Cease harassment of human rights defenders, establish accountability for abuses, and free all political prisoners

30/05/2018
Dossier

(Paris) Maldivian authorities must cease the harassment of human rights defenders (HRDs), establish accountability for human rights violations, and release all political prisoners in the country, FIDH urged today. The call was made following a mission conducted by FIDH to assess the human rights situation in the Maldives, including the challenges faced by HRDs.

During the four-day mission, from 16 to 19 April 2018, FIDH met with a variety of civil society actors, including activists, journalists, lawyers, and families of individuals who were detained during the State of Emergency (SoE) in the Maldives. [1]

FIDH expresses its deepest concern over the serious deterioration of human rights and the extremely limited space for civil society in the Maldives. All interlocutors expressed their concern that the human rights situation was not likely to improve in the lead-up to the next Presidential elections, scheduled to be held in September 2018.

FIDH calls on the international community to demand the Maldivian government adhere to the country’s obligations under the various international human rights treaties to which the Maldives is a state party.

Below is a summary of the main issues of concern that emerged during the mission.

Situation of HRDs precarious

The situation of HRDs in the Maldives remains extremely precarious. Frequent harassment by the authorities, coupled with threats and intimidation by pro-government elements as well as self-professed defenders of Islam, contributes to a hostile and dangerous environment for HRDs. This difficult environment is compounded by severe challenges in accessing funding for NGOs, primarily because of the very limited pool of donors funding human rights activities in the Maldives and the relative geographic isolation of the Maldives.

It was reported that most HRDs in the Maldives were subjected to surveillance and monitoring by the authorities. The use of criminal gangs to conduct surveillance was also reported. Considering high-profile cases of bloggers, lawyers, and activists who have been physically targeted after receiving online threats, a disturbing trend is rapidly emerging in which online attacks, if left unchecked by the authorities, could fuel further physical attacks against HRDs.

Since the imposition of the SoE, at least one HRD had to seek temporary relocation abroad as a result of ongoing threats and harassment. In recent years, at least three high-profile bloggers left the Maldives and sought asylum in third countries. HRDs reported they made contingency plans to move some of their operations (including web hosting) overseas.

One common concern reported to FIDH was the rising threat posed by radical elements who, under the guise of defending Islam, have been consistently targeting HRDs, particularly through social media.

The growing and unchecked trend of the radical interpretation of Islamic values and principles has created a difficult environment for many segments of society (particularly women), has greatly limited the right to freedom of expression, and has been deliberately used to target HRDs. It has led to a climate of fear that has inhibited many forms of activism, including any possible work with regard to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) rights. As one interlocutor put it, “If I exposed my religious beliefs, people will start coming with the knives and attack [me].”

‘Siru Arts’, a Facebook page set up and maintained to expose anything allegedly un-Islamic, has been profiling various HRDs, bloggers, journalists, and politicians and labelled them as enemies of Islam and “irreligious.” The posts on the page attract numerous comments that, in some cases, contain direct threats and hate speech. [2] Despite numerous attempts to report abusive content to both Facebook and the authorities, no action has been taken so far.

In one case, legal provisions purportedly designed to protect Islam were abused to target a prominent Maldivian woman human rights defender (WHRD). During the FIDH mission, Ms. Shahindha Ismail, the Director of the local NGO Maldivian Democracy Network (MDN), was the target of judicial harassment. On 17 April 2018, Ms. Ismail was called in by police to give a statement in relation to a charge filed against her under Article 617 (4) of the Penal Code. This provision criminalizes “attempting to disrupt the religious unity of the citizens of Maldives, and conversing and acting in a manner likely to cause religious segregation among people.” In January 2018, Ms. Ismail had already been charged under Article 617 (1) and (2) of the Penal Code. These provisions make engaging “in religious oration and criticism of Islam in public or in a public medium with the intention to cause disregard for Islam” and the production, sale, distribution, or offer of “material criticizing Islam with the intention to cause disregard to Islam” criminal offenses.

Lawyers under pressure

Lawyers interviewed by FIDH unanimously decried the arbitrary interpretation and enforcement of laws, rules, and regulations and noted that existing rules and regulations were often changed at the whim of authorities, anytime, without notice.

Lawyers interviewed by FIDH agreed that the absence of a Bar Council was an obstacle to their work. They reported authorities had thwarted various attempts to establish a self-governing and independent body to regulate their profession. Authorities also prevented the formation of associations that aimed at giving lawyers a collective voice, drafting proposed legislation, and raising issues related to judicial reform. In a recent case, the Law Council of Maldives - a lawyers’ organization - has been awaiting registration since October 2017.

Lawyers had the perception that authorities considered them as a threat to the judiciary and an obstruction to the work of law enforcement agencies. They reported being subjected to surveillance through phone tapping. Some lawyers had their mobile phones confiscated by police without any warrants. In addition, one case was reported of the secret recording of conversations between attorneys and their clients in the Dhoonidhoo detention center.

Lawyers have been subjected to frequent politically motivated suspension of their licenses, some of them multiple times and for prolonged periods of time. Lawyers reported that multiple authorities, such as the Department of Judicial Administration, the Supreme Court, and the Criminal Court, had acted to suspend lawyers’ licenses. Often, no reasons were given for the suspensions and no communications were issued. In some cases, lawyers learned of their suspension from social media.

Lawyers reported being regularly threatened and intimidated by the authorities and government supporters through social media, particularly Twitter. By contrast, in some cases, authorities suspended the license of lawyers who had exercised their right to freedom of opinion and expression through social media. Lawyers reported that the government monitored their social media account and recorded their online activities.

Journalists under attack amid widespread self-censorship

Journalists interviewed by FIDH complained about deteriorating press freedom in the Maldives. They reported increased arrests and physical attacks by police against journalists who covered political developments during the SoE, repeated threats by the authorities to close down independent and pro-opposition news outlets, and a growing trend of reporters facing legal action in connection with their work. [3] Interlocutors reported that the government and the ruling party resorted to frequent anti-media rhetoric borrowed from US President Donald Trump, including labelling independent and pro-opposition news outlets as “fake news media.” Journalists also reported receiving anonymous death threats through phone calls but said they were reluctant to report such acts of intimidation to the police to avoid further negative repercussions.

Journalists voiced concern about the Defamation and Freedom of Expression Act, which has been used to target and impose heavy fines on a journalist and the pro-opposition Raajje TV (RTV) since its enactment in August 2016. Journalists reported that this law affected the way news was being reported. In many cases, journalists resorted to self-censorship and inserted frequent disclaimers to avoid prosecutions under the Act. The Maldives Broadcasting Commission (MBC), the body designated to regulate TV broadcasts, is responsible for imposing fines on violators of the Act. Its members are appointed by the President, and journalists interviewed by FIDH said the body was dominated by ruling party loyalists who did “whatever they could to control the broadcasts.”

Journalists were also concerned about the Media Commission Bill, a piece of legislation introduced in Parliament in October 2017. If approved, this law would bring all media outlets (TV, online, and print) under a single new body, the Maldives Media Commission. This body would replace the Maldives Media Council, an independent body that is responsible for the oversight of print and online media, and the MBC. Journalists fear that the creation of the Maldives Media Commission, whose seven members are appointed by the President, would expand government controls over print and online media.

In addition, a regulation enacted in January 2018 imposed a prohibitive requirement for news editors to have a degree in journalism and at least five years of work experience as journalists with a registered media organization in order to be able to operate in the country. Journalists feared that this measure, which is expected to come into effect in late 2019, will have a negative impact on the ability of many small local news outlets to operate.

Journalists also complained that in the current repressive environment fewer people were willing to talk to journalists about any sensitive topics. Sources, particularly those who worked in the public administration, were afraid to reveal any information to the media for fear of reprisals.

It was reported that foreign journalists faced increasing difficulties in the Maldives as well. Following the declaration of the SoE, several foreign reporters were prevented from travelling to the country to cover political developments. Some of them were not granted visas, while others were not allowed to operate on a tourist visa.

Limited space for civil society to operate

Civil society members interviewed by FIDH decried a very limited space for civil society, compounded by severe restrictions on the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and the right to freedom of association. Threats and harassment by pro-government elements through social media (particularly Twitter) were common complaints reported to FIDH.

With regard to the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, a common complaint was the use of unnecessary force by police, including the use of pepper spray, to disperse peaceful protestors. Interlocutors reported a consistent pattern of double standards in the application of laws and regulations governing the policing of assembly. While security forces provided protection to participants to pro-government rallies, they repeatedly attacked and used violence against peaceful activists and opposition supporters. During peaceful anti-government demonstrations in February and March 2018, protestors were injured and were denied immediate access to medical care. It was also reported that there had been cases in which the government had forced civil servants and employees of state-owned companies to attend pro-ruling party rallies.

Activists also decried that authorities have consistently refused to engage with civil society and listen to their grievances. This included the government’s failure to conduct meaningful consultation with communities affected by infrastructure and investment projects. This is of particular concern in the context of the Maldives’ fragile ecosystem.

With regard to the right to freedom of association, civil society complained about undue delays and obstacles in the registration process for NGOs. In some cases, the Ministry of Home Affairs, which oversees the registration process for domestic NGOs, stalled the application process for NGOs and requested they change their mandate and/or their name to ensure registration. [4]

Regular warnings of dissolution have been sent by the authorities to NGOs that they would face de-registration if they failed to comply with administrative requirements (i.e. timely submission of their annual narrative and financial reports). One NGO was recently de-registered without warning after it called for the implementation of the Supreme Court ruling on 3 February 2018 [See below, At least 29 political prisoners remain detained].

Detention conditions significantly deteriorated

With regard to detention conditions, individuals interviewed by FIDH believed that in recent months the situation had dramatically deteriorated - a reflection of the worsening human rights situation in the country. “Degrading treatment in detention is becoming the norm,” one relative of a former detainee told FIDH. Most detainees were held in Maafushi prison on Kaafu Atoll, south of the capital Malé, and in the Dhoonidhoo detention center on Dhoonidhoo Island, north of the capital Malé.

Arbitrary detentions have been pervasive since the declaration of the SoE. Before the SoE, prisoners were afforded certain rights. However, as a result of the suspension of safeguards contained in the Constitution and the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC) during the SoE, individuals could be arrested and detained without any obligation for the authorities to inform them of their charges and to bring them before a judge within 24 hours.

Relatives of former detainees all concurred on the arbitrary application of laws, rules, and regulations that govern conditions in places of detention. In many cases, authorities also invoked rules, regulations, and police protocols that overrode laws. In some cases, the conduct of authorities may have amounted to a violation of certain provisions of the 2013 Anti-Torture Act. It was also reported that the National Human Rights Commission of the Maldives (NHRCM) did not effectively investigate and address complaints of torture and ill-treatment of detainees.

FIDH received consistent and credible reports of denial of adequate medical care in both the Dhoonidhoo detention center and Maafushi prison. Denial of adequate medical care for some detainees extended to medical procedures that are only available outside of the Maldives. In addition, it was reported that tablets and pills were often administered without specifying what type of medicine it was.

In the Dhoonidhoo detention center, prisoners are not separated based on the nature of the crime of which they have been accused. According to relatives of individuals detained during the SoE, there was no natural sunlight in cells and lights were kept on all night. Generally, no fans or ventilation were available.

Concerns were raised by relatives of former prisoners over the inadequate provision of drinking water. Prisoners were left with no alternative than to drink water from the toilet in the cell, which was said to be unsafe. Food was not of good quality and prisoners complained of health issues (i.e. allergies, gastric problems) as a result. Poor hygienic conditions often resulted in skin allergies, infections, and other diseases for detainees. Prisoners had to share the few razors, trimmers, and nail clippers available.

Relatives said they faced unreasonable obstacles to provide assistance to their detained family members, including restrictions on the delivery of medicine and other items, such books and reading material.

Visitation rights were also either denied or severely limited. This included increasing difficulties faced by lawyers to visit their clients. Family members were generally allowed weekly visits but communications with detainees were limited to phone conversations through a glass, which were regularly monitored by prison officers. Lawyers also complained about lack of privacy during visits to inmates, with prison officers closely monitoring conversations between lawyers and clients.

While changes to the rules related to prison visits must be published in the official gazette before they are implemented, it was reported that on 13 February 2018, police announced that, effective immediately, lawyers were only allowed to visit their clients for 30 minutes per day.

Punishment of detainees usually took the form of withholding of medicines and denial of phone calls and visits. Relatives said they were not aware of any complaint mechanisms available for detainees. They reported prison authorities were usually unresponsive to letters and petitions they submitted and said official forms and administrative procedures were unreasonably complicated.

Reports of arbitrary changes and application of rules and regulations extended to Maafushi prison. Conjugal visits, normally allowed once a month, were suspended during the imposition of the SoE. Authorities also progressively reduced the length of conjugal visits, from the standard 24 hours to one hour. In some cases, visits were canceled at the last minute, even after relatives had already reached the prison. Bureaucratic delays by the authorities also meant that receiving authorizations for visits in Maafushi prison could take up to several days.

With regard to women detainees, FIDH received reports that politically active women had been subjected to invasive strip searches upon being detained. Interlocutors believed these practices were a deliberate attempt by the authorities to demoralize them and to discourage them from continuing their activism.

At least 29 political prisoners remain detained

As of 29 May 2018, at least 29 political prisoners remained behind bars in the Maldives. [5] They included the country’s former President and former Vice-President, the Supreme Court’s Chief Justice, several opposition leaders, six Members of Parliament (MPs), and eight police officers that sought to enforce a ruling by the Supreme Court, which on 1 February 2018 overturned the convictions of nine opposition politicians, and ordered their release.

The detention of former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who was arrested on 5 February 2018 on spurious charges of terrorism for conspiring to overthrow the government, raises particular concerns. The 80-year-old former President is currently detained in the Dhoonidhoo detention center. There are serious concerns regarding Mr. Gayoom’s health that are related to his old age and the fact that a doctor advised that he should not be alone because he is suffering from an unspecified medical condition that makes him dizzy and prone to falling.

While he was allowed to receive visits by relatives once a week and his relatives were allowed to deliver medicine to him, Mr. Gayoom spent 44 days behind bars without being brought before a judge. Lawyers have unsuccessfully petitioned for Mr. Gayoom to be placed under house arrest, pending trial.

Mr. Gayoom’s case is also emblematic of a trend of politically motivated detentions that involved family members of political figures who are the main target of the crackdown. Mr. Gayoom was arrested along his son, MP Faris Maumoon, and his son-in-law, Mohamed Nadheem. In another case, the wife of an MP was arrested in order to pressure her husband to turn himself in.

Judiciary not independent, unfair trials, pervasive impunity

Human rights defenders, lawyers, and members of civil society all expressed a lack of confidence in the judiciary, which they described as not independent from the executive branch, despite specific provisions in the 2008 constitution that guarantee its independence.

Lawyers and families of defendants also reported an increased occurrence of secret trials and said that hearings held behind closed doors had “become the norm.” They denounced the apparent double standard between some terrorism-related trials, which had been held in open courts, and trials against political figures, which have been held behind closed doors. “Judges don’t want others to see what they are doing,” one lawyer told FIDH.

Impunity for threats, acts of intimidation, and other serious human rights abuses against HRDs, activists, and other civil society actors were cited by many of the interlocutors interviewed by FIDH as a key element that contributed to the deteriorating human rights situation in the Maldives.

In this regard, the FIDH mission took place in the days leading up to the one-year anniversary of the killing of prominent independent blogger Yameen Rasheed. Rasheed died on 23 April 2017 of injuries sustained in a brutal attack in which he was stabbed more than 30 times by unknown assailants in the stairwell of his apartment building in Malé. During its mission, FIDH was informed about several disturbing aspects and developments related to this case.

For many years, Rasheed received numerous death threats for publishing posts on his satirical blog that criticized the government, revealed instances of corruption, and exposed rising Islamic extremism. Most of the threats Rasheed received were made through social media. On Twitter, at least two individuals openly threatened to kill him. He was also labelled “irreligious” because of satirical comments about religions. Despite these serious acts of intimidation, police consistently failed to adequately investigate the threats and to provide protection to Rasheed.

Questions were also raised concerning the investigation into Rasheed’s murder. Rasheed’s family claimed that evidence from the crime scene might have been overlooked. The fact that several international offers of assistance in the investigation were rejected and that the Major Crime Management Center (a specialized police branch) decided not to investigate Rasheed’s murder reflect a lack of political will on the part of the authorities to resolve the case.

Lack of transparency marred the investigation and the criminal proceeding related to the case. After holding three meetings during the first two months following Rasheed’s murder, police never again updated the family members, showed hostility towards them, and repeatedly failed to respond to their queries. While seven men suspected of being involved in Rasheed’s murder remain detained, all six hearings held until 18 April 2018 in connection with Rasheed’s murder occurred behind closed doors and even Rasheed’s family was barred from attending. The trial of the seven is ongoing.

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