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Maldives: President Ratifies First Amendment of Freedom of Peaceful Assembly Act

(Oct. 18, 2016) On August 23, 2016, the President of Maldives, Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom, ratified the first amendment made to the country’s Freedom of Peaceful Assembly Act. The amendment stipulates that street protests, marches, parades, and “other such gatherings can only be held with written permission from the police, or in areas designated by the Ministry of Home Affairs.” (President Ratifies Freedom of Peaceful Assembly Act Amendment, VNEWS.MV (Aug. 23, 2016); Press Release, President Ratifies First Amendment to the Freedom of Peaceful Assembly Bill (Aug. 23, 2016), Presidency of the Republic of Maldives website; Bill on Amendment to the Freedom of Peaceful Assembly Act, No. 1/2013 (Aug. 8, 2016), People’s Majlis website(in Dhivehi); Freedom of Peaceful Assembly Act 2013 (Unofficial Translation), FORUM-ASIA.) The amendment bill was passed by the People’s Majlis, the unicameral legislative body of the Maldives, on August 17, 2016. (President Ratifies First Amendment to the Freedom of Peaceful Assembly Bill, supra.)

According to the the Presidency’s website, the amending legislation requires,“except for listed areas by the Ministry of Home Affairs, prior written approval by Maldives Police Service for gatherings around Malé [the capital of the Republic of Maldives]. The Ministry of Home Affairs is to publish the listed areas in the Gazette within 30 days of publication of the Act.” (Id.)

Background

Adoption of the amendment appears to come as a result of events happening in the month of July, when the Maldives United Opposition, “a multi-party Opposition alliance whose explicit agenda is to restore democracy in the Indian Ocean archipelago,” began organizing nightly protests in an attempt to bring down the current Yameen government. (In the Maldives, the Opposition Has Launched a Bid to Oust a ‘Dictatorial’ President, SCROLL.IN (July 27, 2016); Has the Opposition’s Bid to ‘Restore Democracy’ in the Maldives Fizzled Out?, SCROLL.IN (Sept. 30, 2016).)

Ratification of the amending legislation also comes on the heels of the People’s Majlis passing a bill criminalizing defamation. (Majlis Passes Bill on Defamation, PEOPLE’S MAJLIS (Aug. 9, 2016); Shihar Aneez & Ranga Sirilal, Maldives Approves Defamation Law Criticised by U.N., U.S., REUTERS (Aug. 10, 2016).) On August 11, 2016, the President signed into law the controversial legislation. (Maldives President Signs Tough Law Criminalizing Defamation, AP (Aug. 11, 2016).) The Defamation and Freedom of Speech Act criminalizes defamatory statements,  writings, expressions, and actions that include gestures or sounds, which are damaging to a person’s reputation, deemed a threat to national security, contrary to any tenet of Islam, or contrary to general societal norms. (The Defamation and Freedom of Speech Act, No. 16/2016, PEOPLE’S MAJLIS website (in Dhivehi); Constance Johnson, Maldives: Draft Law Would Criminalize Defamation, GLOBAL LEGAL MONITOR (Mar. 29, 2016); Azra Naseem, Maldives ‘Defamation Law’ to Curtail Freedom of Expression, MALDIVES INDEPENDENT (Aug. 9, 2016).)

Reactions

When the bill on the amendment of the Freedom of Peaceful Assembly Act was introduced in early August, Abdulla ‘Bochey’ Rifau, an MP of the ruling party, stated, according to one news report, that the amending legislation “was aimed at ‘ensuring everyone can safely exercise their right to assembly.’ Rallies, protests and demonstrations have become a ‘public nuisance and pose dangers to public safety.’” (Mohamed Saif Fathih, New Bill to Give Police Authority over Protests in Malé, MALDIVES INDEPENDENT (Aug. 6, 2016).) An opposition MP, Imthiyaz Fahmy, “condemned the bill as unconstitutional, noting Article 32 of the constitution guarantees the right to assemble without prior notice.” (Id.) The MP also noted, “I do not see why the government should bother to bring any legislative changes, when peaceful political activity of any sort is being stopped by the police.” (Id.) According to the Maldives Independent:

The police, citing a home ministry imposed ban on street protests, have blocked nearly all gatherings by opposition parties, civil society groups and journalists in Malé in recent months. The ban was announced in November after the opposition called a three-day protest in Malé against the jailing of senior opposition figures, including former President Mohamed Nasheed. (Id.)

After the bill was passed, members of the opposition said they would refuse to obey the amended Act. (Zaheena Rasheed, MPs Vote to Restrict Right to Protest, MALDIVES INDEPENDENT (Aug. 17, 2016).)

International and local human rights experts have observed that since the forced resignation of Maldives’ first democratically elected President, Mohamed Nasheed, the country has seen an erosion of democratic principles, a descent into political unrest, and increased human rights violations. (Trinanjan Radhakrishnan, Maldives’ Democracy Is Dying, DIPLOMAT (Sept. 23, 2016).)