Comment: The old and new penal code

The following op-ed was written by former Deputy Prosecutor General Hussain Shameem and first appeared on newspaper Haveeru on April 1. Translated and republished with permission. 

The penal code currently in force in the Maldives was passed in 1966. It has been almost 50 years since the law was enacted. In recent years, the economic and social condition of the Maldives has undergone major changes, but the appropriate changes were not made to the law.

We need to amend old laws to include new offences. For instance, credit card fraud was not something that was envisioned when the penal code was drafted. Credit card fraud is now prosecuted under fraud. However, as the act of having a credit card was not foreseen it is difficult to prove the offence.

The other problem with the current penal code is the effect historical realities had on its provisions, and the challenges to ensuring justice due to these effects.

The penal code was passed following a trip by then-Prime Minister Ibrahim Nasir to quell a secessionist movement in the south. Therefore, severe punishments were specified for crimes such as treason and attempts to assassinate the head of state. But not much attention was given to other offences. For instance, premeditated murder was not criminalised in clear language in the law.

The task of rewriting the penal code was first announced at a function at the Islamic Centre on June 9, 2004 by then-President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. In his speech, he said the Maldives needed a penal code in accordance with Islamic Sharia and international conventions the country has acceded to.

The ‘National Criminal Justice Action Plan’ formulated later also detailed this policy. It stated that the new penal code should be a law that could be enforced in accordance with Islamic Sharia and international conventions. This is a special effort that has not been undertaken so far in the whole Islamic community.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) offered expert assistance to the government in this task, and enlisted a distinguished professor at the University of Pennsylvania Faculty of Law, Paul H Robinson.

Professor Robinson is a world-class expert on drafting laws, a draftsman who has earned the honour of drafting the penal codes of various American states. Due to his know-how in drafting the law, the most voluminous law passed in Maldivian history is easy to read and refer.

Changes the penal code will bring about

The penal code due to come into force on April 13 will usher in major reforms to the Maldivian criminal justice system.

One of the biggest changes will be bringing together provisions in some 90 laws that specify criminal offences under one law. This will make the work of investigators, prosecutors, and judges significantly easier. Instead of referring to different books and laws, they will be able to look up all offences in one place. All criminal offences under the law can be found in one statute.

This rule is also stated in article 61 of the constitution. The article states that no person may be subjected to any punishment except pursuant to a statute or pursuant to a regulation made under authority of a statute, which has been made available to the public. The criminal offence and its punishment must also be clearly specified.

Article 88(a) of the current penal code states that disobedience to a judicial or legal order is a crime. However, the article does not make it clear how and to what extent an action becomes a crime. This article could be seen as in conflict with the constitution. This very argument has been made as well.

The second change that will come about is the ability to prosecute on multiple counts for different offences involved in a single incident. At present, a person who enters a home illegally, steals, and leaves after breaking down the door can be prosecuted only for theft. That is because theft is the most serious crime involved in that incident.

Under the new law, each offence can be prosecuted separately. Therefore, the offender can be charged with illegal entry (article 230), theft (article 211), and damaging property (article 220). If the charge of theft could not be proven for any reason, the offender could still be punished if the other offences are proven. This example also applies to violent assault and premeditated murder.

Once the new penal code is in effect, the punishment for all offences will generally be less severe. However, once offenders could be charged on multiple counts and sentenced for several offences, the punishment for each offence will be largely the same as now.

Additionally, the penal code specifies offences for which the punishment would be harsh or less severe. Chapter 1001 of the law states that the punishment could vary based on consideration of how the offence was committed.

For example, if the victim of an assault is below 18 or above 65 years of age, the punishment will be severe. Moreover, the punishment will be severe if the offender has a criminal record. If the offender does not have a criminal record, the punishment could be lenient.

I will provide more information about the characteristics of the new penal code in future writings.

Hussain Shameem is a senior legal consultant at the Legal Sector Resource Centre established jointly by the UNDP and the Attorney General’s Office.

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to [email protected]