The Maldives have a new penal code that's straight out of West Philadelphia.

Penn Law Professor Paul Robinson and members of the the law school's Criminal Law Research Group drafted a revised criminal code for the small island nation in the Indian Ocean. The new code was enacted last month and is set to fully go into effect in 2015.

The project began in 2004 when Robinson was approached by the United Nations Development Programme to work on a new penal code. Robinson, the director of the CLRG and a leading global expert in criminal law, presented the Maldives Penal Code Project to the student group – which effectively operates as a small law firm — as one of its first projects.

When Robinson brought the project to his students, 2008 law school graduate and Near East Languages & Civilizations Ph.D. candidate Adnan Zulfiqar said that it was an "incredibly unique opportunity" to integrate "the values informing [the Maldivian] criminal code and the values present in their indigenous laws."

A Muslim country by constitution, the Maldives — a "younger country still going through these transitions," Zulfiqar said – sought to modernize the existing system of Islamic law through the newly drafted criminal code.

Maldivians have disputed facets of their preexisting criminal justice system, resulting in a discord between religiously informed standards and practice.

The death penalty was a specific controversy in the Maldivian justice system that the team addressed. Robinson noted the Maldives is a de facto non-death penalty country even though several of the Hudud offenses – which are mentioned directly in the Quran – call for punishment by death.

“Part of what we were able to do for Maldivians was to try to help them dissolve their own internal tension on these matters,” Robinson said.

In the Maldivian culture, the Hudud offenses are considered the most serious of crimes. Robinson included the example of adultery, which is punishable by stoning, to illustrate the controversy that arises from interpreting scripture as law.

“For each point of disagreement, we were able to understand what the tension was for them and come up with resolutions,” Robinson said. 

The CLRG’s ultimate proposal provided for a death penalty following the principle of proportionality – the greater the wrongdoing, the greater the punishment.

Despite perceived differences between Western and Islamic law, Robinson did not consider this aspect to be a challenge.

“The CLRG’s view is that the criminal code for any society should reflect shared values of that society," Robinson said.

The students who spent two years working with Maldivian officials and scholars of Islam at Penn retained valuable skills after the project ended.

“[The Maldives Penal Code project] was one of the most instrumental experiences in my graduate experience at Penn,” Zulfiqar said. “Very seldom do you get to take your skill-set in graduate school and try to apply it in a practical setting.”

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