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(Dec 13, 2012)

During the first week of December 2012, the Supreme Court of Maldives ruled that police should investigate any criminal acts that occur during the exercise of people's rights to free assembly and expression. The Court's decision, a six-to-one ruling, was in a case brought in September 2012 by the Attorney General, seeking a determination that public disturbances, even in the course of political protest, are not protected expression under the Constitution. (Ahmed Naish, Supreme Court Criminalises Offences Within the Exercise of Freedom of Assembly, Expression, MINIVAN NEWS (Dec. 8, 2012).)

The Constitution of Maldives provides that "[e]veryone has the right to freedom of thought and the freedom to communicate opinions and expression in a manner that is not contrary to any tenet of Islam" (art. 27) and that "[e]veryone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly without prior permission of the State" (art. 30). (Dheena Hussain, trans., Functional Translation of the Constitution of the Republic of Maldives 2008, Republic of Maldives Department of Information website.)

The recent case referred to protests held outside private residences, causing disturbances late at night with defamatory language and calls for violent actions, including remarks urging attacks and killings. The protests were attributed to the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), formerly the ruling party but now in opposition. Camps of protesters from the party had been disrupted by security forces last spring. (Naish, supra.) The government argued that the protests had infringed on other constitutionally guaranteed rights, such as the right to life, liberty, and security of the person (art. 21); the right to privacy (art. 24); the right to protect one's good name (art. 33); and special protections for children, the elderly, and the disadvantaged (art. 35). (Id.)

The majority of the judges decided that any activity that violates "public safety, health, tranquility and morality" could be handled by the police as a criminal action. (Id.) The sole dissenting opinion came from Justice Ahmed Muthasim Adnan, who argued that it was not within the Court's purview to establish guidelines for the exercise of basic rights. Instead, he said, that should be the task of the legislature. (Id.)

In comments made before the issuance of the decision, the Office of the President of Maldives stated that the government supports the right to protest, as long as the protest does not adversely affect others. "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," said a spokesman for that office. (Id.)

The MDP, on the other hand, denounced the decision, calling it part of what it considers to be the government effort to restrict freedom of assembly. A spokesman for the party stated, "[o]ne of the most fundamental clauses in the new constitution is the right to protest and we are witnessing democratic gains fast slipping." (Id.)

Author: Constance Johnson More by this author
Topic: Freedom of speech More on this topic
Jurisdiction: Maldives More about this jurisdiction

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Last updated: 12/13/2012