Maldives: Concerns around the arrest of protesters, excessive force and the targeting of journalists
The state of civic space is rated as ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor. Ongoing concerns include reports of harassment and threats to journalists, the arbitrary arrest and excessive force against protesters and restrictions on protest, and threats against human rights defenders, both offline and online, including women activists.
In January 2023, Human Rights Watch (HRW) noted that the government had failed in 2022 to enact critical reforms to the justice system and to counter threats to free expression. HRW also said that the Maldives authorities have repeatedly failed to stand up to extremist Islamist groups and political leaders on human rights issues.
Ahead of the Presidential Elections in September 2023, there continues to be concerns around restrictions and excessive force used around protests and the failure to carry out promised reforms to the Freedom of Assembly Act. Further, press freedom remains at risk, journalists continue to face attacks and threats for their reporting and there are concerns around media restrictions ahead of the elections. Progress has been slow in holding perpetrators accountable for past violations such as the enforced disappearance of journalist Ahmed Rilwan Abdullah. Further, a leading human rights group has raised concerns around a civil court decision on their de-registration.
Migrant workers protest against unpaid salaries and working conditions
On 15th December 2022, a group of migrant workers in the Maldives protested against their employer who had not paid their salaries for four months, confiscated their passports and had forced them to work without compensation.
According to a news report, employees of the construction company Jaah Investments protested by staging a mass sit-down in Central Park in Hulhumalé. The employees, who had been working on apartment development projects in the city, called for Jaah to pay their unpaid salaries. The workers also raised several issues of not having access to proper food or medical care. One of the workers told Mihaaru news that they have been forced to work without salaries and were unable to send money back to their families, who were now in serious financial trouble. Police arrived at the site of the protest and attempted to disperse the migrant workers.
Roughly one-third of the population in the Maldives comprises foreign migrant workers, at least 60,000 of them undocumented. The vast majority work in the construction and tourism industries.
Arrests around protests linked to conviction of former president
A series of protests took place after the conviction of former president Abdulla Yameen Gayoom for money laundering and corruption in December 2022. He was sentenced to 11 years in jail.
Members of the opposition Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) and the People’s National Congress (PNC) took to the streets, demanding the release of their leader. On 26th December 2022, a protest was held near the Majeedhee Magu – Chaandhanee Magu junction. Participants were seen holding flags and banners and walking towards the artificial beach area. On 30th December 2022, a rally was staged in Malé City calling for the release of the opposition leader. The rally began in front of the PPM headquarters in Henveiru district.
This is not #Kashmir #Palestine or a war zone. This is #Maldives police attacking a 70+ yr old lady, for practicing her constitutional rights. Shame on you @ibusolih @PoliceMv where are the institutions? @hrcmv @TransparencyMV pic.twitter.com/5LbPpeeO9N— Heena Waleed 🇲🇻 (@HeenaWaleed) January 9, 2023
At least 17 people were arrested in these protests, including a member of parliament. A video from social media taken during one of the protests shows police officers chasing a group of female protestors and manhandling an elderly woman while arresting her. The video shows the woman being seized by two officers while she was running. The officers then snatched the flag she is seen holding and are seen dragging her away.
On 7th January 2023, a total of nine people were arrested during a protest, six of whom were released that night. The remaining three were released on conditions set by a court, after being presented to the court for a remand hearing. On 14th March 2023, the police arrested 12 protestors from a demonstration staged by the opposition coalition in Malé City, including Adam Asif – a member of opposition leader Abdulla Yameen’s legal team.
Parliament Member @Shiyamaldives & Journalist @hassanshahydh attacked and pepper sprayed by Police at peaceful protest. #PoliceBrutality @amnesty @TransparencyMV @hrw @amnestysasia @ICJ_org @EU_Maldives @UNMaldives @USinMaldives @State_SCA @coe @UNHumanRights#FreeRaeesYameen pic.twitter.com/1ZhrNqbBjj— 𝗣𝗶𝗻𝗸 𝗛𝗮𝗯𝗮𝗿𝘂 (@Pinkhabaru) February 6, 2023
Transparency International Maldives on 14th March 2023 said: We ‘strongly condemn the continued obstruction of peaceful protests, the use of brutal force, and the arrest of protestors and media personnel by the [police] during the series of protests’.
In its latest annual report, Amnesty International noted that police used unlawful force to disrupt protests on several occasions in 2022. Further, the authorities continued to use the Freedom of Peaceful Assembly Act of 2013 to impose limitations on peaceful assemblies and to give undue discretion to the police in granting permission for protests, contrary to international human rights law and standards.
Concerns around use of tasers by the police
Roll-out of Conducted Energy Weapon (Taser) begins today with High Visibility Policing teams in Male’. Sergeant & above ranked officers who had undergone certification training will be authorised to carry & use this prevalent, less lethal weapon for the first time at @PoliceMv. pic.twitter.com/cn3g91PVQP— Mohamed Hameed (@M_Hameedh) February 26, 2023
Despite the pattern of excessive force during protests and a climate of impunity within the Maldivian police, in 2022 they announced that taser guns would be deployed during ‘high-risk arrests’. The Commissioner of Police also claimed that the tasers were ‘safer’ than batons and pepper spray.
In January 2023, human rights groups including CIVICUS and the Maldivian Democracy Network expressed concerns over this move by the police as these devices could be used to quell protests and further violate the freedom of peaceful assembly. The group also noted that there had been no consultation with civil society or the general public and called on the police to retract vague and misleading statements with regard to the controversial safety record of taser guns.
On 26th February 2023, the Maldives Police announced that they had started the deployment of taser guns in Malé, despite concerns raised by the public and civil society organisations. The police announced that taser guns would “provide police with more options for the use of legal force in making arrests in high-risk situations”
Press freedom at risk
In December 2022, the Maldives Journalists Association expressed concerns over the election of an official, representing the state-controlled Public Service Media, as the President of the Maldives Media Council (MMC). This is seen as an interference with the independent functioning of the Maldives Journalists’ Association and increased the risk of policies that could further suppress the media in the country.
Arrests, threats and attacks on journalists
Calling for immediate release of the COO and senior journalist of @Ch13official Samah who still remain under house arrest.The targetted use of force,irrespective of the media during peaceful protests in the capital city of #Maldives Male' is alarming @mmc_mv @RSF_en @amnestysasia pic.twitter.com/ofbuUdTmz1— Dr Mohamed Muizzu (@MMuizzu) January 10, 2023
Journalists have faced arrests, attacks and threats for undertaking their work.
On 19th January 2023, journalist Mohamed Samah from Channel 13 was arrested and put under house arrest for covering a protest. He was detained while was wearing a media pas had gone to the protets to fix an issue that had occurred with their live feed coverage of the protest. The police accused Samah of disrupting public transport and encouraging more people to participate in the protests. The Maldives Journalists Association (MJA) expressed concern on over the court ruling. He was released the following day on condition that he has to stay at his residence between 6:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. every day for 30 days.
We are concerned that two Channel 13 journalists were injured while covering the protest. The media-credentialed videographer and photojournalist were sprayed with pepper spray and struck by police shields. One of the journalists is currently being treated in hospital. pic.twitter.com/RpbNKNVJBl— Maldives Journalists Association (@mjamaldives) February 6, 2023
On 8th February 2023, two journalists, Hassan Shaheed and Ahmed Misbaah, were attacked by police officers while covering a protest held by the opposition Progressive Party of Maldives. Police used excessive force including pepper spray against them and pushed them to the ground while they were covering the protest, despite the fact that they were wearing their journalist identity cards. The intensity of the attack was such that Shaheed had to be airlifted to Sri Lanka for further treatment. This is just the latest case of journalists facing attacks for covering protests.
In February 2023, a team of journalists from Vaguthu media received death threats for an article they wrote two years ago on religious extremism in Addu City. This case highlights the lack of political will and the inability of the Maldivian authorities to hold extremist groups accountable, further trampling on freedom of expression and press freedom.
On 16th March 2023, the Committee to Protect Journalists reported that police had assaulted and arrested Hussain Juman (photo on top), a reporter for the privately-owned news website Avas, while he covered a rally by supporters of the opposition Progressive Party of Maldives in the capital city of Malé. Juman was filming the rally when police shoved him to the ground and threw his phone away. He sustained injuries to his chest, shoulder and back. Juman was held in an overcrowded cell with around 12 others in the Malé custodial detention centre. Authorities released him without charge the following day, following an order by the Maldives Criminal Court. Juman told CPJ that he did not know if police intended to file charges against him in the future.
On 21st March 2023, Hussain Fiyaz Moosa, chief editor of newspaper Adhadhu, received a death threat from an unidentified number hours after the paper published an article concerning religious extremists and gang activity.
Two senior Maldivian journalists were issued serious threats via phone and text on 7th April 2023 following the publication of an article about a high-profile arbitration case between a Maldivian tourism group and Hilton Worldwide. The journalists targeted by the threats were senior journalist and secretary general of the Maldives Journalists Association (MJA), Ahmed Naaif, and the senior editor of news outlet Dhauru, Ahmed Zahir.
Proposed amendment may restrict media’s election access
Media groups expressed their concern that a proposed amendment to elections legislation could restrict foreign and freelance journalists’ ability to monitor election processes. On 13th March 2023, a member of parliament from the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), Ibrahim Muizzu, introduced a proposed amendment to the General Elections Act on behalf of the government. The proposed amendment would alter Sections 41(a) and 41(b) of the legislation and would require any reporter performing election monitoring to work for a registered media outlet or broadcasting service. Any ‘unregistered’ journalist would be unable to legally act as a monitor at polling booths, counting facilities or voting districts before voting. If passed, the amendment would affect coverage of the Maldives’ upcoming elections in September 2023.
The amendment has been criticised by the Maldives Journalists’ Association (MJA) who identified in a joint statement the potential of the bill to exclude freelance journalists and foreign correspondents from election monitoring practices. The amendment has also been criticised for failing to consult media workers, civil society organisations or other stakeholders in its drafting.
Enforced disappearance of journalist and blogger Ahmed Rilwan Abdullah
The Presidential Commission on Deaths and Disappearances (DDCom), which was investigating the enforced disappearance of journalist and blogger Ahmed Rilwan Abdullah, submitted its final findings to President Solih in December 2022, after a three year inquiry. The President’s Office stated that the relevant findings would be shared with the Attorney General’s Office and the Prosecutor General’s Office.
As previously documented, Rilwan, a reporter with the Maldives Independent newspaper, went missing in August 2014. He was an outspoken journalist who uncovered political corruption and its links to Islamist extremism. In August 2018, the criminal court acquitted two suspects on trial for abducting him. The weak police investigation into Rilwan’s case and concerns about the credibility of the trial raised serious questions about the willingness of the state to bring the perpetrators to justice.
The Association for Democracy in the Maldives expressed concerns over the findings of the DDCom in Rilwan’s case regarding the basis for concluding that he was murdered and drowned at sea, and also pointed out inconsistencies in the statements made by the Commission at different times. It also pointed out that the Commission has not provided any written conclusion to Rilwan’s family about his disappearance, abduction or murder.
In 2019, the DDCom announced that Rilwan had been abducted and later murdered by extremists in 2014. In a separate judicial process, three persons were arrested for murdering Rilwan and are in detention, facing trial.
Leading rights group highlights concerns around civil court decision on their de-registration
On 28th March 2023, the court ruled that there were no legal grounds to conclude that the actions of the Ministry of Youth, Sports and Community Empowerment (MoYSCE) against the Maldivian Democracy Network (MDN) in cancelling their registration are against article 30(b) and 43 of the Constitution and Law Number 1/2003 (Associations Act).
In September 2020, the Executive Director of MDN filed a civil case against the Ministry of Youth, Sports and Community Empowerment (MoYSCE) contesting that the organisation was de-registered without following due process, the investigation against the organisation (or the authors, which is unclear) conducted by the police involved serious levels of conflict of interest, and that MDN was not given the right of reply before any action was taken against them.
However, MDN has raised a number of issues around the verdict. These include the fact that the verdict does not address the claim in the case – whether the ministry had followed due process. Further, the court had failed to examine the evidence produced by the claimant and based its decision on points of speculation provided by the government.
The court also failed, despite multiple requests, to schedule a hearing of the trial for over 11 months and failed to present two witnesses, namely the Registrar of Associations who cancelled the registration of MDN and the Assistant Commissioner of Police at the time. The Civil Court only summoned the legal representative of the claimant on the day of the hearing and proceeded to rule on the case without allowing for witness presentation.
As previously documented in September 2019, MDN and its staff became the target of a smear campaign on social media because of a 2015 report the organisation had published on the rise in violent extremism in Maldives, which their opponents claimed included language insulting Islam. In October 2019, MDN publicly acknowledged that some of the language in the report could be misunderstood and said it would incorporate revisions.
However, this did not quell the campaign and in November 2019 the government yielded to pressure from religious leaders and political opposition figures and ordered the dissolution of MDN. The MDN leadership was forced into exile because of violent threats from extremist groups. The police failed to investigate and prosecute those responsible for the threats.