The Maldives Police Service has introduced new rules for issuing summons through social media in cases where the official note cannot be delivered in person.
According to the new procedure that came into force last week, the summons should first be issued either through the delivered note or via a phone call. But in cases where the recipient cannot be found or if members of the household refuse to accept on his behalf, the summons can be sent through a social media platform.
An automatic ‘seen’ message or delivery report can be taken as confirmation that it has been delivered. The summons can also be issued via a public announcement if the suspect or person of interest is out of the country.
The rules state that the summons must be delivered 24 hours before the recipient is required to appear. For Maldivians living overseas, a period of three to seven days can be offered depending on the circumstances, which can also be extended by the police upon request.
Failure to appear can result in a separate investigation and possible obstruction charges.
In late May, the police issued summons for three liberal bloggers living overseas via separate press releases posted on Twitter. The statements warned that the police will ask the Prosecutor General’s office to try them in absentia if they refuse to appear but did not provide any details about the charges.
The news rules have meanwhile drawn criticism from lawyers and legal experts over the unprecedented use of social media.
“The problem with issuing summons through social media is that social media has no governing and there is no legal recognition of electronic documents or electronic signatures in the Maldivian legal system,” Ibrahim Riffath, a practising attorney and former solicitor general, told the Maldives Independent.
“Therefore in legal reality, there is no legal basis for using Viber, Twitter, Facebook or other social media for summons. It does not make sense legally to have a procedure that is not based on law or regulation.”
According to the constitution, only a law passed by the parliament or a regulation that derives its authority from a law can dictate how citizens can be treated, Riffath noted.
He also referred to the Interpretation Act, which requires legal documents to be handed over personally or through registered post. The regulation on police powers also requires summons for investigative purposes to be delivered in person or through the post.
“The procedure is unclear about the abrupt deviation from the law. The police have not given a legal basis sustaining the change in practice,” Riffath contended.
“It will be unconstitutional and a violation of law to subject citizens to an arbitrary procedure without any legal justification. As there is no tailor-made legislation or regulation to enforce rules on social media, the procedure cannot be legally binding.”
Police summons is not issued through social media anywhere else in the world, he added, suggesting that the “enforcement of ad hoc rules on social media is reprehensible” for other reasons such as anonymity and definitive identification of the recipient.
“In addition, access to electronic content may also infringe service provider rights and personality rights including the right to privacy,” he continued.
“The new procedure accepts ‘seen zone;’ as confirmation for the message having been delivered. But what if someone else had read the message? How can you decide that the person has read it? Phones can be stolen or lost, so the person who the summons are issued for might not receive it or know about it.
“The authorities may not be able to definitely verify someone’s social media account. In light of virtual private networks and legal issues over cross-border jurisdiction, IP addresses must not be presumed as belonging to a specific individual or party.”