Maldives: A flicker of hope amidst a turbulent year for human rights
When the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR) was proclaimed on 10 December 1948, the world was a dark place. With the brutality of World War II fresh in their minds, members representing the state parties before the United Nations were adamant that human dignity be one of the pillars on which global recognition of human rights would be built in. The preamble to the UDHR unequivocally recognizes that the inherent dignity, equality and inalienability of human rights is “the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world”. In 2018, 70 years since the proclamation of the UDHR, many people around the world still find their human dignity torn down and brutalized. Today, just as then, many think is hard to believe that there can be hope; hope for a world where the rights and dignity of all human beings is universally protected.
However, as 2018 draws to an end, that hope is still being kept alive despite the attempts across the globe to recede, denigrate and destroy the commitments to human rights that the world committed to 70 years ago. One flicker of that hope is coming from the Maldives, an archipelago in the Indian Ocean.
In the Maldives, the year 2018 began with violent attempts to reverse the nation’s commitments to human rights and human dignity. In the preceding years, human rights violations allegedly committed by or at the behest of state agencies were ignored, and impunity was rife; the murder of blogger Yameen, the abduction of journalist Rilwan, and the as many as ten deaths in custody since August 2016 were some of the most egregious violations that showed us the dire state of human rights in the country. Human rights violations appeared to have no chance of being investigated let alone prosecuted, when then President of the Maldives, Abdulla Yameen, declared a state of emergency in February 2018. Prompted by a decision of the Supreme Court to free nine convicted politicians, the President declared a state of emergency and arrested the Chief Justice Abdulla Saeed along with Ali Hameed, another judge of the Supreme Court. This resulted in the remaining judges of the Supreme Court reversing the decision in an act of repression by the government to silence political opposition. Mass protests in the Maldives were promptly met with further repression and arbitrary arrests of peaceful protestors. In the weeks that followed, others were arrested including Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, former President of the Maldives, as well as his son and legislator Faris Maumoon.
To be arrested in the Maldives is to literally deliver your life into the hands of the police and prison officials. According to the Committee Experts in the UN Committee against Torture, Maldives has the seventh highest incarceration rate (assumed to be a reference to per capita rating). With as many as ten deaths of prisoners in custody since 2016, several of these deaths are allegedly due to delays in providing medical care or due to unknown causes. As recently as 4 July 2018, Hamzath Ahmed Fathuhy a Maldivian man died of a stroke while incarcerated at Maafushi prison, the 10th reported case of custodial death since 2016. He was 38 years old. He is alleged to have been shown to a doctor at the prison, but was taken to hospital only five hours later.
Just two days before his death, on 2 July 2018, Ali Abdulla died in custody, also of unknown causes. He suffered from high blood pressure and a congenital heart problem. He had complained to his family that he was denied access to medical care, and had asked his family to provide medical care to him the day before he died. He was 30 years old. While previous prison deaths, like the case of Abdulla Rasheed in 2017, have prompted investigations by the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives, these reports and any results of the investigations have not been publicly available. In 2009, the report of the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment to the Maldives raised a number of human rights concerns related to prisoners, including that decisions on whether a detainee is seen by a medical doctor were determined by those who had no medical training. Previously in May 2007, the UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, Leandro Despouy, in his report, had also highlighted the poor access to medical facilities for prisoners.
This was the context in which the Presidential elections took place in September 2018. The election results offered a new space for human rights in the country. President Ibrahim Solih was elected after campaigning on a series of promises to uphold human rights, including to release prisoners detained for political reasons upon his election to office. Within a week of his election, Former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and his son Faris Maumoon, were released on bail. The conviction of former President Nasheed on terror charges under the previous regime was also suspended in October 2018 and the conviction was then quashed by the Supreme Court just a month after.
In November 2018 we also saw with relief the release of a young Sri Lankan man, Lahiru Madhushanka by the Criminal Court. He was imprisoned for three years in the Maldives on charges of conspiring to assassinate former President Yameen, along with former Vice President Adeeb and several others. Madhushanka alleges he had been subjected to torture and other ill-treatment, including prolonged solitary confinement and denial of access to medical care. He returned to Sri Lanka after he was freed on 22 November 2018, with all charges against him having been withdrawn for lack of evidence. However, Madhushanka is just one of over a thousand individuals who remain deprived of their liberty in the Maldives.
The new government faces a number of challenges in reforming both the criminal justice system and the prisons, and there is hope that this will be one of the first projects of the administration given the manner in which the opposition was jailed or exiled over the last number of years. In November 2018, the Maldives pledged before the UN Committee against Torture that it would uphold the 65 year moratorium on the death penalty, which President Yameen had been threatening to end, as well as to “review the question of the abolition of the death penalty very carefully, raise the age of criminal responsibility to 18, and enforce and implement with full effect several laws relating to gender-based violence and discrimination.
The Maldives ends the year 2018 as a sure sign of hope for human rights and human dignity. It not only challenges a concerning trend of assaults on human rights in a number of countries in the South Asian region, including India, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan to name a few, it also sends a message to these large and powerful nations that hope is still possible and human rights can still emerge victorious. While human rights continue to be challenged by many governments who are leading an assault based on the politics of demonization, the Maldives can truly set the pace for hope. While the challenges before President Ibu Solih are not easy, the path of reform is clear, and the steps thus far taken show signs of a commitment to human rights and dignity that must be expanded in order to bring the country out of half a decade of continuous deterioration of the human rights situation.
Written by Dinushika Dissanayake, Deputy South Asia Director at Amnesty International.