Authorities arresting protesters and failing to address reprisals against activists in the Maldives
The state of civic space in the Maldives remains ‘obstructed’ in the new People Power Under Attack 2022 report published by the CIVICUS Monitor in December 2021.
In 2021, human rights groups and the media reported concerns around press freedom, attacks on media workers, and a proposed Evidence Bill that could force journalists to reveal their sources. There were also concerns around the crackdown on protests against sexual harassment and by opposition political parties, at times with excessive force. There was also a failure of government to address the dissolution of human rights group the Maldivian Democratic Network (MDN) and to ensure accountability for threats and attacks against activists.
In December 2021, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention said at the end of a visit to the country that the use of prolonged pre-trial detention remained widespread and urged the government to take prompt steps to address this practice.
In the last few months there have been arrests and restrictions around the “India Out’ protests and there is a proposal to ban protests affecting diplomatic relations. A UN committee has called on the state to prevent reprisals against women activists and investigate, prosecute and adequately punish all threats and harassment against them. While two individuals have been convicted for the killing of activist Yameen Rasheed, questions remain about the masterminds behind it and the trial process. A new report highlights gaps in ensuring media freedom.
Restrictions and arrests around “India Out’ protests
Police Orders Opposition To Avoid Writing “India Out” Using English Alphabet: Oppositionhttps://t.co/ylSlTrpRxm#Maldives #indiaout #opposition pic.twitter.com/xtCwbLoOsE— Asian Peace Research (@asianpeace_org) January 7, 2022
In recent months there have been protests in the Maldives against India’s influence in the countryand the removal of Indian military personnel stationed in the Maldives.
The former president Abdulla Yameen, who was seen by many as dangerously close to China, was ousted in an electoral landslide in 2018. The new government under President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih proclaimed an “India First” policy. One of the most controversial elements of India’s role involves contingents from the Indian Navy and Coast Guard in Addu as well as on islands in the centre and north of the country.
Led by an opposition coalition, comprising the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) and the People’s National Congress (PNC), the “India Out’ protests have been met with restrictions and arrests. Most were released subsequently but according to reports some have been barred from taking part in such protests for a certain period of time.
On 17th December 2021, police impeded a planned motorcycle rally in Male’ City by the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) as part of the ‘India Out’ campaign, stating that such disturbances pose threats to a large number of people.
On 24th December 2021, police arrested four participants of the opposition coalition’s ‘India Out’ protest which took place at Hulhumale for failing to obey a police order. Some members of PPM also alleged that the police had stated that they could not go out on the streets wearing ‘India Out’ t-shirts. They also alleged a police officer threatened that those who participated in ‘India Out’ protests would beaten.
Eleven individuals were taken into police custody on 5th January 2022 for obstructing law enforcement officers during a protest. Another 29 individuals were taken into police custody during a protest on 7th January 2022. Of the group, two were arrested for obstructing a law enforcement officer from carrying out their responsibilities and carrying out an act without permission that requires prior permission from a government authority.
These actions appear to be inconsistent with Maldives obligations in the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights ratified in 2006. In addition, article 32 of the Maldives Constitution provides for the right to the freedom of peaceful assembly without prior permission of the state.
There are also concerns that the Freedom of Peaceful Assembly Act 2013 imposes undue limitations on assemblies and gives the police wide discretion in granting permission. The Act also allows the police to restrict demonstrations to designated areas and limits access by journalists. As previously documented, on 25th November 2020, the Maldives Parliament rejected amendments to the Freedom of Peaceful Assembly Act, which would have allowed protests in the capital city of Malé without prior permission.
Proposal to ban protests affecting diplomatic relations
According to the South Asia Monitor, the Maldives government is considering bringing in a law that will effectively criminalise the ongoing “India Out” campaign.
The government claims the campaign is led by "a small group of individuals and a few political personalities" linked to the former President Abdulla Yameen aimed at propagating “hatred towards India". It also concluded that the campaign poses a threat to national security and risks the safety of both Indians living in the Maldives and Maldivians living in India.
The ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) and its allies in the government have started formulating a bill that will criminalise any act by individuals that is deemed disruptive of the country’s diplomatic relations. According to a report, under the new bill, a fine of 20,000 Maldivian rufiyaa (USD 1,284) will be imposed for those raising anti-India slogans. Along with this, there is also a provision of imprisonment for six months or detention for one year.
Transparency Maldives, the local chapter of the anti-corruption organisation Transparency International, expressed concern over the reports. It stated in a tweet: “Freedom of expression, including the freedom to express dissent and criticism of foreign policy, is a fundamental right enshrined in our Constitution. Any bill that seeks to limit this freedom is an undemocratic, unconstitutional interference to restrict a fundamental right.”
UN committee calls on state to prevent reprisals against women activists
The 6th periodic review of the Maldives at the 80th Session of #CEDAW concluded today. The multisectoral high-level delegation from Maldives and CEDAW Experts constructively discussed the progress made in enhancing women’s empowerment and gender equality in the #Maldives. pic.twitter.com/3HxLVhFEgh— Maldives Mission GVA (@MDVinGeneva) October 21, 2021
In October 2021, Maldives was reviewed by the UN around its implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) which it ratified in 1993.
In the Concluding Observations, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women welcomed the statement of the delegation during the dialogue, indicating that the State party is fully committed to preventing and investigating reprisals against civil society organisations and individuals advocating for human rights, including online.
It however noted with concern reports about threats and intimidation against women human rights defenders and about the shrinking civic space. It also noted with concern that, despite the steps announced to prevent and investigate online abuse, no perpetrators have yet been held accountable. It is further concerned that the bill on associations, submitted to the People’s Majlis in 2019 has still not been adopted.
The Committee recommended that the state “prevent reprisals against women human rights defenders, ensure their protection from violence and intimidation, and investigate, prosecute and adequately punish all threats and harassment against them”. It also called for the “guarantee that women human rights defenders and activists can freely carry out their advocacy for women’s human rights and exercise their rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association, without harassment, surveillance or other undue restrictions” and to “expedite the adoption of the bill on associations.”
Court convicts two in killing of activist but questions remain over masterminds
Five years after the murder of human rights activist and blogger Yameen Rasheed, the court reached a verdict yesterday, convicting 2 of the 6 suspected for his murder.#WeAreYaamyn pic.twitter.com/UuTJ4FVyzl— Transparency MV (@TransparencyMV) January 20, 2022
On 20th January 2022, a criminal court convicted two people in connection with the murder of Maldives blogger and human rights defender Yameen Rasheed in 2017. The court found Ismail Haisham Rasheed and Ahmed Zihan Ismail guilty and sentenced them to life imprisonment. Four others were acquitted for lack of evidence.
As previously documented, blogger and social media activist Yameen Rasheed was found stabbed to death on 23rd April 2017 outside his apartment building. He had received multiple death threats before his murder, which he had reported to the police. Rasheed had been a vocal critic of rising religious extremism, human rights abuses, injustice and government corruption.
In response to the verdict, the Association for Democracy in the Maldives issued a statement where it reported that Yameen Rasheed’s family has requested to the Prosecutor General that the cases of those acquitted be appealed within the timeframe.
It also stated that the authorities’ impartiality and professionalism were compromised during the criminal investigation and prosecution and called on the Deaths and Disappearances Commission to thoroughly and expeditiously investigate Yameen’s extrajudicial killing and forward the case to prosecutors.
The family also raised a number of concerns including why other defendants - who did not physically attack Yameen but assisted in it -were not charged with aiding and abetting instead. They also said that the court noted that crucial pieces of forensic evidence were not submitted and that the ‘chain of custody’ document, provided by the police, had errors.
There were also concerns about severe and unreasonable delaying tactics used by the defence lawyers to obstruct the course of justice and none were arrested, investigated, or charged for financing or ordering the killing. Finally, four key witnesses also reported threats and refused to testify. None of the allegations of witness intimidation was thoroughly investigated or prosecuted.
Report highlights gaps in ensuring media freedoms
Centre for Law and Democracy, in collaboration with International Federation of Journalists and the Maldives Journalists Association, launched an in-dept report on the situation in the Maldives facing the media and journalists. @mjamaldives pic.twitter.com/BVBqayxvtV— MV+ (@mvplusmedia) October 24, 2021
The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) together with the Centre for Law and Democracy (CLD) launched the Maldives Freedom of Expression Assessment, an in-depth assessment of freedom of expression in the Maldives in October 2021.
The report found that respect for freedom of expression has fluctuated quite markedly in the Maldives over the years and, in particular, with changes of government. It said that the legal framework affords government broad scope to interfere with media freedom. This, in turn, is derived in large part from the lack of independence of regulatory and oversight bodies for the media, leaving space for government to control them, as well as a number of legal rules that are either overbroad or insufficiently clear and precise. Another key problem is the ongoing impunity for murders of and attacks on journalists.
The assessment noted that some of the key areas where reforms are needed in terms of media regulation include greater protection for the safety of journalists; to abolish the 1978 Newspapers and Magazines Act and, along with it, the requirement for newspapers to register; to amend the Broadcasting Code of Practice so as to remove overbroad or unduly vague provisions, while also enforcing the rule in the Code which requires broadcasters to ensure that their news and current affairs content is accurate, fair, balanced and impartial.
Civic Space Developments