MPs debate restricting constitutional rights after arrest

The People’s Majlis yesterday accepted legislation that proposes restricting the constitutional rights to remain silent and retain legal counsel for suspects arrested for violent assault.

Presenting the amendments (Dhivehi) to a 2010 law banning “threats and carrying dangerous weapons and sharp objects” on behalf of the government, Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) MP Ibrahim Didi said “special measures” were needed to curb increasing violent assaults, to ease the public’s fear and anxiety, and to establish public order and safety.

Opposition MPs contend that the changes are unconstitutional, suggesting that the government was blaming a lack of legislation for its failure to curb violent crime.

The amendments state that suspects arrested for assault with sharp objects or dangerous weapons could not exercise the right to remain silent “to any extent”.

Police could also question the suspect if he or she is either unable to have an attorney present within six hours or waives the right to retain legal counsel.

Moreover, the suspect could only consult a lawyer in the presence of a police officer for the first 96 hours after the arrest.

The legislation states that the rights of the accused would be narrowed in reference to Article 16(a) of the Constitution, which states that the rights and freedoms contained in chapter two could be limited by a law enacted by the People’s Majlis “only if demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.”

While Article 49 of the Constitution states, “No person shall be detained in custody prior to sentencing, unless the danger of the accused absconding or not appearing at trial, the protection of the public, or potential interference with witnesses or evidence dictate otherwise,” the amendments state that the court must consider the criminal record of the accused, police intelligence reports, and other information submitted by police.

Additionally, the legislation stipulates that the Prosecutor General’s (PG) Office must press charges within 15 days of the arrest and the court must conclude the trial and deliver a verdict within 30 days of the case being filed.

In determining guilt, the court shall consider as evidence confessions or statements given at court, audio or video recordings of statements made by the accused to his or her lawyer, autopsy reports, and forensic evidence.

Attorney General Mohamed Anil revealed the government’s intention to narrow the constitutional rights at a press conference in October after a spate of violent assaults in the capital – which police said was a series of gang reprisals – saw three young men stabbed to death.

Speaking at a party rally earlier this week, PPM Parliamentary Group leader Ahmed Nihan reportedly said that the government would not stand to see young people labelled as gangsters.

Several incidents of gang violence have meanwhile occurred in recent weeks. Earlier this week, an 18-year-old was arrested after entering Billabong International High School with a machete during a gang fight.

Anil noted that the proposed amendments would specify harsher penalties for violent assault as the penalties in the current penal code were “far too lenient.”

The amendments propose the death penalty for premeditated murder in a violent assault using a dangerous weapon or sharp object as well as jail terms of up to 20 years for other offences specified in the law.

Following preliminary debate at yesterday’s sitting, the amendment bill was accepted with 66 votes in favour and five against and sent to the national security committee for further review.

“Incompetence and corruption”

Opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) MP Imthiyaz Fahmy – who voted against the amendments – told Minivan News that the obstacle to securing convictions for violent crimes was “incompetency and corruption within the criminal justice system.”

“When the government completely failed in tackling crimes that have gone out of hand they now blame it on legislation,” he contended.

“And true to their old style, the accused are to be beaten into confessing.”

Prior to the adoption of the new constitution in August 2008, the vast majority of convictions were based on confessions extracted during police interrogation and the police were often accused of torture and coercion.

During the parliamentary debate, PPM MP Ibrahim Didi said some cases were stalled at court for up to six years while the amendments would expedite the process and prevent the accused intimidating witnesses.

Several MPs objected to suspects being able to remain silent after committing serious crimes and insisted that violent crimes could be reduced if the bill is passed into law.

PPM Ahmed Thoriq suggested some rights guaranteed in the constitutional were unsuited to the Maldives.

Jumhooree Party Ali Hussain, however, contended that while fundamental rights and freedoms could be narrowed, completely depriving individuals of the right was unconstitutional.

PPM MP Mohamed Nasheed argued that preventing suspects from consulting a lawyer in private for four days was excessive and advised reducing the period to 36 hours.

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