The opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) has said it is opposed to a Freedom of Assembly bill accepted for discussion this week by the People’s Majlis – despite praising the overall nature of the legislation.
According to local media reports, 41 ministers out of 62 present during a vote this week favoured tabling the bill, which was proposed earlier this year by the independent MP Mohamed Nasheed. The bill is said to have been devised in a bid to clarify the rights and responsibilities of both protesters and authorities policing them.
MDP Spokesperson and MP Hamid Abdul Ghafoor told Minivan News that while the party believed the proposed bill was a “good piece of legislation” – the time was deemed “not right” for such amendments to be made to the existing law.
The MDP has continued to allege that the government of former President Mohamed Nasheed was ousted in February through a “coup d’etat” supported by mutinous elements of the police and military. Hamid contended therefore that amendments to police controls in the present political environment would not be supported by the party.
“We continue to maintain that the police are not a legitimate body due to their role in the coup,” he claimed. “This is a good piece of legislation to implement with a legitimate police force, but we believe that [the security forces’] role in the coup was such that this is not the time to get the bill passed. It would simply serve for authorities to gain leverage and take away the democratic gains made in the country in the last three years.”
“Up the ante”
With parliament now reportedly discussing whether the bill should be sent for evaluation through a temporary or permanent committee, Hamid added that the MDP was itself preparing to “up the ante” in terms of the protests it has been holding over the last few months concerning the legitimacy of President Mohamed Waheed Hassan’s government.
“At the moment, the mood in the party is to intensify the protests,” he said. We continue to believe that the present government is not legitimate and we will continue to protest this within legal means under the eyes of the law. The courts have not yet been able to rule against the freedom of assembly,” he added.
According to Hamid, with the MDP continuing to conduct protests on a weekly basis, there remains suspicion that the new bill was being prosed simply to stymie and “squash” the right to protest in the country – a claim denied by those behind the proposed legislation.
The opposition party’s supporters again yesterday marched around Male’ past sites including police and Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) barracks – albeit on a slightly modified route – to reflect what they claim is growing impatience with the Waheed administration.
Following the transfer of power in February and President Waheed’s delayed innagural address to parliament a month later, there have been incidents of violent clashes between police and anti-government protesters – particularly in the capital of Male’. Since these events, clashes between the police force and the MDP have been reported to be much more sporadic and small scale.
Hamid claimed that the MDP was not going out with the intention to confront police officers, alleging that some law enforcement officials had in recent weeks attempted to incite violent clashes themselves. He pointed to an incident last month where police marched straight through a large gathering of demonstrators including former President Nasheed as an example of this allegation.
In considering the implications of parliament approving the Freedom of Assembly bill, Deputy Leader of the government-aligned Dhivehi Rayithuge Party (DRP) Ibrahim Shareef said Thursday evening (July 5) that it continued to support freedom of assembly and would voice changes to the bill where it believed they were required.
“As a party, we have not discussed [the bill] yet. As far as we are concerned the bill is about regulation regarding protests,” he said.
Shareef added that the parliamentary vote held this week was simply over whether the proposed changes should be tabled for discussion among MPs. He added that the legislation was now being looked at before being submitted for committee review, where the specifics of the bill would be debated further.
MPs Ahmed Mahloof and Ahmed Nihan of the Progressive party of Maldives (PPM) – a coalition partner of the DRP – were not responding to calls at the time of going to press regarding their opinions of the bill.
Upon introducing the bill back in April, independent MP Nasheed said new legislation was required to replace the current regulations concerning freedom of assembly devised before the current constitution was put in place.
The proposed bill is based largely on guidelines published in 2010 by the European advisory group on constitutional law, the Venice Commission (officially called the European Commission for Democracy Through Law). The guidelines argue that any restrictions to freedom of assembly must consider legality, necessity and proportionality.
The unusual nature of the country, Nasheed argued, requires that “absolute” restrictions on static protests remain around the state’s vital institutions, in particular those areas on Republican Square which affect the security forces’ ability to operate. These require an area of 200ft to the front and 50ft to the side of police and military headquarters to be prohibited from static protests, such as sit-downs. Other military barracks require a protective zone of 50ft; other police facilities, 25ft.
The police protest on February 7 that led to the downfall of former President Mohamed Nasheed’s government took place outside the MNDF’s headquarters.
Additionally, the bill suggests that a minimum distance of 25 feet be maintained from mosques, schools, hospitals, court buildings, the President’s Office, the President’s house, and from parliament. The proposed bill places no restrictions on moving protests.
Concerns were raised in May about protests being held near to the country’s mosques after a group of people said to be MDP supporters obstructed a sermon held by prominent religious scholar Sheikh Ilyas Hussain.
The only time-based restrictions under the bill are those that proscribing protests outside of an individual’s home after 10pm, and those that use loudspeakers after 8pm.
Nasheed was also keen to point out that new bill, and the timing of its submission, had been unrelated to the controversial transfer of power earlier this year. He stated that he had been working on the bill since 2010 and had completed a first draft last year.
He was realistic, however, about the difficulties the bill would face.
“People who are protesting will be unhappy with any restrictions… but they should respect the rights of others,” said Nasheed.
The MP has previously predicted that the bill could take up to a year to be passed.