Maldives: New government must break with repressive past

The change of government in the Maldives presents a huge opportunity to break with the repression and human rights violations of the past and chart a fresh course where human rights are at the heart of the policies and action of the new government, Amnesty International said today.

The 23 September 2018 presidential election saw the defeat of President Abdulla Yameen to the Joint Opposition candidate Ibrahim Mohamed Solih. Abdulla Yameen’s rule was marked by attacks on civil society, media workers, the political opposition and the judiciary.

“This is a golden opportunity for the Maldives. The new government must break with the country’s repressive past and put the protection of human rights at the heart of its policies and action,” said Dinushika Dissanayake, Deputy South Asia Director at Amnesty International.

“The joint opposition made several pledges when it comes to the human rights situation in the Maldives. Now, it is time to begin to translate those words into action, including by releasing those people who were wrongly imprisoned, repealing repressive laws, and creating an environment conducive to full respect for human rights and where civil society can flourish.”

This is a golden opportunity for the Maldives. The new government must break with the country’s repressive past and put the protection of human rights at the heart of its policies and action

Dinushika Dissanayake

Unfair trials

The new Maldivian government must commit to the immediate and unconditional release of people who were imprisoned solely for exercising their human rights. These prisoners of conscience include politicians such as Faris Maumoon and Ahmed Mahloof.

People who have been arbitrarily detained or subject to politically-motivated charges should also be released and the charges against them dropped. In February 2018, the Supreme Court ordered the release and retrial of nine opposition leaders. Instead of enforcing the order, the Maldivian authorities also detained Chief Justice Abdulla Saeed, Justice Ali Hameed, former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, and his son-in-law Moamed Nadheem.

Amnesty International also has fair trial concerns in a number of other cases, where civil society activists and opposition leaders have been detained or convicted on trumped-up and politically-motivated charges that range from “trespassing” for entering parliament to “terrorism” and “overthrowing the government”.

“Under the last government, the rule of law ceased to hold any real meaning. The new government should immediately release those facing politically-motivated charges and drop the charges against them,” said Dinushika Dissanayake.

Freedom of expression and restrictions on the media

Under the government of President Abdulla Yameen, journalists in the Maldives faced severe restrictions on their right to freedom of expression.

The few independent media outlets in operation on the islands variously had their broadcasts interrupted or put off air while journalists were subject to threats, intimidation and harassment.

The 2016 Anti-Defamation and Freedom of Expression Act criminalized the right to freedom of expression instead of protecting it, setting hefty fines for speech or content that “contradicts a tenet of Islam, threatens national security, contradicts social norms, or encroaches on another’s rights, reputation or good name.”

Failure to pay the fine may result in up to six months’ imprisonment and even the closure of a media outlet. Rajje TV, a media outlet linked to the then political opposition, was repeatedly targeted under the Anti-Defamation and Freedom of Expression Act, and forced to pay fines on repeated occasions.

“The new Maldivian government must open the space for people to express themselves freely and without fear. It must also amend or repeal the Anti-Defamation and Freedom of Expression Act, bringing it into line with international human rights standards,” said Dinushika Dissanayake.

Guaranteeing freedom of peaceful assembly and association

Along with the right to freedom of expression, the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association came under sustained assault over the past five years in the Maldives.

On multiple occasions, largely peaceful demonstrations were met with the use of excessive force – including the use of rubber bullets, batons and tear-gas.

Mass arbitrary arrests took place in March earlier this year, when a state of emergency was imposed across the archipelago. In one single night, at least 141 people were taken into custody. This was the largest wave of mass arrests since the May Day rally in 2015, when hundreds of protestors were arrested.

“The right to freedom of peaceful assembly must be respected and protected at all times. In the event of violence, the authorities should use only the force necessary and proportionate to address it. Under international law, lethal force can only be used when unavoidable to protect against imminent threats to life and as a last resort. The new government must commit to reforms to end a culture of police brutality and impunity,” said Dinushika Dissanayake.

The cases of Yameen Rasheed and Rilwan

On 23 April 2017, the popular Maldivian blogger Yameen Rasheed was repeatedly stabbed to death. A year and a half later, there has been no effective investigation into his murder and no one has been held accountable for the murder.

Yameen Rasheed had faced multiple death threats before his murder. He reported these to the police, but no action was taken.

In 2014, Ahmed Rilwan, a blogger and a reporter for the Maldives Independent newspaper was abducted by unidentified assailants from outside his home. There has been no news of his fate or whereabouts since amid fears that he may have been forcibly disappeared.

In August 2018, two men suspected of kidnapping Rilwan were acquitted by a Maldivian criminal court. At the time, President Abdulla Yameen, when pressed for details of Rilwan’s fate, remarked that he was “undoubtedly dead”.

“The friends and loved ones of Yameen Rasheed and Rilwan have waited too long for justice. The new Maldivian government must commit to carrying out thorough, impartial, independent and effective investigations into the cases of Yameen Rasheed and Rilwan with a view to holding suspected perpetrators to account,” said Dinushika Dissanayake.

The death penalty

The Maldives has repeatedly threatened to implement the death penalty, a move that would break with the Indian Ocean island nation’s positive record of shunning this cruel and irreversible punishment for more than six decades.

Currently, three people on death row are at risk of being executed, including Hussain Humaam Ahmed, whose case involved the use of an apparently coerced “confession” that was later retracted.

“The Maldives should, once and for all, abolish the death penalty and commute the sentences of prisoners on death row. The move would be in line with global trends, where a majority of countries no longer execute people, but would also set an important example for the South Asia region, where all but two countries still keep this ultimate, cruel and degrading punishment on their books,” said Dinushika Dissanayake.