Attacks on civic space continue with threats to dissolve opposition and jailing of judges

At the end of April, CIVICUS and the Voice of Women (VOW) Maldives issued a report entitled - Repression in Paradise: Assault on fundamental freedoms in the Maldives - detailing the attacks against the rule of law and fundamental freedoms on the Maldives.

The report highlighted how the judiciary has been undermined through the arbitrary arrest of journalists, while scores of opposition politicians and activists face a variety of trumped-up charges from bribery to terrorism. The report also showed how police have used unnecessary force to disperse peaceful demonstrations, and in some case, indiscriminately used pepper spray and tear gas. There are also documented cases of people being ill-treated in detention.

Since the report was issued, the situation has continued to deteriorate, with attempts to silence the opposition, the jailing of Supreme Court judges and cases of intimidation of activists. Elections are due to be held in September 2018. 

Due to the rapid decline in respect for civic space, the Maldives has been added to the CIVICUS Watch List.

Association

Election commission bars opposition candidates from contesting

On 20th May 2018, the Maldives Election Commission announced that anyone convicted of a criminal offence, as outlined in the 2008 Constitution, could not legally contest as a political party's candidate in a presidential primary election. Article 109(f) states that an elected president cannot have been sentenced to more than 12 months in prison for a criminal offense within the past three years.

This decision effectively bans the four main opposition leaders from running. The Commission also threatened to dissolve the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) if its sole candidate, former President Mohamed Nasheed, contested the party’s primaries.

President Nasheed, the first democratically-elected president, was sentenced to 13 years imprisonment in 2015 on politically-motivated "terrorism" charges, in a trial that the United Nations (UN) Working Group on Arbitrary Detention found to be unfair. On 16th April 2018, the UN Human Rights Committee found that restrictions on Nasheed’s right to stand for office violated his rights to political participation under Article 25 of the ICCPR and called on the government of Maldives to restore this right. The government rejected this call.

According to Brad Adam from Human Rights Watch:

“The Maldives’ Election Commission has shed its pretense of impartiality and independence with its rejection of opposition candidates…the commission’s threats not only to oust candidates but to shut down entire parties pose a new risk to the country’s already jeopardized electoral freedoms”.

The opposition condemned the Commission's announcement saying that the body, which had been handpicked by President Yameen, is "stacked with his cronies". They also accused the Commission of being "hopelessly politicised" and ‘little more than a mouthpiece for President Yameen’.

Peaceful Assembly

Parliamentarian facing 20 years imprisonment on trumped up charges

Parliamentarian Ahmed Mahloof is facing charges for his peaceful political activism, charges which human rights activists believe to be politically motivated. If found guilty, the politician could face nearly 20 years in prison. Amnesty International believes that Ahmed Mahloof is a prisoner of conscience and has called for his immediate and unconditional release.

According to Amnesty International, Ahmed Mahloof was arrested on 22nd February 2018 for distributing gas masks at a peaceful protest where police fired tear gas and pepper spray. He was subsequently charged with “obstruction of police duty” – a crime that carries a minimum six-month sentence. The charge was later changed to “terrorism”, which carries a minimum term of 17 years in prison. In addition, he currently faces additional charges of “leading a group of people” into a prison after they had protested outside, a charge he denies, as well as “providing false information” in relation to two separate tweets, each of which carries a six-month sentence.

CIVICUS has documented the arrest and detention of several opposition parliamentarians since the declaration of the state of emergency. They include Ilhaam Ahmed, Faris Maumoon, Abdullah Riyaz and Abdullah Sinan, who have since been charged with terrorism. Other parliamentarians who were detained include Ali Azim and Ibrahim Mohammed Solih.

In March 2018, the Inter-Parliamentary Union raised concerns about the wave of arrests of members of parliament under the state of emergency and the terrorism charges brought against them. In addition in April 2018 the global membership of Parliamentarians for Global Action condemned “the persistent and repeated violations of the fundamental human rights of parliamentarians that are being committed by the authorities of The Maldives”.

Expression

Supreme Court Justices jailed

On 10th May 2018, Chief Justice Abdulla Saeed and Justice Ali Hameed, who were facing politically-motivated charges of influencing court rulings, were sentenced to one year and seven months in prison. Saeed was also sentenced to five months in prison on obstruction charges on 8th May, and both justices face additional charges of terrorism. Their trial was closed to the media and public and held behind closed doors. Both have denied the charges.

As previously documented on the CIVICUS Monitor, the current crisis began on 1st February 2018, when the country's Supreme Court ordered the release and retrial of a group of opposition politicians, including exiled former president Mohamed Nasheed. President Yameen Abdul Gayoom refused to comply with the ruling, which led to mass protests in the capital, Malé. In response, the President declared a state of emergency, provided the security forces with sweeping powers and suspending constitutional rights. He also removed and arrested the two Supreme Court judges.

Both judges are appealing their convictions at the Maldives High Court.

Lawyer summoned for criticising judges’ convictions

Defence lawyer Hisaan Hussain, representing the jailed Supreme Court justices, was summoned and interrogated by the courts on 14th May 2018 for comments she made to the press following their conviction.

Previously, in March 2018 she was summoned to the Criminal Court and asked to formally apologise for her remarks on jailed Chief Justice Abdullah Saeed’s first hearing. Hisaan had claimed that the Judge Ahmed Hailam presiding over the Chief Justice’s case at the Criminal Court was conducting an arbitrary hearing.

Former President Nasheed called the summons "a blatant act of intimidation, and another assault on the rule of law".

In a recent report, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) found that "lawyers have been subjected to frequent politically motivated suspension of their licenses, some of them multiple times and for prolonged periods of time. Often, no reasons were given for the suspensions and no communications were issued. In some cases, lawyers learned of their suspension from social media. Lawyers also reported being regularly threatened and intimidated by the authorities and government supporters through social media, particularly Twitter".

Still no justice for killing of blogger

Human rights groups and activists in the Maldives have continue to demand justice for the death of blogger and social media activist, Yameen Rasheed.

Rasheed had been a vocal critic of rising religious extremism, human rights abuses, injustice and government corruption in the country. He was a leading campaigner for his close friend, the journalist Ahmed Rilwan Abdulla, who has been missing since August 2014. Rasheed had received death threats because of his writing and human rights advocacy. He had reported these threats to the Maldives Police Service, which failed to respond effectively.

In a shocking murder that marked a worrying attack on freedom of expression, Yameen Rasheed, 29, 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.

Seven suspects were arrested for his murder but it is still not clear who may have been behind Rasheed’s murder. Six hearings have been held so far, all of which have been closed to the family, media and the public. The judge has ruled to continue the hearings in secrecy, at the request of the prosecutor-general’s office.

Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk, declared:

“It is essential that the Yameen Rasheed murder trial hearings should be open to the public and journalists or otherwise there will inevitably be doubts about the verdict…we ask the prosecutor general to act accordingly, and we urge the supreme court and the country’s human rights commission to use all their influence to ensure that the trial is conducted in a fully transparent manner. The credibility of the justice system is a stake".

In a new report by FIDH, it was noted that several international offers of assistance in the investigation were rejected and that the Major Crime Management Centre (a specialised police branch) decided not to investigate Rasheed’s murder, thus reflecting a lack of political will on the part of the authorities to resolve the case.