism in the Maldives.
JP MP Ali Hussain noted that the law could be used to jail a person for 25 years for shoving a police officer during a street protest.
Main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) MP Imthiyaz Fahmy said the new law could not be enforced fairly by the politicised prosecutor general and judiciary.
MDP chairperson Ali Waheed is also in self-exile in the UK over fears of prosecution on terrorism charges.
The bill also proposes restricting constitutional rights upon arrest for terrorism suspects – including the right to remain silent and access to legal counsel.
MP Ahmed Nihan, parliamentary group leader of the ruling Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), defended narrowing constitutional rights upon arrest, contending that criminals have been taking undue advantage of the right to remain silent.
Other pro-government MPs insisted that the bill is not intended to target opposition politicians, who they said must also be subject to the same laws as ordinary citizens.
The bill was accepted for consideration with 45 votes in favour, nine votes against, and 10 abstentions, and sent to committee for further review. It is likely to pass as the PPM and coalition partner Maldives Development Alliance controls a simple majority of the 85-member house.
If the bill is passed into law, committing any of the offences for the purpose of creating terror among the public or promoting a political or religious ideology will be considered a terrorist offence.
The bill also authorises the home ministry to carry out extensive surveillance of suspects.
Encouraging terrorism, an act which carries a 10 to 15 years jail sentence, is defined as “a speech or statement perceived by the public as encouragement of terrorism.”
Circulating messages or statements of a terrorist organisation is also a crime with a jail sentence of seven to 10 years.