By Shihar Aneez and Ranga Sirilal
COLOMBO (Reuters) - The Maldives legalized criminal defamation on Tuesday in a move criticized by the United Nations and which the opposition said was aimed at stifling dissent.
Best known as a paradise for wealthy tourists, the Indian Ocean archipelago has been mired in political unrest since Mohamed Nasheed, its first democratically elected leader, was ousted in disputed circumstances in 2012.
President Abdulla Yameen's administration went ahead with the defamation law despite criticism from the United Nations, rights groups and Western nations including the United States, Britain, Germany and the European Union.
The United Nations said it was "very worried" about the law.
The law criminalizes defamatory speech, remarks, writings and other actions including a gesture and targets actions 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.
Those found guilty 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 opposition coalition said in a statement the new law would seriously 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," it said in a statement.
Transparency Maldives, condemning the bill, said its passage through parliament had not addressed the serious concerns raised by local media organizations, political parties, civil society groups and international organizations.
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 organizations.
"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 move comes 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 amid raising concerns over the rule of law. [L4N1AQ3VB]
(Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Janet Lawrence)