Opening of Parliament and disruptions
The opening of the Parliament on 2 March 2015 occurred amidst protestations inside the chamber from opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) MPs calling for the release of former President Nasheed who was under arrest at the time, and counter-protests from government-aligned MPs voicing their support for Nasheed’s trial and sentencing.
In his opening address to the Parliament, President Yameen Abdul Gayyoom iterated the Government’s commitment to upholding laws and the tenets in the Constitution. His speech summarized the Government’s key achievements in 2014 in areas such as urban development, tourism, foreign relations, infrastructure, health and social welfare and highlighted several key legislation submitted to Parliament in 2014. Within this trajectory, what stands out in particular is the focus on developing the Maldivian economy and financial frameworks. He touched on the pledges to fulfil election pledges to empower youth, including the submission of a youth rights bill to Parliament in 2015, further develop tourism and complementary sectors, and speed up investments through the special economic zones.
Opposition MPs have been protesting at every sitting since Parliament returned from recess. Every sessional debate has been marked by confrontational protests over the arrest and conviction of former President Nasheed, resulting in a lack of earnest and thorough public debate on issues submitted to Parliament. Following the first session of the year, the Parliament administration terminated the live feed of sessions to television stations, barring the public of observing proceedings. Reporters were also barred from recording proceedings during sessions and now can only cover proceedings from a specific media gallery location within the Parliament building. The impact of such a restraining stance on media reporting is a question worth asking as the work of the Parliament, be it protestations against governmental policy, should be publicly available for public consumption.
During the 16 March session, former Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) MP Mahloof, with a printed sign board, requested from the Speaker to provide him with security as he feared for his life. This followed Mahloof’s expulsion from the PPM after his publicized comments on the corruption of current senior Government officials and connections between President Yameen and gang members.
Amendment to Political Parties’ Act and Elections Commission Act regarding party presidential nomination elections
This year’s first session has seen some key amendments and bills submitted to Parliament. This includes an amendment to the Political Parties’ Act, put forward by the PPM to amend clauses in the existing Act that the Supreme Court had ruled in 2013 were unconstitutional. The Maldives guarantees the right to establish and take part in political parties in Article 30 (a) of the Constitution.
Article 11 of the existing Act stated, arbitrarily, that 10,000 members as the minimum requirement to form a political party. The Supreme Court abrogated this article in September 2013 stating 3,000, again an arbitrary number, members as the minimum. The new amendments by the PPM propose to bring the existing law to conform to the Courts’ ruling.
It further stipulates that a political party must have 10,000 registered members to be eligible for state funding. This amendment is seen to restrict and limit the freedom of association in the Constitution.
On 30 March, an amendment to the Elections Commission Act was submitted by former MDP MP Moosa Manik to include administering party presidential primary elections under the purview of the Elections Commission. Currently, presidential primaries are undertaken internally by parties themselves and if this amendment is passed, it would put a substantial financial and administrative burden on the elections commission.
Amendment to the Penal Code
The Government has also proposed amendments to the Penal Code. These include technical amendments to definite clauses, gaps in the code, and address potential problematic issues in implementation. On 30 March, this amendment was accepted with 40 votes in favor.
Another development is the amendment submitted by the Adaalath Party’s sole MP Anaaraa Naeem to incorporate the “retaliation in kind” aspect or Qisas law in Islamic Shari’a into the code. While the Penal Code does state the applicability of Shari’a punishments to Hudud offenses, it does not currently do so for Qisas offenses.
In response to Anaaraa’s proposed amendment, the senior consultant for the penal code awareness programme, Hussain Shameem, stated that including the provision of Qisas without accompanying detailed requirements and classifications for Qisas offenses would not make Qisas offenses more amenable to adjudicate. On 30 March, the Parliament voted unanimously to consider the amendment and have been forwarded to the National Security Committee for review.
On 16 March, members of the Maldives Human Rights Commission (HRCM) were separately summoned to the Parliament and questioned at length in a closed-door meeting. Members were questioned on the commission’s statement regarding concerns about the lack of due process in the trial and sentencing of former President Nasheed in March 2015.
Following the publication of the HRCM’s 2014 annual report, in which the Commission highlighted the challenges it faced as a result of the turbulent relationship with the judiciary, the ruling PPM’s parliamentary group leader commented in a local newspaper that the Parliament must play an important mediatory role and to ensure the independence of the Commission. This claim was contended by both the Jumhooree Party and MDP MPs who highlighted the extraordinary levels of judicial activism emanating from Maldivian courts, including the apex court, and alleged the Government’s disregard for upholding the independence of the HRCM. This development further expands on the issue of the state undermining the autonomy of independent institutions and the weakening of the separation of powers that we have highlighted in our earlier parliamentary updates.
Changes to committee allowance
On 17 March, the General Committee of Parliament proposed an amendment to Parliamentary Committee allowances to revoke allowances of members who approach the Speaker’s desk unsolicited. This was proposed to the Committee by the Speaker, PPM MP Abdulla Maseeh, in response to MDP MPs continuous protesting since the opening of Parliament. The opposition has described this as a punitive measure by the Government and vowed to continue their objections during sessions. The change has been passed by the general parliamentary committee and is pending submission for vote during session.
In March 2015, the Parliament accepted an amendment by the Government to the 2013 Prisons and Parole Act which includes an overhaul of some administrative aspects in the 2013 law as well as new provisions on the limitations of fundamental rights and freedoms. The amendment was first sent to the Parliament in December 2014.
This amendment contains several problematic and contentious provisions, including the exclusion of prisoners from a political party or other association membership or holding leadership positions. It is problematic in that it severely impedes the right of freedom of association which is guaranteed under the constitution and is also perceived to differ from the ambit of rights restrictions that exist in law. In light of its proposition, opposition members alleged the motives behind the submission was to strip former President Nasheed of his party membership and role as party president.
On 30 March, the amendment was tabled for voting following review by the National Security Committee. It was passed with 42 votes in favor and two against. MDP members, who have been in continuous protest since the opening of Parliament, did not take part in the vote and protested its tabling.
Changes to bill allowances and benefits of former presidents
In March 2015, the Parliament also accepted a bill, proposed by the Maldives Development Alliance—coalition partner with the current Government, that would discontinue benefits for former presidents convicted in Maldivian courts. This amendment follows similar proposals—all withdrawn—to the Parliament in 2014 by the Government coalition.
The amendment was accepted for consideration with 38 MPs voting in favor while 11 voted against it. MDP MPs did not participate in the vote and continued their protest calling for former President Nasheed’s release. The amendment if passed will revoke Nasheed’s benefits as he was convicted of terrorism charges in March 2015 and is currently serving his sentence. This amendment, as well as the changes to the committee allowance and the parole amendment are largely perceived as retributive, politically-motivated manoeuvres by the ruling coalition to undermine the opposition as well as former President Nasheed.