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.
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.
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.