The government of Maldives declared late Wednesday that the recent restrictions posed on public assemblies and gatherings were in line with domestic and international legislation.
The statement comes in the wake of public criticism after the Ministry of Home Affairs declared on Tuesday that protests and all forms of public gatherings cannot be held without “prior written approval by Maldives Police Service”.
The home ministry announced this decision after multiple protests were staged during the month of July, including marches by exploited expatriate workers demanding unpaid wages, child and women rights groups, as well as by the opposition coalition.
Acknowledging the concerns raised over the restrictions, the government maintained that the regulations on peaceful assembly were lawful, and reiterated its commitment to upholding the rights and freedoms accorded under the Maldivian Constitution.
Regarding the recent demonstrations staged by expatriate workers over unpaid wages, the administration stated that instances, where individuals resorted to violence, were “deeply alarming” and warned that such actions would not be tolerated.
However, the government said that it “welcomes the serious concerns expressed by several expatriate workers who have long endured unjust treatment and been victimized by festering issues that successive administrations have failed to resolve”.
They also assured that they were working with stakeholders to resolve these issues amicably and systematically, acknowledging the need for significant reform.
These remarks follow a statement released by the Ministry of Youth, Sports and Community Empowerment on Tuesday, in which it expressed concern that the narratives and initiatives of certain non-profit organisations were encouraging the violation of the law, claiming they posed a threat to national security. The ministry’s assertion that some NGO movements were being conducted outside of the powers granted under the freedom of assembly was met with harsh criticism from the civil society.
Furthermore, the government highlighted that the Health Protection Agency (HPA)’s nationwide safety protocols prohibit gatherings of over 30 persons within a specified area, while members of the public are also to observe social distancing, in order to contain the spread of COVID-19.
However, the government’s emphasis on HPA’s enforcements to restrict gatherings has also drawn scrutiny, since overall public movement and prayer congregations were greenlit last month when the government began to ease lockdown across the Greater Male’ Region.
In its acknowledgements of public concerns, the government highlighted the progress made over the past year, such as the decriminalisation of defamation, lifting restrictions on foreign journalists, ratification of international human rights conventions, and the initiation of its legislative reform agenda.
“The Government remains committed to democratic reform, good governance and human rights, and continues to work with national and international partners to resolve the many systematic challenges the Maldives faces with sincerity”, concluded the statement.
Despite the government’s stance, the home ministry’s restrictions on gatherings and assemblies have been slammed by local rights groups, activists, and some parliamentarians as being “unconstitutional”.
The central point of public contempt hinges on the fact that the government’s decision was in accordance with the contentious first amendment to the Freedom of Peaceful Assembly Act, which was ratified on August 23, 2016, during former President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom’s tenure.
At the time, the former opposition and current ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) had slammed the amendment as unconstitutional and in violation of the fundamental right to assembly.
However, following the change in administration in late 2018, President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih’s government did not repeal the prickly law, although it was seldom enforced until the home ministry’s announcement this week.
In addition to local entities, the international NGO Human Rights Watch also slammed the government’s declaration on Wednesday, declaring it was a violation of fundamental rights.
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