The Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) and the Maldivian Democracy Network (MDN) jointly reiterated their call on the government of Maldives to make substantial changes to the laws on assembly and association at a press conference held yesterday (August 17).
“The people of Maldives are not allowed to express or assemble freely, which is a fundamental right they are taking away from them,” argued Shahinda Ismail, Executive Director of MDN.
Changes need to be made in order to meet the country’s constitutional guarantees of fundamental rights and legal obligations under international human rights law, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Maldives is party, read a press release from FORUM-ASIA.
One of the main issues raised at the press conference was the freedom of association law. According to this law, protests cannot take place near schools, mosques, or hospitals, Shahinda told Minivan News.
Malé – the capital of the Maldives – is home to approximately 150,000 residents in 6 square kilometers of land, making it among the most densely populated capitals of the world. Therefore, facilities like schools and mosques are abundant.
“When you really look at Malé, there’s a mosque on every block,” Shahinda argued, “there is hardly any space left for people to demonstrate.”
“The restrictions on protesting must be made in consideration with the geography of the landscape,” she added.
Restriction not regulation
Another point highlighted at the conference was the wide range of powers given to police in controlling demonstrations.
“The problem we see is it doesn’t provide for police to protect demonstrators. It doesn’t regulate the right, it curbs the right [to demonstrate],” Shahinda stated.
“There must be a provision where police engage with demonstrators and try to bring order before deciding to disperse,” she added.
Furthermore, Shahinda the highlighted vague phrases in the legislation, which she fears are open to numerous interpretations.
“The word ‘reasonable’ used many times. It’s very subjective and we don’t feel it’s appropriate to use in the law.”
Another line could be interpreted as restricting right to assembly solely to police, added Shahinda.
“It’s just one line, a sub-section off a sub-section,” she notes, “but it can be interpreted in a number of ways.”
“The right to freedom of assembly doesn’t not stand alone, it has to come with freedom expression and association,” Shahinda warned.
Shahinda went on to connect the issues raised to the recent disappearance and feared abduction of Minivan News journalist Ahmed Rilwan Abdulla.
“The problems that people face in freedom of expression – Rilwan is at the height of it,” said Shahinda.
“We opened the press conference raising concern and calling on authorities to speed up the investigation, and we ended on the same note.”
Systemic Failures: Transparency Maldives
Earlier this month, a press release from local NGO Transparency Maldives (TM) revealed they are currently working to reform the Associations Act in order to create a more enabling environment for civil society.
“Governance, transparency and functioning of CBO’s [community based organisations] will improve if the systemic issues in the regulatory framework are addressed,” TM announced.
Christopher Roberts, TM’s consultant on freedom of association, released a set of comments and recommendations discussing the international best practices of freedom of association legislation and to share his experience of freedom of association in transitional democracies.
The report addresses several legal issues with the 2003 Associations Act of the Maldives.
“The definition of associations provided by article 39(a) of the act is circular and inadequate,” states Christopher Roberts, legal expert on freedom of association.
“The law should instead adopt the definition used at the international level,” argued Roberts.