"I don’t think the Maldives is safe for me anymore" Interview with Ismail Hilath Rasheed, blogger and human rights defender

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On 7th February 2012, the first democratically elected President of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, resigned following a police mutiny; he was replaced by a coalition Government headed by his former Vice-President Mohamed Waheed. Mass demonstrations took place from 8th February onwards demanding early elections. Human rights violations and impunity has prevailed in recent months.

Ismail Hilath Rasheed is a blogger (http://www.hilath.com), human rights defender and LGBT activist from the Maldives. He was stabbed in the neck on 4th June 2012 by radical Islamists. He had already been attacked in December 2011 and May 2012 for holding a peaceful demonstration in support of religious tolerance. In addition, he was detained by the authorities from 10th December 2011 to 8th January 2012 for “his own safety”. His blog has been blocked by the Ministry of Religious Affairs.

FIDH: Good morning. Could you introduce yourself?

Hilath Rasheed: My name is Hilath Rasheed. I am a journalist from the Maldives and I have been blogging for more than 10 years now because there are some issues that are not covered by the mainstream media, because [what we say] is supposed to be politically and religiously sensitive.

FIDH: Could you describe what happened to you in June 2012?

HR: On the evening of June 4th, as I was entering my home when 3 young men held me from behind and one of them took a box cutter and slashed my throat. I was given less than a 1% chance of survival by the hospital, but somehow I survived. Later I found out that these 3 attackers belonged to an extremist religious group in the Maldives.

FIDH: Why did they attack you?

HR: The first sensitive case that I wrote about on my blog in July 2009 was about a child concubine kept by an extremist in Malé. The case came to light because she was only 14 when she became pregnant and was hospitalized. I started getting death threats after reporting it on my blog. I was later attacked 3 times: on 10th December [2011], in May [2012] and finally in June [2012].

FIDH: Do you think you can get justice?

HR: The present government of Dr Mohamed Waheed came to power with the help of Islamic extremists. I have seen some of my attackers behind police lines with media passes during protests in which police brutalized protestors, so I don’t think the government is serious or can prosecute these people because these Islamic extremists are now part of the government. Therefore, I don’t think I can get justice. This is why I had to escape the Maldives. I don’t think the Maldives is safe for me anymore and I don’t think the Government will prosecute the attackers.

FIDH: Is it safe to be a journalist in Maldives?

HR: It is only safe to be a journalist in the Maldives if you practice self-censorship and don’t talk about sensitive issues. I don’t believe there is freedom of expression in the Maldives now. I think the whole democratic process has been reversed. We are now back to the days of Gayoom’s dictatorship [former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, 1978-2008], something similar or worse, in light of recent police brutality against innocent peaceful protesters whose only mistake is sitting down in front of places in protest.

FIDH: Why are they protesting?

HR: They are asking for freedom, justice and transparent governance.

FIDH: What are your plans now?

HR: I have decided not to return to the Maldives until we have truly free and fair elections, until we have a democratic government, and until we have an independent and capable judiciary to deliver justice to me and others who have been wronged. I am continuing my activism from abroad. I keep blogging daily about issues in the Maldives.

FIDH: How can the international community help?

HR: Every day we have peaceful demonstrations in the Maldives. Whenever you go to public places in Malé you can see groups of people demonstrating. Every weekend, there is a bigger demonstration, thousands of people getting together. The protests will go on. This is a very important time for the international community to closely monitor and support the Maldivian democratic process to help it resume once again. I say this because I believe that after February 7th the Maldivian democratic process regressed and we need to begin all over again. What we achieved in 2008, with the first election of a democratic leader has all been reversed. It is very important that the international community supports the Maldives in its efforts to restore democracy to the islands.

For more information, see FIDH report: “From Sunrise to Sunset: Maldives backtracking on democracy”.

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