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The new bill would criminalise speech that “ comments against any tenet of Islam”. Maldivian Christians are forced to practise their faith in secret.
Religious freedom is further at risk in the Maldives after the Indian Ocean archipelago legalised criminal defamation on Tuesday.
The bill was passed by a 16-vote majority led by Yameen's ruling Progressive Party of Maldives.
The adopted bill would criminalise speech deemed to be defamatory, to comment against “any tenet of Islam”, to “threaten national security” or to “contradict general social norms.”
Those found guilty will be fined between 50,000 Maldivian rufiya ($3,200) and two million rufiya ($130,000) and failure to pay the fine will result in jail sentence of three to six months..
Publications, including websites, found carrying "defamatory" comments could also have their licenses revoked.
“IT LIMITS THE RIGHT OF FREEDOM”
The UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression, David Kaye, deplored the adoption of the bill , warning that it limits the right to freedom of expression to such a degree that the right itself is in jeopardy.
“Criminalising speech on such vague and broad grounds as set out in the bill is a direct attack on the exercise of the right to freedom of expression in the Maldives”, affirmed Kaye.
And added:“The freedom of expression is a fundamental right and any restrictions on it must be a narrowly and objectively defined, not a matter of common routine.”
FREEDOM OF RELIGION IS THREATENED
“The use of religion as a ground for limiting free speech is particularly worrying. International human rights law protects individuals from discrimination and violence based on their religion or belief, but it does not protect from comment or criticism religion or belief as such”, Mr. Kaye noted. “Moreover, limitations on expression based on morals cannot be derived exclusively from a single tradition or religion.”
Mona Rishmawi, chief of the Rule of Law branch at the UN human rights office, agreed with Kaye:"So basically it's crippling freedom of expression including on the basis of defamation of religion, national security and social norms."
MALDIVES, DIFFICULT PLACE FOR CHRISTIANS
The Maldives became a multi-party democracy in 2008 after decades as an autocratic state, but former President Mohamed Nasheed, its first democratically elected leader, was ousted in disputed circumstances in 2012. Since then, campaigners have expressed concern that the country is sliding back to autocracy. Nasheed was sentenced to 13 years in prison in March 2015 under the Anti-Terrorism Act, but was this year granted asylum in the UK.
The Maldives ranks 13th on persecution charity Open Doors' list of countries where it is most dangerous to be a Christian. It is illegal to "propagate any religion other than Islam" and breaking this law can result in a prison sentence of up to five years.
Maldivian Christians are forced to practise their faith in secret, and migrant Christians living in the country are closely monitored. Possession of a Bible and other Christian materials will place a Maldivian in jail.
“To be a Christian in Maldives is to be a secret believer, and they are unable to practice their faith, especially worship and fellowship, because someone could be watching them all the time”, a Christian woman told Open doors