Police officers detain an opposition protester demanding the release of political prisoners during a demonstration in Malé, Maldives, February 2, 2018. 

© 2018 Mohamed Sharuhaan/AP Photo

(New York) – The Maldives government’s intimidation of the political opposition and media threatens prospects for free and fair elections in September 2018, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The government of this Indian Ocean archipelago has also interfered with the judiciary and the national electoral commission in order to tighten its grip on power.

“The Maldives government has cracked down on any and all dissent, from activists and journalists to Supreme Court judges,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Immediate steps are needed to restore political freedoms and democratic rule to ensure free and fair elections in September.”

The 52-page report, “‘An All-Out Assault on Democracy’: Crushing Dissent in the Maldives,” documents how the government of President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom has used decrees and broad, vaguely worded laws to silence dissent and intimidate, arbitrarily arrest, and imprison critics. These include counterterrorism laws widely used against opposition activists and politicians; anti-defamation laws used against the media and social media activists; and restrictions on assembly that prevent peaceful rallies and protests. Religious extremists and criminal gangs – including many that enjoy political protection – have assaulted and sometimes murdered dissenters with impunity. This has had crippling effects on the Maldives’ nascent democracy and struggling civil society.

The United Nations and key international partners should call upon Yameen to end repressive measures that have eroded fundamental human rights, including freedom of association, expression, peaceful assembly, and political participation, Human Rights Watch said.

President Yameen should not believe that he can crush dissent and manipulate the elections without international censure.

Brad Adams

Asia Director

Ahead of the elections scheduled for September 23, the Maldives government should take urgent steps to end politically motivated abuses against the opposition, journalists, activists, and judges. For elections to be free and fair, they need to be held in an environment free from coercion, discrimination, or intimidation of voters, candidates, and political parties, Human Rights Watch said.

In February, Yameen declared a state of emergency to annul a Supreme Court ruling that quashed the convictions of nine opposition leaders. Those leaders include former President Mohamed Nasheed, who in 2015 was convicted in a trial that violated due process standards and sentenced to 13 years in prison. Two Supreme Court justices were arrested on politically motivated charges after rulings that favored the opposition. The Yameen government has also issued decrees through the Election Commission blocking opposition leaders from contesting elections. The authorities jailed opposition leaders under vague provisions of the Anti-Terrorism Act, restricted protests, and arrested peaceful protesters. Under international pressure, Yameen lifted the state of emergency on March 22, 2018.

The Maldives government should drop all prosecutions for the peaceful exercising of basic rights, including criminal investigations and terrorism charges brought against individuals for their criticism of the government, and end politically motivated arrests and detention, Human Rights Watch said.

Screenshot of a now deleted tweet from December 23, 2011, to blogger Yameen Rasheed, reads: “@yaamyn the blood of disbelievers like you is halal for all Maldivian Muslim citizens!”

Extremist groups in the Maldives, often endorsing violent ultra-nationalist or Islamist ideology, have harassed and attacked media outlets and civil society groups with impunity. They have targeted those who criticize the government on social media, publish material they deem as offensive to Islam, promote the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people, or support other political causes they oppose. There has also been a rise in violent attacks on journalists, most notably the near-fatal stabbing of Ismail Hilath Rasheed in 2012; the disappearance of Maldives Independent journalist Ahmed Rilwan in August 2014; and the murder of blogger Yameen Rasheed in April 2017. Police have been slow to investigate these threats and attacks, which have had a chilling effect on speech. At a campaign rally on August 7, 2018, President Yameen, who has repeatedly refused to meet with Rilwan’s family, declared that the journalist was dead – a claim he retracted and apologized for after coming under criticism. On August 2, after the Maldives criminal court acquitted two men of abducting Rilwan, the judge called the police and prosecution negligent, careless, and said they had failed to conduct a thorough investigation.

Human Rights Watch called on concerned governments to press the Maldives to protect the rights to peaceful expression and assembly. If the Maldives government fails to ease restrictions, key actors should support targeted sanctions against senior ruling party officials, as the European Union has proposed.

“President Yameen should not believe that he can crush dissent and manipulate the elections without international censure,” Adams said. “His government needs to act quickly if the Maldives’ donors are going to take the elections seriously.”