Reuters International

By Shihar Aneez and Ranga Sirilal

COLOMBO (Reuters) - The Maldives legalised criminal defamation on Tuesday in a move the opposition said was aimed at stifling dissent in the Indian Ocean archipelago, and which was criticised by the United Nations and the United States.

Best known as a paradise for wealthy tourists, Maldives has been mired in political unrest since Mohamed Nasheed, its first democratically elected leader, was ousted in disputed circumstances in 2012.

The law, which President Abdulla Yameen's administration pushed through despite widespread international criticism, criminalises defamatory speech, remarks, writings and actions that include gestures deemed to be against "any tenet of Islam" in the Muslim-majority country.

The bill was passed by a 16-vote majority led by Yameen's ruling Progressive Party of Maldives.

The United Nations said it was "very worried" about the law.The U.S. State Department issued a statement calling the law a "serious setback for freedom of expression in the country."

Those found guilty of breaking the new law will be fined between 50,000 Maldivian rufiya ($3,200) and 2 million rufiya ($130,000) or face a jail term of between three and six months.

Publications, including websites, found carrying "defamatory" comments could also have their licenses revoked.

"So basically it's crippling freedom of expression including on the basis of defamation of religion, national security and social norms," said Mona Rishmawi, chief of the Rule of Law branch at the U.N. human rights office.

The Maldives United Opposition coalition said in a statement the new law would hinder investigative journalism.

"The bill prevents journalists from reporting allegations if the accused refuses to comment, preventing coverage of speeches at political rallies, and gives government authorities sweeping powers to target the media," the coalition said.

Transparency Maldives, condemning the bill, said its passage through parliament had not addressed the serious concerns raised by local media organisations, political parties, civil society groups and international organisations.

Zaheena Rasheed, editor at Maldives Independent news website, said the law was clearly aimed at muzzling the media after a series of threats, murder attempts, numerous death threats and physical attacks on news organisations.

"This is a final push to shut down the remaining media outlets. We have fought really hard. We are not giving up. We are going to contest the bill at the Supreme Court on its constitutionality," she said.

The law was passed as the United Nations urged the Maldives not to carry out planned executions for convicts on death row and to uphold a moratorium it had respected for decades.

(Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Janet Lawrence and Richard Chang)

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