Maldives: Human rights in free fall as authorities step up crackdown

The human rights situation in the Maldives is deteriorating alarmingly as authorities are muzzling peaceful protesters, silencing critical media and civil society, while abusing the judicial system to imprison opposition politicians, Amnesty International said in a new briefing today.

The briefing comes on the back of a five-day fact finding mission to Maldives (17 to 22 April 2015), when an Amnesty International delegation interviewed lawyers, human rights defenders, journalists and political activists. The delegation was unable to meet with government officials during this visit, but intends to accept an invitation to do so later in the year.

“There’s a climate of fear spreading in the Maldives, as safeguards on human rights are increasingly eroded. The authorities have a growing track record of silencing critical voices by any means necessary – be it through the police, the judicial system, or outright threats and harassment. This must end immediately,” said Abbas Faiz, Amnesty International’s Maldives Researcher, who launched the briefing at a press conference in Delhi, India.

“The international community must wake up and realize that behind the façade of a tourist paradise, there is a dark trend in the Maldives where the human rights situation is rapidly deteriorating.”

With political tensions in the Maldives on the rise over the past years, authorities have pursued criminal charges against a number of key opposition figures. The most headline-grabbing example is former President Mohamed Nasheed, who was sentenced on terrorism charges to 13 years in prison on 13 March following a manifestly unfair trial.

Amnesty International investigated the trials of Mohamed Nasheed and two other imprisoned high-profile opposition politicians: former defence minister Mohamed Nazim and MP Ahmed Nazim. In all three cases, the right to a fair trial has been seriously undermined, and the Maldives authorities appeared to use the judiciary to pursue their own political goals.

“Mohamed Nasheed’s imprisonment came after a sham trial, but he is far from the only one locked up on trumped-up charges and after unfair trials. It is disturbing how far the Maldives government has co-opted the judiciary as a tool to cement its own hold on power,” said Abbas Faiz.

Protests by Nasheed supporters have been met with a harsh response by the authorities. At least 140 peaceful protesters have been arrested since February, and were only released on conditions that severely limited their rights to take part in further demonstrations. Those detained include at least three MPs from Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), as well as other MDP politicians.

Additionally, police have imposed far-ranging restrictions on where and when protests in the Maldives capital Male can take place. Demonstrations are only allowed in certain areas far away from official buildings, contrary to international law and standards.

Alarmingly, threats and attacks against independent media critical of the government are on the rise. In the wake of a number of high-profile attacks, several journalists told Amnesty International they have received death threats through texts or phone calls, but police have refused to follow up and investigate these threats meaningfully.

In a disturbing trend, vigilante religious groups allegedly in cahoots with the police have in recent years stepped up kidnappings and attacks on social gatherings, in particular against those accused of promoting “atheism”. This year, such gangs have in connivance with police attacked peaceful demonstrators, yet no one has been brought to justice for these attacks.

The Amnesty International briefing also documents how civil society organizations and human rights defenders have increasingly faced harassment, threats and attacks while space for civil society continues to shrink. This has included the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives (HRCM), which the Supreme Court charged with high treason and undermining the constitution following the HRCM’s submission on the state of human rights in the Maldives to the UN Universal Periodic Review (UPR).

“The Maldives authorities must immediately end its disturbing crackdown on human rights. Political tensions are already at a boiling point, and further harassment and attacks on those opposing the authorities will only make the situation spiral out of control,” said Abbas Faiz.

“The international community cannot turn a blind eye to what is happening in the Maldives. The upcoming UN UPR session in Geneva in May is a key moment to push the Maldives authorities to immediately take concrete action to improve the country’s human rights situation.”