Preliminary debate began at today’s sitting of parliament on an amendment seeking authority for the police and other investigative bodies to withhold passports for 24 hours without a court order.
The change to the Immigration Act was proposed by Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) MP Ibrahim Riza.
Presenting the legislation (Dhivehi) on behalf of the government, the MP for Kaafu Guraidhoo said its purpose was to bring the immigration law of 2007 in line with the revised constitution adopted in August 2008.
However, in the ensuing debate, opposition MPs contended that the amendment was unconstitutional as it would curtail fundamental rights and freedoms guaranteed by the constitution.
Jumhooree Party (JP) MP Ali Hussain said he feared the amendment would allow the government to withhold passports of MPs “without any reason for political purposes”.
The MP for Baa Kendhoo noted that police and other authorities would be authorised to hold passports without the knowledge of the passport holder.
Moreover, he added, passport holders would not be able to either contest or appeal the decision or advocate in their defence.
Opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) MP Abdul Ghafoor Moosa argued that granting authority to the police to hold passports was “contrary to the spirit of the constitution”.
He noted that the police presently have powers to arrest and detain suspects for 24 hours, adding that there had been no instance in the past seven years of a suspect absconding or flying overseas without the knowledge of the authorities.
Defending the amendment, PPM MP Ibrahim Didi, however, insisted that investigative bodies should have the authority to hold passports of suspects involved in serious crimes.
“24 hours is not a very long time. Even now, police arrest people for 24 hours. So I don’t believe a person could face too much harm if his passport is held for 24 hours,” the MP for Addu Feydhoo said.
MDP MP Mariya Ahmed Didi meanwhile referred to article 41(a) of the constitution, which states, “Every citizen has the freedom to enter, remain in and leave the Maldives, and to travel within the Maldives.”
The constitution did not envision that the right of freedom of movement could be restricted, she contended, adding that it was essential for the accused to be present during legal proceedings on withholding passports.
As suspects in police custody could not fly overseas, Mariya said she did not see the need for police to withhold their passports without a court warrant.
The most notable instance of court hearings being cancelled due to the defendant being abroad involved Home Minister Umar Naseer’s disobedience to order charges. Despite an arrest warrant being issued in his absence, the minister was not taken into custody on his return to the country.