2019 in review – Maldives: Stalled promises to uphold human rights

Unfulfilled government promises, harsh prison conditions, scattered criminal justice reform and attacks on the country’s human rights defenders characterized 2019 for Maldives, Amnesty International said as the human rights organization released its annual report on events in the Asia-Pacific region.

Human Rights in Asia-Pacific: Review of 2019 published today by Amnesty International delivers the most comprehensive analysis of the state of human rights in the world’s largest continent.

For the Maldives, while the government took steps to address the effects of climate change and made some progress on investigations into past attacks on journalists and activists, it largely failed to deliver on its commitments to uphold freedom of expression, reduce overcrowding in prisons and deliver justice to the families of disappeared and slain journalists.

“Election promises from the Maldivian government from 2018 remained largely unrealized by the end of the year. The authorities must follow through on their commitments and demonstrate their willingness to respect, protect and fulfil human rights for all,” said Biraj Patnaik, South Asia Director at Amnesty International.

The new Maldivian government was supposed to mark a break with the country’s repressive past

Biraj Patnaik

Prison conditions remained inhumane

Prisoners in the Maldives continued to suffer harsh treatment and conditions, including not being allowed out of their cells for exercise during the day and prison overcrowding. There was at least one incident where prison authorities used excessive force against a prisoner.

In June, the government promised to improve conditions in the overcrowded Maafushi prison in the Kaafu Atoll administrative division following media reports of torture and other ill-treatment of inmates. The government said it had ordered a prison investigation into the incidents. The parliamentary Committee on Human Rights and Gender also launched its own investigation.

“The cruel, inhuman and degrading conditions within which prisoners have been confined are a stain on the Maldivian justice system. No human being should be treated in this way, which is all the more reason why a thorough investigation into conditions of detention must be launched promptly by the Maldivian authorities,” said Biraj Patnaik.

Mixed record on human rights commitments

There was some limited progress by the government appointed Commission on Deaths and Disappearances into prominent cases of attacks on journalists and activists. The government failed, however, to identify suspects responsible for the 2014 disappearance of journalist Ahmed Rilwan in 2014. The trial of six men accused of the 2017 murder of blogger Yameen Rasheed was subject to constant delays.

A broad overhaul of the justice system, which saw the replacement of the Chief Justice and other judges amid corruption allegations, saw the appointment of two women judges to the Supreme Court despite pressure from religious clerics. However, the number of women representatives in parliament fell – only six out of 85 parliamentarians were women.

Seven officers out of the 11 of the Drug Enforcement Department were transferred to other departments, demoted and their most recently awarded disciplinary colour or medal revoked, after a video was released showing police brutality, including an attack on a 36-year-old foreign national in the capital, Malé. The other four officers are facing an investigation.

Human rights defenders under assault

Human rights defenders were targeted and subjected to verbal attacks including hate speech and death threats. In August, the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, an NGO, said it had information about at least 15 human rights defenders and activists – including journalists, lawyers, and NGO workers – who had been repeatedly harassed and subjected to online threats since November 2018.

In November, the Maldivian Democracy Network was shut down by authorities, under pressure from religious hardliners and an opposition party, for a 2015 report published by the human rights group. The authorities deemed that the report ‘insulted’ the Prophet Muhammed and decided to shut down a widely-respected NGO, showing that old patterns of state repression had not gone away.

“The new Maldivian government was supposed to mark a break with the country’s repressive past. Time-worn tactics to intimidate human rights defenders and shrink space for civil society found fresh ground in the island nation, and we hope that in 2020, they won’t,” said Biraj Patnaik.