Ratification of limits on freedom of assembly won’t affect ‘revolution’: MDP

The ratification of the Freedom of Peaceful Assembly Bill is a “direct response” to the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP)’s proposed revolution, the party’s Spokesperson Hamed Abdul Ghafoor has alleged.

Yesterday (January 11) the President’s Office website announced that President Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik had approved the controversial bill, which enforces limits for protests in the Maldives.

Parliament passed the bill on December 25, 2012 with 44 votes in favour and 30 against – a decision which attracted criticism from NGOs within the country who warned the bill could “restrict some fundamental rights”.

Ghafoor told Minivan News that the MDP stood against the principles of the Freedom of Assembly Bill, alleging its ratification is a response to the ‘Ingilaab’ proposed by former President Mohamed Nasheed last month.

“We are not happy with this bill, and on principle alone we are against it. The current government feels the need to restrict freedom of expression and unwind the democratic gains of this country,” he alleged.

“The whole intention of this bill was to respond to our popular uprising. But when the time comes [for the revolution] the bill won’t matter. We will still go out onto the streets,” Ghafoor claimed.

Among the key features of the Freedom of Assembly bill is the outlawing of demonstrations outside private residences and government buildings, limitations on media covering protests not accredited with the state and defining “gatherings” as a group of more than a single person.

One of the main stated objectives of the legislation is to try and minimise restrictions on peaceful gatherings, which it claims remain a fundamental right.

Under the legislation, demonstrations will be outlawed within a certain distance of the residences of the president and vice president, tourist resorts, harbours utilized for economic purposes, airports, the President’s Office, the courts of law, the Parliament, mosques, schools, hospitals and buildings housing diplomatic missions.

NGO concerns

In a joint statement from local NGOs Transparency Maldives (TM) and Maldivian Democracy Network (MDN) this month (January 2), it warned that the bill posed “serious challenges to the whole democratic system”.

The statement claimed that the bill could restrict the constitutional right to freedom of assembly (article 32), freedom of expression (article 27) and press freedom (article 28).

As article four of the constitution states that “all the powers of the state of the Maldives are derived from, and remains with, the citizens,” both NGOs warned that narrowing the fundamental rights guaranteed by the second chapter of the constitution would “facilitate taking away from the public the powers that remain with them.”

Media “accreditation” on protest coverage

Last month, the Maldives Journalists’ Association (MJA) expressed concern over certain clauses in the ratified Freedom of Peaceful Assembly Bill, claiming that it will directly impact reporting by local and international media organisations.

In regard to the media’s right to cover demonstrations, the bill states that the Maldives Broadcasting Commission (MBC) must draft a regulation on accrediting journalists within three months of the ratification of the bill.

Only those journalists who are accredited by the MBC will be granted access to cover and report on gatherings and police activities in the vicinity.

MJA President and board member of the Maldives Media Council (MMC) ‘Hiriga’ Ahmed Zahir claimed last month (December 29) that the MBC – appointed by parliament – would not be able to accredit media persons in an independent manner free from any influence.

“We are seeing the MBC failing to address many existing issues even now, so we cannot support handing over additional responsibilities like this to such a body,” he added.

Zahir also raised concerns that foreign journalists coming to the Maldives would also be required to obtain additional accreditation. He said that international media was already faced with having to meet specific visa requirements and obtaining state approval.

“For example, [international reporters] cannot really cover events if they are just here on a tourist visa, that won’t be allowed anywhere in the world,” he said.

Speaking on the matter of media accreditation, MDP Spokesman Ghafoor alleged to Minivan News today that it was the current governments “intention” to control the media coverage of protests.

“When the incumbent government took over office, they took over the state media too. We have noticed this trend continuing today,” he claimed.

President’s Office Spokesman Masood Imad was not responding to calls at time of press today.

However back in November last year, Imad previously defended a case submitted to Supreme Court by the Attorney General that claimed causing a public disturbance in the name of political protest is against the constitution.

The case, submitted in September, requests the Supreme Court to rule that such protests are against some articles of the constitution. This includes disturbing the public, using foul language and “protesting in a manner that instills fear into the hearts of children and the elderly”.

Speaking back in November regarding the case, Imad said: “A protest should be about changing something. A protest conducted in residential areas has nothing to do with parliament. Public protest and public nuisance are two very different things.”

The President’s Office Spokesman further stated that the government “fully” supports the right to protest, but added that it should not be conducted in a way that negatively affects the lives of others.

Minivan News attempted to contact MPs and spokespersons from Progressive Party of Maldives, Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party, Dhivehi Qaumee Party, Jumhoree Party, People’s Alliance and Maldivian Development Alliance to speak on the matter, however none were responding to calls at time of press.


Recent bills “restrict fundamental rights,” NGOs warn

A number of bills passed by parliament in 2012 could “weaken the democratic, good governance system” and “restrict some fundamental rights,” local NGOs Transparency Maldives (TM) and Maldivian Democracy Network (MDN) have warned.

In a joint statement issued today, the civil society organisations expressed concern at the potential narrowing of constitutional rights to freedom of assembly and expression as well the formation of political parties.

The statement also expressed concern with the “loss of transparency” due to the decision to conduct no-confidence motions through secret ballot.

With legislative and oversight powers over the executive and independent institutions, the NGOs noted that the People’s Majlis had “the most prominent role” in establishing democratic, good governance and protecting human rights.

The NGOs also called on the relevant authorities to ensure that MPs could fulfil their legal responsibilities “free from harassment and fear in a secure environment”

It added that the NGOs did not believe calls for dissolving parliament “could strengthen the People’s Majlis.”

On the amendment approved to the parliamentary rules of procedure to conduct no-confidence motions through a secret vote, the NGOs said it believed that decision could lead to “loss of transparency in the Majlis, pave the way for corruption and impede holding the people’s representatives accountable.”

Fear of physical harm or other forms of retribution based on such votes was not a justification for the decision, the NGOs said, contending that secret votes was “not the solution” to the purported threats.

The political parties bill meanwhile restricted the constitutional right to form political parties by requiring 10,000 members for registration, the statement continued.

“What is needed to strengthen the functioning of the party system is to increase participation of party members, party’s taking initiative to inform members of financial matters, auditing, ensuring implementation and taking measures against violations,” the statement read.

The NGOs suggested that the number of votes a party receives in general elections, number of parliamentary seats and strength of internal mechanisms could be used as a measure to provide state funding in lieu of the number of registered members.

The organisations further contended that the bill on peaceful assembly posed “serious challenges to the whole democratic system.”

The bill could restrict the constitutional right to freedom of assembly (article 32), freedom of expression (article 27) and press freedom (article 28), it added.

As article four of the constitution states that “all the powers of the state of the Maldives are derived from, and remains with, the citizens,” both NGOs warned that narrowing the fundamental rights guaranteed by the second chapter of the constitution would “facilitate taking away from the public the powers that remain with them.”

The legislation on freedom of assembly was passed on December 25 with 44 votes in favour and 30 against.

MPs of the formerly ruling Maldivian Democratic Party voted against the bill, which would outlaw demonstrations outside designated areas and require accreditation for media to cover protests.

Parliamentary privileges

Transparency Maldives and Maldivian Democracy Network also expressed concern with the controversial parliamentary privileges bill passed last month.

The bill was submitted in late 2010 and became the subject of controversy and public outrage. In January 2011, a group of “concerned citizens” demonstrated and petitioned then-President Mohamed Nasheed urging him to veto the legislation.

The bill was passed on December 27, 2012 with Speaker Abdulla Shahid casting the tie-breaking vote.

The vote was tied 31-31 with three abstentions. Most MPs of the opposition MDP voted against it and later raised concerns with some of the clauses.

In its statement, the NGOs insisted that the parliamentary privileges bill should have been “based on the concept of privileges stated in article 90 of the constitution” to uphold the “integrity of the institution” and ensure that MPs could fulfil their duties “free of undue influence”.

Article 90(a) states, “No member or other person shall be liable to any proceedings in any court, and no person shall be subject to any inquiry, arrest, detention or prosecution, with respect to anything said in, produced before, or submitted to the People’s Majlis or any of its committees, or with respect to any vote given if the same is not contrary to any tenet of Islam.”

Moreover, article 90(b) states, “No person or newspaper or journal shall be liable in respect of any report or proceedings made or published under the authority of the People’s Majlis, or in respect of any fair and accurate report of the proceedings of the People’s Majlis or any of its committees, where this is done in accordance with principles specified by the People’s Majlis.”

The NGOs contended that the parliamentary privileges bill violated the spirit of article 90 of the constitution and contained “inappropriate financial and other benefits” for MPs.

The NGOs concluded their statement by calling on parliament to review the bills passed during the third session of 2012.

The statement urged MPs to consider the constitution and human rights as well as “international general principles and measures” in its review of the approved legislation.

Beyond privileges

In a video message posted on his personal blog yesterday (January 1), Independent MP for Kulhudhufushi South Mohamed ‘Kutti’ Nasheed explained that the “main reason” he voted against the privileges bill was because it “contained a number of clauses outside the meaning of privileges.”

Parliamentary privileges should be construed as eliminating obstacles to fulfilling MPs’ legal responsibility, Nasheed said.

Former Information and Legal Reform Minister Nasheed objected to clauses in the bill specifying financial benefits for MPs as well as jail terms for persons found guilty of violating  MPs’ privileges.

“In my view, when we are implementing these things for the first time, we could settle for fines instead of big criminal punishments,” he said.

Nasheed also disagreed with a clause that allows convicted MPs serving a jail term or sentence of less than 12 months to participate in parliamentary proceedings. MPs convicted to longer than a year would lose their seats.

The bill also stipulates that MPs who serve one five-year term would receive 30 percent of their pay as a retirement pension upon reaching 55 years of age and 45 percent as a pension if they serve two five-year terms.

Nasheed noted that seven percent of an MP’s salary was contributed to the pension fund under the existing pension law, which the bill did not address.

Moreover, Nasheed contended that the bill conflicted with a number of provisions in the parliamentary rules of procedure or standing orders.

Among other issues he raised, Nasheed noted that punishments for offences specified in the bill contravened punishments in existing laws and that the parliamentary secretary-general was to receive “the security offered to the Speaker of Parliament, a state car and a diplomatic passport.”

Nasheed also observed that the legislation did not settle the question of whether MPs could refer to ongoing court cases during parliamentary debates.

While the bill states that official secrets must not be disclosed, Nasheed said it did not specify a penalty for the offence.

Nasheed also expressed concern with the absence of ethical guidelines or rules for MPs in exercising powers to demand and receive any information – “for example, a person’s bank account, information regarding his health, information on loans he has taken.”

According to the privileges legislation, persons who refuse to comply with such demands for information, documents or records would face penalties or punishments specified in the bill.

As both the executive and judiciary would have special privileges as well, Nasheed suggested that such a bill should “balance the scale” between the three powers of state.


Parliament passes bill redefining limitations on freedom of assembly

Parliament on Tuesday (December 25) passed the bill on “Freedom of Peaceful Assembly” despite unanimous opposition from the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP). The legislation was first submitted by independent MP Mohamed Nasheed on 5 April 2012.

The bill, which was initially called ‘Freedom of Assembly Bill’ was passed on the parliament floor with 44 votes in favour, and 30 votes against.

Among the key features of the bill is the outlawing of demonstrations outside private residences and government buildings, limitations on media not accredited with the state and defining gatherings as a group with more than a single person.

One of the main stated objectives of the legislation is to try and minimize restrictions on peaceful gatherings, which it claims remain a fundamental right.

The legislation continues that any restrictions enforced by police or other state institutions on participants at a gathering must be proportionate actions as outlined under specific circumstances defined in the bill.

The bill also provides a definition for ‘Gathering’ in Article 7(a), stating it refers to more than one person, with the same objective, purposefully attending a public or private place temporarily and peacefully expressing their views there.

Article 9(a), meanwhile, defines ‘Peaceful’ in relation to a gathering as being one where the organizers have notified [authorities] that this is a gathering to achieve a peaceful purpose, and provided no acts of violence occur, nor are there any chants, writing or drawings encouraging violence used in the gathering. Additionally, in such a gathering, no acts violating any laws must be committed, nor encouraged. Nor should participants have any items on them which can potentially be used to commit acts of violence.

Section (b) of Article 9 rejects defining a gathering as ‘not peaceful’ on the basis of words or behaviour of certain participants during a protest that may be considered hateful or unacceptable by other persons.

Under the new bill, citizens are not allowed to hold gatherings within a certain distance of the headquarters of police and the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF).

Demonstrations would also be outlawed within a certain distance of the residences of the president and the vice president, the offices of the Maldives Monetary Authority (MMA), tourist resorts, harbours utilized for economic purposes, airports, the President’s Office, the courts of law, the Parliament, mosques, schools, hospitals and buildings housing diplomatic missions.

The bill also states that demonstrators wishing to protest against a specific individual, may not use megaphones, stand outside, or have a sit-down outside that person’s residence.

The regulation also states that although demonstrators do not need to seek authorization ahead of a gathering, police must be then notified of any pre-planned demonstrations before they commence.

Among the actions prohibited under the bill include an article stating that participants in a demonstration are not to have on them swords, knives, other sharp objects, wood, metal rods, batons, bleach, petrol, kerosene, any form of chilli (including dried or powdered), acid, explosives, any other items that can potentially be used as a weapon or any gear used by police for riot-controlling and peacekeeping.

Article 21 stipulates that participants will also not be allowed to cover their faces with masks, balaclavas or any other material which would prevent them from being identifiable.

The bill does guarantee organizers and participants of a gathering the right to decide where to hold a demonstration as well as choosing its objectives and the persons who are given the opportunity to speak during the protest.

The bill will not be applicable to activities, gatherings or meetings organized by state institutions, or those organized under any other law and to sports, games, business or cultural events.

According to the bill, if participants in a gathering have to face material or physical loss due to the negligence of police who must provide protection, then the police institution must provide compensation. It further adds that in such instances, the affected individual cannot be penalized for having taken part in the gathering.

The regulations also impose restrictions on police officers, preventing them from partaking in activities such as joining a gathering, displaying agreement or disagreement to messages or themes of a protest and ordering where or when to hold demonstrations.  Police officers are also prohibited from intervening in a gathering unless they are in uniform and states officers must not cover their faces unless as part of their riot gear under the bill.

Right to assemble

The bill also states that the right to assemble can be narrowed in the instances of a perceived threat to national security, or in order to maintain public safety as well as to establish societal peace in accordance with existing laws, to protect public health, to maintain levels of public discipline or to protect the rights and freedoms guaranteed to other individuals.

With regard to the media’s right to cover demonstrations, the bill adds that the Maldives Broadcasting Commission (MBC) must draft a regulation on accrediting journalists within three months of the ratification of the Bill on Freedom of Peaceful Assembly. It is only those journalists who are accredited by the MBC who will be granted access to cover and report on gatherings and police activities in the vicinity.

If an accredited journalist is believed to partaking in the gathering’s activities, treating these journalists as equal to those assembled is left at the discretion of the police. The bill, however, does not define what could be considered such an act.

The Maldives Media Council and the Maldives Journalists Association have expressed concern over these stipulations on Wednesday.

The limitations defined in the bill will bring positive changes: Home Minister

Minister of Home Affairs Mohamed Jameel Ahmed has stated that the Freedom of Peaceful Assembly Bill would bring positive changes to the country’s political environment and that it would provide guidance to politicians.

“It’s been established today that every right comes with accompanying responsibilities. I believe even the constitution reflects these principles. However, these principles need to be broken down into a law that would bring convenience to the people. Some among us thought when the constitution came that these are limitless freedoms that we’ve got. These past days we have seen people acting under that belief,” Jameel was quoted as telling the Sun Online news service.

“Under the name of this freedom, they were violating the personal and individual rights and protections of citizens. They were going at people’s residences, gathering outside and yelling vulgarities at parents and families, depriving children and families of sleep. All under the excuse of freedom of assembly.”

The Home Minister said that this bill would bring necessary limits at a time when many undesirable activities were being carried out under the guise of freedoms. He noted that the freedom of assembly was granted within limits in all other developed countries.

Not an ideal time to tamper with fundamental rights: MDP

Responding to the claims, MDP Spokesperson Hamid Abdul Ghafoor expressed concern that the fundamental right to assemble was being limited through the bill at “a time like this.”

“It is not wise to tamper with constitutionally provided fundamental rights at a time like this, when we are in times of a coup. But even that can be understood only by persons who can at first understand democratic principles, of course,” Ghafoor said.

“We need time for the Maldivian psyche to be able to grasp the concepts of fundamental rights first.”

“Home Minister Jameel is a prescriptive, Salafiyya-educated, uncivilized man. He has never yet been able to partake in and win any elected posts, his statements hold no weight in the eyes of the people. He is a man who obviously does not even understand this very basic, fundamental concept,” Hamid said in response to Jameel’s statements in media about the freedom of assembly bill.

Maldivian Democracy Network (MDN), which is cited in the parliamentary committee report as an entity that provided written feedback on the bill was unable to comment on the bill at the time of press.

MDN said that the NGO had today received the final bill which had been passed by the parliament, and that they were currently reviewing it to establish how much of their recommendations had been featured in the final bill.

Minivan News tried to contact MP Mohamed Nasheed, who was not responding to calls at the time of press.

Chair of the committee MP Riyaz Rasheed and Vice Chair MP Ahmed Amir were also not responding to calls this evening.

Human Rights Commission of the Maldives (HRCM) Vice President Ahmed Tholal’s phone was switched off at the time of press.


MPs reject dissolving media council

MPs voted 53-1 against a recommendation by the Finance Committee to dissolve the Maldives Media Council and transfer its mandate to the Maldives Broadcasting Commission (MBC).

While the vote was taken on July 4, the result was announced at today’s sitting of parliament.  It had not been officially declared due to disorder in the chamber that forced the sitting on July 4 to be called off.

The Finance Committee, chaired by Deputy Speaker Ahmed Nazim, recommended dissolving the media council after studying its audit report, which suggested that the independent regulatory body was not functioning as envisaged in the law.

Also at today’s sitting, MPs voted 33-18 to send a bill on freedom of assembly proposed by Independent MP Mohamed ‘Kutti’ Nasheed to a seven-member ad hoc committee for further review.

The list of MPs approved for the committee were MP ‘Reeko’ Moosa Manik from the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), MP Moosa Zameer from the People’s Alliance (PA), MP Visam Ali and MP Abdulla Abdul Raheem from the Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP), Independent MP Ahmed Amir, MP Riyaz Rasheed from the Dhivehi Qaumee Party (DQP) and Abdulla Jabir from the Jumhooree Party (JP).

MPs meanwhile voted unanimously in favour of the Maldives becoming a member of the SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) Convention on Cooperation on Environment following a report submitted by the National Development Committee of parliament.

Speaker Abdulla Shahid adjourned today’s sitting at 2.30pm after quorum was lost during a debate on a report submitted by the Economic Committee after studying amendments proposed to the Tourism Act.

Today’s sitting was interrupted seven times due to loss of quorum before Speaker Abdulla Shahid brought the sitting to a close after quorum was lost for an eighth time.


Time “not right” to amend Freedom of Assembly bill, MDP claims

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.

Coalition view

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.

Proposed changes

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.