Foreign freeholds will not threaten Indian Ocean security, assures President Yameen

President Abdulla Yameen has assured the public that authorising foreign ownership of land or freeholds in the Maldives will not threat Indian Ocean security or lead to “enslavement” and shortage of land.

Addressing the nation this afternoon after ratifying amendments to the constitution passed by the parliament yesterday, Yameen insisted that the unprecedented changes will not adversely affect “friendly relations” with South Asian neighbours.

“The Maldivian government has given assurances to the Indian government and our neighbouring countries as well to keep the Indian Ocean a demilitarised zone,” he said.

The Maldives’ foreign policy will not change as a result of authorising freeholds, he added. The freeholds would not pose “any danger to either the Maldivian people or our neighbouring countries.”

The amendments will allow foreigners who invest more than US$1 billion to own plots of land within the project site. At least 70 percent of the project site must also be reclaimed land.

The second amendment to the 2008 constitution was approved yesterday with 70 votes in favour and 14 against. MPs opposed to the move expressed concern over possible Chinese military expansion in the Maldives and lack of time to debate the amendments.

The main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) said the party supports “free ownership of land and property” in principle, but expressed concern with the amendments facilitating “foreign non-commercial logistical installations in the Maldives.”

Speaking to the press after the president’s remarks, newly appointed vice president Ahmed Adeeb said: “We are not going to sell our lands to any country. We are trying to do business here. We want to bring in many corporate investments. We are not going to sell land to other countries, whether its China or Saudi Arabia. We are not gifting our land to other parties. We want to mobilize investments worth at least US$1 billion.”

Attorney General Mohamed Anil stressed that the government will conduct background checks on investors and review if proposed projects may affect geopolitics.

“No cause for concern” 

Yameen said there is “no cause for Maldivian citizens to be concerned” with the amendments. Land will only be offered for large-scale economic activities, he stressed, and not “for foreigners to settle in those areas.”

The amendments include “safeguards” such as a requirement for the parliament to approve the projects, Yameen said, and investors will not be able to carry out any other work apart from the authorised project.

The state will exercise complete sovereignty over the areas, he continued, which would also be subject to the Maldivian constitution and laws.

“If the Maldivian state’s sovereign authority is not lost, temples can’t be built there, casinos can’t be built there, and illegal activities cannot be carried out,” he said.

Anil meanwhile noted that the amendments state that the total land area of all project sites must not exceed 10 percent of naturally existing land in the Maldives. The projects will also be regulated by laws passed by the People’s Majlis, he added.

Anil said freehold zones were key in the economic transformation of Dubai, Singapore, and Saudi Arabia. He also said India has a threshold of US$5 million worth of investment.

“The government is not obliged to engage with investors who come with US$1 billion. Of the proposed projects, we will check how feasible they are, what the biggest investments are. And we will also check who the parties are, what their backgrounds are, for Maldives’ security and protection, if this will affect geopolitics,” he said.

“Economic transformation”

Yameen said the amendments will “speed up the pace” of realising the current administration’s goal of “transforming the economy,” which could not be achieved by continuing with “business as usual.”

The US$1 billion will not be spent entirely on land reclamation, Yameen said, but on infrastructure development such as new “townships,” airports, marinas, and seaports.

Adeeb meanwhile told the press that the amendments were in line with the ruling Progressive Party of Maldives’ (PPM) economic agenda. It accompanies the government’s flagship special economic zones (SEZ) legislation and the introduction of corporate residence visas.

Responding to allegations that the SEZ legislation had failed, Adeeb said the government has received several SEZ proposals from potential investors, but the government could not accept some as some investors made demands such as complete exclusivity for 25 years.

The government is negotiating “the best deal” for the country and seeking “win-win situations”, Adeeb said, reiterating that one ‘mega project’ could transform the economy.

The government will not allow illegal activities such as weapons smuggling, money laundering, or gambling, he said.

“We do not want to bring in companies with bad reputations to launder money. We are talking about Fortune 500 companies,” he said.

Land reclamation 

Yameen meanwhile sought to allay fears of “running out of land for future generations.”

The government is not planning on offering all the islands and lagoons in the Maldives for sale, he said, adding that the government will only authorise “one or two projects” that would create jobs for youth and increase national wealth.

The Maldives has the capacity to significantly increase its territory by reclaiming land in large shallow lagoons, he said, and the cabinet’s economic council has approved funds for the state-owned Maldives Transport and Contracting Company (MTCC) to procure a cutter dredger.

Yameen said 24 million square meters of land could be reclaimed from the lagoon of Laamu Maavah for about US$200 million, 45 million square meters could be reclaimed from the Vaavu Bodumohora lagoon for about US$160 million, and 16 million square meters could be reclaimed from the Thaa Hirilandhoo lagoon for US$50 million.

Once the MTCC dredger arrives next years, Yameen said the government will have the capacity and the financial means to carry out the projects.

There is no danger of running out of land in the next 50 or 100 years, he said.

Population consolidation is also a policy of the current administration, Yameen continued, urging youth from small islands to migrate to the capital.

Once phase two of the Hulhumalé development is complete and the government authorises high-rise buildings to 20 or 25 floors, Yameen said up to 70 percent of Maldivian population could be settled in the Malé region.

Yameen said the constitutional amendments were proposed following long deliberation, research, and consultation with foreign parties and legal experts.

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Nine hour power cut in Malé caused by damaged switch gear

The State Electricity Company (STELCO) has said that a power outage in the Galolhu ward of Malé around 1:00am last night was caused by a damaged switch gear at a distribution centre in Lily Magu.

The power cut lasted more than nine hours and followed STELCO warning of intermittent cuts in the capital after one of two main 8MW generators at the power plant suffered damage.

STELCO spokesperson Ibrahim Rauf told Minivan News that electricity services resumed around 11:00am this morning after the switch gear was replaced.

Contrary to rumours, Rauf said last night’s outage was not the result of an overload caused by LED lights placed at government buildings to mark the upcoming 50th anniversary of independence.

Rauf suggested that the damage could have been caused by heavy rainfall last night, but said that the exact cause has not been determined.

The damage to one of the main engines earlier this month was caused by “technical problems” and will take time to repair, Rauf said. The generator’s parts will have to be brought from overseas and replaced, he added.

STELCO is yet to determine the cause of the generator failure.

The government-owned electricity provider in the atolls, Fenaka Corporation, is meanwhile transporting two 2MW engines to Malé from Addu City for temporary use during the independence day celebrations.

Rauf said one of the generators was shipped out last night and STELCO “will see when it arrives” whether it could be installed ahead of Independence Day. But he expressed confidence that STELCO will be able to handle the high demand for electricity on July 26 without power cuts.

Meanwhile, in a Facebook post on Sunday, Addu City Mayor Abdulla Sodiq said electricity services provided by the central power station was disrupted last week while power outages have been common in recent weeks.

The transfer of the generator to Malé is regrettable, he said, calling on the government not to “deprive citizens of such basis services.”

The government’s policy of ensuring reliable, round-the-clock electricity across the country has “failed,” Sodiq contended.

“The question is if Addu faces an electricity problem tomorrow, will an engine be brought from Greater Malé?” he asked.

Rauf meanwhile told Minivan News last week that the LED lights strung for independence day celebrations will use around 2.5 MW of electricity from the STELCO grid.

“We are very concerned and saddened because the lights may also suffer due to the power cuts,” he said.

Malé uses 46MW of electricity on average, but the amount could go up to 52MW at peak hours or on dry and humid days.

“The demand for electricity depends a lot on the weather. If we have wet cold weather then people would not use air-conditioners and electricity demand will be reduced,” he said.

It has been raining heavily in Malé this week, but July 26 is expected to be dry, according to weather forecasts.

Power cuts will last only one hour at high demand periods, and will be spread out in different areas of Malé, Rauf said.

Maldives is celebrating 50 years of independence from the British on July 26.

The government is planning grand celebrations to mark Independence Day, including a parade by the army and school brass bands, reopening of public parks with water fountains, an official function at the Usfasgandu area with more than 100 foreign dignitaries, official games at the national stadium, and a football tournament in the atolls.

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Majlis approves foreign freeholds in second amendment to constitution

The parliament has amended the constitution to authorise foreign ownership of land or freeholds in the Maldives with overwhelming support of 70 votes in favour, a day after the amendments were introduced to the People’s Majlis.

Ten MPs of the main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) and nine MPs of the Jumhooree Party (JP) also voted in favour of the unprecedented changes. Some 14 MPs voted No.

MPs opposed to the move expressed concern over possible Chinese military expansion in the Maldives, and the lack of time to review the amendments. The bill was submitted on Monday, debated and sent to committee for review at an extraordinary sitting last night, and put to a vote today.

The opposition MPs’ backing was necessary as a three-quarters majority or 64 votes was required to amend the constitution. The ruling Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM) and coalition partner Maldives Development Alliance (MDA) controls 48 seats in the 85-member house.

Shortly before the vote was called, former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, leader of the PPM and half-brother of President Abdulla Yameen, urged the president to seek public opinion before ratifying the amendments. This is the first time Gayoom has publicly opposed president Yameen’s actions.

The amendments will allow foreigners who invest more than US$1 billion to purchase land within the project site. At least 70 percent of the area when the project is completed must also be reclaimed land. The constitution previously prohibited foreign ownership of any part of Maldivian territory, but allowed leasing of land for up to 99 years.

New Cold War

Speaking during the final debate on the amendments today, MDP MP Eva Abdulla said that a Chinese Yuan class 335 submarine passed through Maldivian waters and docked at the Karachi port on May 22, adding that Indian media called it “China’s deadliest attack submarine.”

Maldivian foreign and domestic policies should be based on ensuring Indian Ocean regional security as “Maldives is not in the South China Sea,” she said.

The Maldives is “a front line state” in the new Cold War and should not be a catalyst for conflict, the MP for Galolhu North added.

The MDP as a “centre-right party” supports free market policies and the principle of private land ownership, but could not support “selling land for China to build military bases” in the Maldives.

Eva said the MDP could support foreign ownership of land in the Maldives under a more transparent government and independent judiciary.

PPM MP Ali Arif conceded that the Maldives as a small nation is always vulnerable to influence from powerful nations. He said the committee addressed the concerns over sovereignty during its review process and added a clause to the bill stating that the Maldivian state will exercise complete authority over the territory designated for projects.

He added that 80 or 90 percent of the Maldives’ 112 luxury resorts are operated by foreign businesses and multinational hotel chains have invested millions of dollars in the lucrative tourism industry.

Majority leader Ahmed Nihan, who had submitted the bill, meanwhile assured the public that the ruling party would not compromise Islam or Maldivian traditions and sovereignty. He stressed that the amendments only apply to newly reclaimed land and that the government was not planning to sell existing natural islands or reclaimed land.

No public debate

Adhaalath Party MP Anara Naeem said she had proposed amending the bill to allow lease of Maldivian territory for up to 150 years, but the parliament secretariat did not accept her amendment as it was submitted after 12pm.

Anara said a single day was too short a period to approve such changes to the constitution without consulting stakeholders or experts.

Gayoom raised the same issue in a letter sent to President Yameen and shared with the media by the former president’s office. He urged his brother to hold a public referendum on the issue, noting the amendments were proposed without public debate.

Gayoom also stated that previous governments did not sell any part of Maldivian territory to prevent foreign influence over the country’s independence, sovereignty, and resources.

MDP MP Ahmed ‘ADK’ Nashid also expressed concern with passing the amendments without a debate among the public or an assessment of the pros and cons of the proposed changes.

Despite the economic benefits of attracting foreign investors, Nashid warned that the amendments could pose dangers to Maldivian sovereignty with foreign powers encouraging secessionist movements in a situation similar to Crimea breaking away from the Ukraine.

MPs Eva, Nashid, and Anara were among those who cast dissenting votes along with MDP MPs Rozaina Adam, Mohamed Rasheed Hussain, Mohamed Falah, Mohamed Aslam, Mariya Ahmed Didi, Imthiyaz Fahmy, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, and Fayyaz Ismail.

JP MPs Ali Hussain, Abdulla Riyaz, and Independent MP Ahmed Mahloof also voted against the proposed changes.

MDP MPs Abdul Bari Abdulla, Abdul Ghafoor Moosa, Abdulla Shahid, Ahmed Marzooq, Ali Azim, Ali Nizar, Ibrahim Shareef, Ibrahim Naseer, Mohamed Nazim, and Mohamed Abdul Kareem voted in favour of the bill along with nine JP MPs and Independent MP Hussain Areef.

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Second amendment on foreign land ownership likely to pass

Key opposition MPs have expressed support for a ruling Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) proposed constitutional amendment to authorise foreign ownership of land or freeholds in the Maldives. Some 62 MPs voted to consider the amendment and have sent it to a special committee for review.

A three-quarters majority or 64 votes will be needed to amend the constitution. The ruling coalition only controls 48 seats in the 85-member house.

With 62 MPs voting to consider the bill, it is likely to pass into law. The final vote is expected on Wednesday afternoon.

Speaking at tonight’s extraordinary sitting of parliament, MP Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, the parliamentary group leader of the main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), expressed support for the amendment, but said the government must consider Indian Ocean security in awarding plots of land to foreign parties.

The bill comes amidst increased attempts by the government to woo Chinese and Middle-eastern investors.

The constitution currently prohibits foreign ownership of any part of Maldivian territory, but allows leasing of land for up to 99 years.

The proposed amendments will allow foreigners who invest in a project worth more than US$1 billion to purchase land. At least 70 percent of the area when the project is completed must also be reclaimed land.

Jumhooree Party (JP) leader Gasim Ibrahim said the amendment was needed in an interconnected world. Land ownership by foreigners on a freehold basis was allowed in developed countries, he added.

The minimum threshold of US$1 billion worth investment will enable the government to develop the education and health sectors, he continued, and thanked President Abdulla Yameen for his “wisdom.”

Tonight’s sitting was scheduled after changes to the standing orders to fast-track the process of passing a bill into law was approved at this morning’s sitting. The legislative process includes three main stages and usually takes weeks or months. But under the new rules, a bill can be debated and passed into law on the same day.

The amendment comes amidst negotiations between the government and the MDP. The opposition has so far backed several unprecedented measures proposed by the government in hope of freedom for jailed opposition leader Mohamed Nasheed and other politicians.

The bill is the second amendment proposed to the constitution since it was ratified in 2008. MPs in June passed the first amendment to the constitution to set new age limits of 30-65 years for the presidency. Subsequently, vice president Dr Mohamed Jameel Ahmed was impeached today.

Coerced

PPM MP Ahmed Nihan – who submitted the amendments (Dhivehi) on behalf of the government today –  said contrary to “misleading” media reports, the amendments would not allow the government to sell large islands or lose sovereignty over Maldivian territory.

The PPM parliamentary group leader said the purpose of the amendment is to attract “extremely large” foreign investment and spur economic growth and infrastructure development. Nihan said Singapore developed despite the lack of natural resources because the small island state “opened up” to foreign investment.

PPM MP Ali Arif emphatically stressed no land will be given for military purposes.

MP Abdul Ghafoor Moosa backed the bill saying that the MDP’s policy is to create a real estate market and encourage home ownership. “We are very happy the ruling party now accepts our development policies. I know the government has an investor willing to invest US$1 billion. We must make use of that opportunity.”

Independent MP Ahmed Mahloof reminded ruling party MPs of their campaign to evict Indian airport developer GMR and said: “This bill amounts to selling off our land. If things continue like this, we might sell off our wives, children and the boxers we are wearing. As we celebrate 50 years of independence, our land must remain ours.”

The former ruling party MP suggested the JP and MDP had been coerced to support the amendment in exchange for freedom for Nasheed and a removal of a freeze on Gasim’s tourism companies.

Meanwhile, JP MP Ali Hussein said that Maldivians wanted clean water and sanitation instead of “mega projects.”

“They are worried about corruption. They want to divert funds wasted on corruption to development. They want tertiary hospitals,” he said. He said that the PPM wanted to award freeholds because it had failed to attract investment through the government’s flagship special economic zones (SEZ) legislation, which was passed in August last year. It gives investors tax breaks and relaxed laws.

He further warned of unchecked corruption and undue influence of large corporations if the amendment passed due to weak oversight institutions and lack of accountability.

Opposing the amendment, MDP MP Rozaina Adam said the government had failed to attract foreign investors because of a weak and politicized judiciary. MDP MP Fayyaz Ismail meanwhile said he supported the amendment in principle, but said extensive public consultations were necessary before he could back the bill.

Special economic zones

In April 2014, President Abdulla Yameen said he the SEZ law would enable investors to have “freeholds” in the country and allow investors “to engage in really, really long gestative projects.”

The opposition contended that the SEZ law would pave the way for money laundering and other criminal enterprises, undermine the decentralisation system, and authorise a board formed by the president to “openly sell off the country” without parliamentary oversight.

But the government maintained that the law was necessary to attract large-scale foreign investments and to launch ‘mega projects,’ which President Yameen has said would “transform” the economy through diversification and mitigate the reliance on the tourism industry.

The mega projects include the construction of a bridge connecting Malé to Hulhumalé and the development of a ‘Youth City’ in the reclaimed artificial island.

In January, President Yameen said 75 percent of the country’s population could be resettled in Hulhumalé and urged residents of islands with small populations to migrate to the new city. According to the 2014 census, the population of the Maldives stands at 341,256, of which 133,019 people resides in Malé.

Other mega projects envisioned by the government includes the development of a transhipment port in the Maldives’ northernmost atoll. The Ihavandhippolhu Integrated Development Project (iHavan) also involves the development of an airport, offshore docking and bunkering facilities, an export processing zone, real estate businesses, and tourism facilities.

In June, a group of Saudi Arabian investors reportedly visited Ihavandhippolhu. The Saudi Arabian government has also provided US$1 million as grant aid to finance the feasibility project.

Additional reporting and writing by Zaheena Rasheed. 

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Parliament impeaches Vice President Dr Jameel in absentia

The parliament has impeached Vice President Dr Mohamed Jameel with overwhelming multi-party support today, less than two years after the current administration took office in November 2013.

Jameel was removed from office with 78 votes in favour and two against.

The impeachment process was initiated by the ruling Progressive Party of Maldives-Maldives Development Alliance (PPM-MDA) coalition, which controls 48 seats in the 85-member house. A two-thirds majority or 57 votes of the 85-member house was required to remove the vice president.

MPs of the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) and Jumhooree Party (JP) also voted in favour of the motion. Independent MPs Ahmed Mahloof and Hussain Areef cast dissenting votes while Adhaalath Party MP Anara Naeem did not participate in the vote.

Jameel is currently in London and did not return to answer charges at the parliament. In a 40-minute verbal statement released online this morning, Jameel said he was sidelined four months after the presidential election and dismissed the charges in the impeachment motion.

The motion accused Jameel of incompetence, dereliction of duty, links with the opposition, failure to defend the government, and excessive expenditure from the state budget.

The main opposition MDP parliamentary group had issued a three-line whip last night to vote in favour of the impeachment motion.

Opposition MPs’ backing for a constitutional amendment passed last month to set an age limit of 30 to 65 years for the presidency and vice presidency was widely perceived as part of a deal in exchange for transferring imprisoned former President Mohamed Nasheed to house arrest.

During the debate on the impeachment motion, ruling PPM parliamentary group leader MP Ahmed Nihan said the vice president was in charge of the cabinet’s social council tasked with overseeing the health and education sectors, but had failed to show progress.

Pro-government MPs accused Jameel of disloyalty and plotting to depose the president while opposition MPs stressed that the ruling party was seeking to remove their own vice president.

MDP MP Eva Abdulla said the only reason for the opposition party to vote to save Jameel was the “dim hope” that he might create divisions within the government.

Jameel had obstructed the MDP’s efforts since its inception, she said, and had vowed not to hand over the presidency even if the party’s candidate won the 2013 presidential polls.

“I don’t see that an MDP member could vote to save Dr Mohamed Jameel Ahmed,” she said.

Several MPs meanwhile questioned the necessity of the vice president’s post and suggested amending the constitution to dissolve the post.

MDP MP Mariya Ahmed Didi observed that successive presidents have lost confidence in their deputies.

Former vice president Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik had perpetrated a “coup d’etat” with the opposition in February 2012 to assume the presidency, she said, while the current ruling party has also lost confidence in the incumbent vice president as well.

Due process

Jameel had appointed former attorney general Husnu Suood as his lawyer, but Speaker Abdulla Maseeh Mohamed informed the vice president yesterday that the lawyer could not respond to the charges on his behalf.

Maseeh said today that he had received a letter from Suood’s law firm shortly before the sitting began, but could not accept the written statement it contained as it did not bear Jameel’s signature.

Article 100(d) of the Constitution states that the vice president shall have the right to defend himself in the sittings of the People’s Majlis, both orally and in writing, and has the right to legal counsel.

JP MPs Ali Hussain and Faisal Naseem as well as some MDP MPs expressed concern with the parliament not granting Jameel the right to defend himself.

The pro-government majority in the parliament had amended the parliament’s standing orders so that an investigation by a select committee was not required before impeaching the vice president.

Ali Hussain said fast-tracking the impeachment process was against the letter and spirit of the constitution, adding that the historic impeachment vote would be remembered as a “dark day” in Maldivian history.

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PPM MPs slam Commonwealth ‘bullying’ as opposition MPs warn against isolation

Pro-government MPs have accused influential countries in the Commonwealth of “bullying” the Maldives and interfering in domestic affairs in a parliamentary debate on quitting the inter-governmental body. Opposition MPs warned that the current administration’s foreign policy would isolate the country.

President Abdulla Yameen had sought parliament’s counsel on the country’s membership of the Commonwealth following lobbying efforts for an assessment of Maldives’ alleged violations of the organisation’s principles with the imprisonment of opposition politicians, including former President Mohamed Nasheed.

In a letter to the speaker – read out at today’s sitting – the president noted that the cabinet had suggested a review of the Maldives’ role in the Commonwealth and requested the parliament’s advice on the issue.

In the ensuing debate, ruling Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) MP Ahmed Nihan said some Commonwealth members are trying to place restrictions on the Maldives and harm the country’s economy and tourism industry through the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group’s (CMAG).

The Maldives’ treatment in the Commonwealth was akin to “the weakest or quietest kid in the class being bullied by the biggest group or kid,” he said.

If the government decides to leave the Commonwealth, the PPM parliamentary group leader said he would fully back the decision.

PPM MP Riyaz Rasheed meanwhile called on MPs to propose immediately leaving the Commonwealth to the government.

The Commonwealth was demanding opposition leader Nasheed’s release from prison, Riyaz claimed, which was contrary to separation of powers and the constitution adopted in 2008 with the organisation’s assistance.

“[The Commonwealth] does not want Islam in the Maldives. They want to spread false religions here, they want to build temples here, they want to elect a leader here who can carry out their agenda,” he said.

The Maldives should not be “afraid” of the Commonwealth as unlike India and China the organisation has not provided significant aid to the country, he continued.

Earlier this month, foreign minister Dunya Maumoon said the Maldives “will seriously consider its membership at the Commonwealth” if it is placed on the agenda of the Commonwealth’s human rights and democracy arm for a second time in four years.

The Maldives was placed on the CMAG’s agenda in 2012 “on an unfair basis, based on false allegations, and the country’s economy and democratic governance suffered significantly as a result,” Dunya said.

In mid-June, Canada had called on CMAG to “urgently put the deteriorating situation in the Maldives on its formal agenda,” prompting Dunya to accuse the Canadian government of hypocrisy. “Canada should address the cultural genocide it is alleged to have committed against native Canadians before trying to teach other nations about values of democratic principles and human rights,” she said.

Echoing Dunya’s criticism during today’s debate, ruling party MPs said the countries pushing for action against Maldives has committed serious crimes, such as “electoral fraud” and “cultural genocide.”

Others also called on the Commonwealth to apologise to the Maldives for taking action against in the wake of former President Nasheed’s controversial resignation in February 2012.

The Maldives was placed on the CMAG agenda from March 2012 to March 2013 after Nasheed resigned amidst a police and military mutiny. He later alleged he had been ousted in a coup d’état, but a Commonwealth-backed inquiry found the transfer of power to be constitutional.

Main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) MP Mariya Ahmed Didi advised the government to accept criticism from international partners “instead of saying we’re an independent country and becoming isolated from the world.”

The Maldives is dependent on imports and tourists and could not survive with an isolationist stance in an inter-connected world, she said.

MDP MP Eva Abdulla said Maldivian teachers, students, doctors, and athletes have received numerous opportunities through the Commonwealth in addition to assistance from member states.

The Commonwealth offers a platform for the Maldives to have its voice heard in the international arena, she said.

The Maldives could not achieve development and progress in isolation from the rest of the world, she continued, and foreign policy should be shaped accordingly.

“Temporary benefits or quarrels” should not dictate foreign policy or bilateral relations, Eva said.

The debate will continue tomorrow.

The CMAG in a recent meeting in London decided not to review the Maldives.

The president is authorized to determine. conduct and oversee the Maldives’ foreign policy according to the constitution.

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Bill proposes criminalizing ‘expressions contrary to national interest and Islamic tenets’

The Attorney General’s (AG) office has drafted a new law that would criminalise expressions contrary to national interest or tenets of Islam.

The draft legislation (Dhivehi) on freedom of expression – obtained by Minivan News – states that four types of “expressions contrary to national interest” will constitute criminal offences: encouraging harm to a person or damage to private party, calling for the illegal overthrow of the government, threatening the country’s independence, sovereignty, and security, and accusing a person of committing a hadd offence without conclusive evidence.

Free expression can be restricted on the grounds of national security only if the following circumstances arise: if there is a need to protect the nation or its territory, if Maldivians or foreigners threaten national security with the use of force, and if the government’s ability to defend the nation is endangered.

If the state restricts freedom of expression in such cases, the state must show that the right has been restricted as narrowly as possible, that the restriction is permissible in a democratic society, and that the expression in question poses “a serious danger to national security.”

Hadd offences are crimes for which punishments are prescribed in the Quran or the hadith (sayings of the Prophet), including theft, fornication, making unproven accusations of illicit sex, drinking intoxicants, apostasy, and highway robbery.

The punishment for falsely accusing a person of committing a hadd offence is a jail sentence of between one to three years and a fine of between MVR50,000 (US$3,242) and MVR100,000 (US$6,485)

The bill states that encouraging harm or damage to property – excluding calls for a boycott of goods – and calling for the illegal overthrow of the government can be prosecuted under sections 222 (threatening catastrophe) and 610 (rioting or forceful overthrow of the government) of the new penal code.

Expressions that threaten independence, sovereignty, or national security are punishable by a jail sentence of between three to five years and a fine of between MVR100,000 and MVR500,000 (US$32,425).

The bill states that individuals can be prosecuted for the offences if he or she is unable to prove the truth of a claim under standards followed in civil defamation cases.

The freedom of expression bill was among the government’s 207-bill legislative agenda. It was scheduled to be submitted to parliament during the second session of 2014, but has yet to be submitted.

In May, prosecutor general Muhthaz Muhsin said his office was looking into prosecuting opposition politicians for libel and slander following allegations linking President Abdulla Yameen and tourism minister Ahmed Adeeb with the brutal murder of MP Afrasheem Ali in 2012.

“People are acting however they want. They are trying very hard to defame state institutions in front of the public. The constitution does not give us the right to commit crimes hiding behind a political party,” he said.

“People in responsible posts are publicly accusing others of murder. We are researching on pressing charges against individuals who accuses some one of a crime and which the punishment is hadd.”

Later that month, President Abdulla Yameen threatened to prosecute Adhaalath Party president Sheikh Imran Abdulla, who had said the president and tourism minister would know the truth behind the murder.

“I am being accused falsely. This government will penalise them. I want to file charges against those who are making these accusations. Not that of defamation, but criminal charges. I will file charges against Sheikh Imran,” he said.

Religious unity

The Maldivian constitution guarantees “the right to freedom of thought and the freedom to communicate opinions and expression in a manner that is not contrary to any tenet of Islam.”

The draft freedom of expression bill criminalises insulting Islam, questioning the validity of a tenet of Islam, and threatening religious unity or causing religious disputes, strife, and discord.

Persons accused of anti-Islamic expressions can be prosecuted under section 617 (criticising Islam) of the new penal code.

The bill, however, exempts “constructive opinions” expressed respectfully regarding Islamic tenets for academic or research purposes or at a public forum.

The proposed law states that permission must be sought from the Islamic ministry to preach, deliver religious sermons, or inform the public about religious edicts and specifies a fine of between MVR50,000 and MVR100,000 for violations.

Teaching Islam at a school, college, or university without the ministry’s permission will also be punishable with a fine of between MVR10,000 and MVR50,000.

The 1994 religious unity law will be repealed once the proposed law comes into force. The Islamic ministry must enact new regulations on issuing permission based on education and experience and put in place a mechanism for investigating complaints.

Under the new law, the Human Rights Commission of Maldives will investigate complaints of expressions contrary to national interest or Islamic tenets and forward cases to the prosecutor general’s office.

The bill states that defamation will not be considered a criminal offence and specifies civil remedies. The Supreme Court is mandated to enact regulations specifying rules for determining compensation for damages.

Defamation cases can only be heard in cases where the complainant has suffered damages.

Defamation was decriminalised in 2009 when parliament abolished section 125 of the old penal code, which stated: “Where a person makes a fabricated statement or repeats a statement whose basis cannot be proven, he shall be punished with house detention for a period between one to six months or fined between MVR25 and MVR200.”

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Cabinet reassesses Maldives’ membership in Commonwealth as UK welcomes talks

The cabinet has decided to reassess the Maldives’ membership in the Commonwealth following repeated threats to leave the inter-governmental organisation.

President’s office spokesperson Ibrahim Muaz Ali told the press today that government “needs to explain to the people how much the country benefits from being part of the Commonwealth.”

“That is what the government is going to reassess,” he said, adding that the government will consider the assistance and benefits the country has received since joining in 1981 as well as the Maldives’ present role in the organisation.

Ministers recommended the reassessment to President Abdulla Yameen at today’s cabinet meeting, he said.

Muaz, however, stressed that the cabinet has not decided to leave the Commonwealth.

Earlier this month, foreign minister Dunya Maumoon said the Maldives “will seriously consider its membership at the Commonwealth” if it is placed on the agenda of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) for a second time in four years.

Some Commonwealth members had pushed for the CMAG to assess alleged violations of the Commonwealth’s principles by the Maldives over the widely criticised imprisonment of former President Mohamed Nasheed.

However, the Maldives was not placed on the CMAG agenda despite “efforts made by some of the most powerful countries in the Commonwealth to place the Maldives on the group’s agenda and harm the nation,” the foreign ministry said on July 5.

But former foreign minister Dr Ahmed Shaheed said that the CMAG only granted the Maldives further time to “sort out [the] mess Maldives is in.”

In mid-June, Canada had called on CMAG to “urgently put the deteriorating situation in the Maldives on its formal agenda.” The Commonwealth’s democracy and human rights arm can recommend measures for collective action to restore democracy and constitutional rule.

Diplomatic pressure has been mounting on President Abdulla Yameen to release Nasheed and other jailed politicians, including two former defence ministers and a ruling party MP.

UK “closely involved”

Meanwhile, in response to a question posed by Karen Lumley, conservative MP for Redditch, at the House of Commons on Tuesday, minister of state at the foreign and Commonwealth office Hugo Swire said the British government remains “deeply concerned by the situation in the Maldives.”

He noted that Prime Minister David Cameron had called for Nasheed’s release from custody as well as all-party talks to resolve the six-month long political crisis.

Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) is currently engaged in talks with the government. At the third meeting of the talks this week, MDP representative Ibrahim Mohamed Solih suggested that the opposition leader could be freed on July 26, when the Maldives marks 50 years of independence from the British.

Nasheed was transferred to house arrest in late June after the opposition backed a constitutional amendment that will allow President Abdulla Yameen to replace his deputy.

Swire meanwhile welcomed Nasheed’s transfer to house arrest and the ongoing political dialogue. “We hope the talks will provide the basis for progress on the numerous concerns within the Maldives,” he said.

Asked if he believed the Commonwealth should take action against the Maldives, Swire noted that the UK is not a member of CMAG.

“I have discussed these matters with the Commonwealth Secretary General,” he said.

“I understand that there has been a telephone conversation between CMAG members and that they keep the situation under continuous review.”

John Glen, conservative MP for Salisbury, urged the UK government to “resist complacency on the Maldives,” suggesting that “the current regime seems also to be a recruiting sergeant for ISIL in the Maldives.”

“There will come a time when the government will need to stand clearly on the right side of the argument and intervene more fully to secure justice in that country,” he advised.

In response, Swire said he has recently discussed the Maldives with the Indian foreign secretary and the US assistant secretary of state.

“Both my right honourable friend the Prime Minister and I have met Mr Nasheed’s wife, and Amal Clooney and other members of Mr Nasheed’s legal team, to discuss the situation. We are closely involved,” he said.

Asked about possible sanctions on the Maldives in late June, Swire had said that the UK government has not “discussed the possibility of sanctions with international partners, though we are keeping all options under review.”

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With Chinese grants and loans Malé-Hulhulé bridge inches closer to reality

The Chinese government has pledged to provide US$100 million as free grant aid to finance the construction of a US$300million bridge between capital Malé and airport island Hulhulé.

The Chinese and Maldivian governments today signed Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs) related to financing the project and the construction stage.

Speaking at the signing ceremony, finance minister Abdulla Jihad said that the Chinese government will provide a US$170 million loan at an interest rate of two percent. The remaining US$30 million will be spent from the Maldivian state budget.

“This is an important step to make the bridge viable,” Jihad said.

The MoUs were signed following discussions between the cabinet’s economic council and a delegation from the Chinese government about finalising the design and other matters.

The director general of the department of foreign assistance at the Chinese commerce ministry, Wong Yong Puk, signed the MoUs on behalf of China.

Jihad said official agreements on finance will be signed within the next three months.

The economic council has previously said the six-mile bridge will have six lanes and will span from Malé’s eastern edge to the western corner of Hulhulé, where the airport is located.

According to the housing and infrastructure ministry, the bridge will be completed in two years.

Under the second MoU, the Chinese government agreed to find a contractor for the project and to help the government operate the finished bridge.

During a historic state visit in September, Chinese President Xi Jinping said he hoped the bridge will be called “the China-Maldives friendship bridge” and would ‘favorably consider financing’ the bridge if the design proves feasible.

An agreement was meanwhile penned during President Abdulla Yameen’s state visit to China last month for carrying out the ongoing feasibility survey of the Malé-Hulhulé bridge project with Chinese grant aid.

In May, a team of Chinese technicians began drilling bore holes on the ocean floor to gather information for the feasibility survey.

The feasibility study has since been completed and handed over to the Maldivian government.

In a keynote address delivered at the opening ceremony of the 10th China-South Asia Business Forum on June 12, President Abdulla Yameen declared that Sino-Maldives relations are at an “all-time high” with the establishment of a cooperative partnership between the countries last year.

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