Ahead of elections, abuse of laws crippling Maldives’ nascent democracy says rights group

Fundamental freedoms continue to be restricted in the Maldives. A new report by Human Rights Watch released in mid-August 2018 shows the government has moved to expand its use of broad and vaguely worded laws to intimidate, arbitrarily arrest, and imprison its critics ahead of elections scheduled for 23rd September 2018. The report examines how the government is “using and abusing such laws, and the crippling effects this has had on the Maldives’ nascent democracy and struggling civil society”.

In mid-July 2018, the Foreign Affairs Council of the European Union warned of sanctions ranging from travel bans to asset freezes against those in the Maldives responsible for human rights violations and undermining the rule of law in the Indian Ocean island chain. The decision was a direct follow up to the Foreign Affairs Council conclusions of 26th February that urged President Yameen’s government to engage with opposition leaders for credible, transparent and inclusive presidential elections, the European Union said.

Expression

Rights group calls government to drop prosecution of critics

According to the report from Human Rights Watch, threats and prosecutions against the media and opposition critics increased after the August 2016 enactment of the Anti-Defamation and Freedom of Expression Act. The law sets heavy fines for content or speech that “contradicts a tenet of Islam, threatens national security, contradicts social norms, or encroaches on another’s rights, reputation, or good name”. Patricia Gossman, associate director of the HRW Asia division, said:

"This is a problem that really goes back several years with the enactment of laws that criminalise peaceful dissent, make it very difficult for opposition parties to function and really crack down on the media.”

The organisation has called on the government to drop all prosecutions and release anyone being held for the peaceful exercise of their basic rights, including the right to peaceful expression. This includes all criminal investigations and charges brought against individuals for their criticism of government officials, institutions, or judicial decisions.

News outlet Rajje TV fined again

On 8th August 2018, private broadcaster Raajje TV was imposed with a fine of MVR 2 million (130,000 USD) under the 2016 Anti-Defamation and Freedom of Expression Act, for live broadcasting a politician’s speech from an opposition demonstration. The fine was approved after the opposition-aligned station was found to have aired content that threatened national security, the the Maldives Broadcasting Commission (MBC) said in a statement.

Raajje TV in a statement said it believed that this was “a calculated and well-coordinated attack to obstruct its efforts to make President Yameen’s government accountable ahead of next month’s presidential election. We note that the commission’s report on its decision is filled with fabrications”.

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) condemned the arbitrary decision to fine the media outlet. The organisation said:

“The IFJ condemns the decision of the Maldives Broadcasting Commission to fine on Raajje TV. The media outlet should not be held responsible for the comments made by politicians during broadcast. This is the fourth fine in two years and shows that the MBC is attempting to silence opposition voices and muzzling with press freedom through the draconian defamation act. The IFJ demands immediate withdrawal of the fine and urge the Maldives government to respect press freedom and freedom of expression.”

Raajje TV, among the biggest private broadcasters in the Maldives, has repeatedly been targeted by the authorities on defamation charges. The network has already been fined several times under the 2016 anti-defamation law by the regulatory Maldives Broadcasting Commission

Suspects in case of disappearance of journalist acquitted

On 2nd August 2018, a criminal court in the Maldives acquitted two men accused of kidnapping a prominent journalist who wrote pointed critiques of the government and the spread of radical strains of Islam.

Ahmed Rilwan, a reporter with the Maldives Independent newspaper, was likely abducted in August 2014 and has been missing since. Alif Rauf and Mohamed Nooradeen were accused of forcing Rilwan into a car at knife-point outside his apartment building in Hulhumalé on 8th August 2014. Both were arrested shortly after his disappearance but remained free for the duration of the trial. 

The weak police investigation into Rilwan’s case and concerns about the credibility of the trial has raised serious questions about the willingness of the state to bring the perpetrators to justice. Some believe that the disappearance of Ahmed Rilwan and the incomplete investigation that followed were state-sponsored.

The Committee to Protect Journalists, Asia Program Coordinator Steven Butler said:

"The four years in which Ahmed Rilwan Abdulla has been missing has been a bleak period for press freedom in the Maldives, not least because of the lack of accountability in his case…President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom should demonstrate that his government is committed to ensuring full justice by supporting an independent investigation into the journalist's disappearance."

Peaceful Assembly

Protest march held on fourth anniversary of journalists’ disappearance

On 8th August 2018, a protest was held in the capital Male, to mark four years since the abduction of Maldives Independent journalist Ahmed Rilwan. Led by Rilwan’s parents and family, about 250 people marched half the length of the capital’s main road as a small group of police officers diverted traffic. The march ended with a gathering at Malé’s western artificial beach where former colleagues, members of civil society and Rilwan’s father delivered speeches.

Calling for an independent inquiry, protesters chanted, “It’s been four years, where is Rilwan?” “The knife went missing, Rilwan is still missing,” and “Investigate President [Abdulla] Yameen”. They held up placards with photos of state officials accused of complicity, including the president, his jailed former deputy, and the prosecutor general.

In stark contrast to previous years, police officers cleared the way for a protest march. It was the first protest march in the capital without police obstruction since late 2015.

Association

Political opposition targeted

According to Human Rights Watch’s report, the government has used the 2015 Anti-Terrorism Act, with its overly broad and ambiguous provisions, to prosecute acts of political dissent during and after the 45-day state of emergency that was lifted on 22nd March 2018. The law includes as acts of terrorism “disrupting public services” for the purpose of “exerting an undesirable influence on the government or the state,” a definition that could apply to protests. Of the scores of opposition figures and activists detained during the state of emergency, most were charged with committing “acts of terrorism.”

Among the opposition politicians who have been charged under this law for their political activism include Ilhaam Ahmed, Ahmed Mahloof, Faris Maumoon, Abdullah Riyaz and Abdullah Sinan.

Opposition politician Faris Maumoon declared prisoner of conscience 

On 27th June 2018, Faris Maumoon, an opposition politician in the Maldives, was sentenced to four months and 24 days in prison for identity fraud. He was accused of illegally using the flag and logo of the Progressive Party of Maldives during a press conference held on 22 March 2017. 

Amnesty International considers Faris Maumoon a prisoner of conscience and has raised concerns about his trial that according to them, did not meet fair trial standards. According to the organisation, the prosecution presented anonymous witnesses – who could not be cross examined – and failed to share case documents with his defense lawyers, as required by the new Criminal Procedures Act. Faris Maumoon submitted a list of 47 people as witnesses, but only 10 received summons. The rest were not heard.

Faris Maumoon is facing five other politically motivated criminal charges: three cases of bribery, a case of corruption, and a case of attempting to commit terrorism. Criminal charges have been pressed in the one bribery case and the one related to terrorism, while the last information given to Faris Maumoon’s lawyer is that the prosecution is still investigating the other two bribery cases.

Former President Gayoom jailed

On 13th June 2018, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who was President of the Maldives from 1978 to 2008 was sentenced to one year, seven months and six days in prison for failing to hand over his mobile phone to investigators. He was charged and convicted after being found guilty of “obstructing justice”.

Amnesty International’s South Asia Director, Biraj Patnaik, said the conviction was politically-motivated, and the product of a trial that did not meet international standards. The organisation called for the conviction to be quashed immediately.