Maldives: NGO closure shows repression hasn’t gone away

The Maldivian government’s decision to shut down a widely-respected NGO shows that despite a change of government old patterns of repression have not gone away, Amnesty International said today.

The Maldivian Democracy Network (MDN) has been shut down by the authorities following a one month suspension of its operations. The closure comes against the backdrop of threats to the MDN’s staff, including its director, Shahinda Ismail, from religious hardliners.

“The new Maldivian government was supposed to mark a break with the island nation’s repressive past. The decision to shut down the MDN’s operations, however, show that time-worn tactics to intimidate human rights defenders and shrink space for civil society remain a threat,” said Dinushika Dissanayake, South Asia Research Director at Amnesty International.

The decision to shut down the MDN is supposedly a response to a 2015 report published by the NGO. The Maldivian government alleges that the report, “Preliminary Assessment of Radicalization in the Maldives”, insulted the Prophet Muhammad.

The MDN was one of the prominent NGOs speaking out against repression under former President Abdulla Yameen, who was voted out of office in November 2018. The new government, led by President Ibrahim Solih, includes former prisoners of conscience whose release Amnesty International and MDN campaigned for.

Maldives is a state party to several core human rights treaties, including the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Under its international obligations, Maldives must respect and protect freedom of expression, including where it is deemed offensive.

“The MDN is being punished for exercising its legitimate right to freedom of expression. The fact that a more than four -year-old report is being cited now as grounds to shut down the NGO raises suspicions as to the true motives behind this decision. Is the new government just as intolerant of critical voices as the one it replaced?” said Dinushika Dissanayake.

“The Maldivian authorities must immediately reverse this decision, investigate threats made against MDN staff, offer MDN staff protection, and create a tolerant and enabling environment that allows NGOs to continue their important work freely and without fear.”

Background

On 10 October 2019, the Maldivian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a press release saying that it had temporarily suspended the operations of the MDN. In a press release, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs alleged that the content of the 2015 report, “Preliminary Assessment of Radicalization in the Maldives” contained “content slandering Islam and the Prophet Mohamed (PBUH)”.

On 5 November 2019, the Maldivian Ministry of Youth, Sports and Community Empowerment – which regulates the activities of NGOs - issued a press release saying that it had decided to shut down the operations of MDN altogether.

The MDN is a non-partisan NGO that “promotes human rights” and the “values and principles of democracy”. Its mandate includes raising awareness, monitoring human rights violations, and advocacy.

The MDN’s reports over recent years have included research on police reforms, torture, threats to human rights defenders, threats to freedom of expression, disappearances, attacks on lawyers and other human rights issues.