Supporters of challenger Ibrahim Mohamed Solih celebrate his victory in the presidential election, Malé, Maldives, September 24, 2018.

© 2018 Eranga Jayawardena/AP Photo

(New York) – The Maldives saw new hope for human rights improvements during late 2018 after joint opposition candidate Ibrahim Mohamed Solih defeated President Yameen Abdul Gayoom by a wide margin in September, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2019. The new government took immediate steps to undo policies that eroded human rights protections, but should strengthen democratic institutions and reform the criminal justice system.

The Solih government has repealed laws criminalizing peaceful dissent, released wrongfully detained government critics, and established a commission to investigate the murders of a political activist and politician and the enforced disappearance of a prominent journalist. At the Maldives’ review before the United Nations Committee Against Torture in November, government officials pledged to criminalize marital rape and respect all obligations under the Convention against Torture. The government also agreed to restore a moratorium on the death penalty.

“In September, Maldivians voted overwhelmingly to reject autocratic government and infringement of their fundamental rights,” said Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director. “The new government has taken steps to restore the rule of law, but much more needs to be done to ensure that the rights of all Maldivians are protected.”

In the 674-page World Report 2019, its 29th edition, Human Rights Watch reviewed human rights practices in more than 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth says that the populists spreading hatred and intolerance in many countries are spawning a resistance. New alliances of rights-respecting governments, often prompted and joined by civic groups and the public, are raising the cost of autocratic excess. Their successes illustrate the possibility of defending human rights – indeed, the responsibility to do so – even in darker times.

Solih’s election followed a sharp deterioration in rights protections in the first half of 2018 after the Yameen government imposed a state of emergency for six weeks, arrested two Supreme Court justices, expanded its use of defamation and counterterrorism laws against its critics, and jailed scores of opposition activists. Gangs linked to prominent politicians and endorsing an Islamist ideology harassed and attacked the media and civil society groups, particularly those criticizing the government, promoting beliefs deemed un-Islamic, or promoting the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people.

“Solih has taken important steps toward restoring respect for human rights,” Gossman said. “It’s critical that his government undertake a robust reform process to end discrimination and strengthen accountability in all the Maldives’s justice institutions.”