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Maldives’ former President Mohamed Nasheed and current President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih take part in an election rally ahead of parliamentary polls, Malé, February 1, 2019. © 2019 Ahmed Shurau/AFP via Getty Images

(New York) – The Maldives government began to address longstanding human rights concerns in 2019, but yielded to pressure from extremist religious groups to crack down on free expression, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2020.

President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih did little to prevent extremist groups from exerting influence over the police, courts, and other government institutions, or to stop threats to human rights defenders.

“President Solih entered office promising to restore basic rights, yet he has been unwilling to stand up to extremist elements that threaten those rights,” said Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government has taken some steps to prosecute past abuses, but greater determination is needed to tackle entrenched problems in the justice system.”

In the 652-page World Report 2020, its 30th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in nearly 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth says that the Chinese government, which depends on repression to stay in power, is carrying out the most intense attack on the global human rights system in decades. He finds that Beijing’s actions both encourage and gain support from autocratic populists around the globe, while Chinese authorities use their economic clout to deter criticism from other governments. It is urgent to resist this assault, which threatens decades of progress on human rights and our future. 

On November 5, 2019, the government yielded to pressure from Islamist groups and political opposition figures, including former President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom, and ordered the dissolution of the Maldivian Democracy Network (MDN), the country’s leading human rights organization. The group and its staff faced threats for a 2015 report on radicalization, published during the previous government, which Islamist groups claimed included language insulting Islam.

The government-appointed Commission on Deaths and Disappearances made some progress in its investigations into past attacks on activists and journalists. The commission accused local extremist groups of the crimes but also implicated police and politicians in shielding the attackers from prosecution. However, the government did not indict any government officials for their roles in assisting the crimes or failing to investigate them. The trial of six men accused of fatally stabbing blogger Yameen Rasheed in 2017 was delayed repeatedly. No one was arrested for the 2014 disappearance and suspected murder of Ahmed Rilwan, a journalist. 

Gangs that endorse a violent Islamist ideology, including some linked to prominent politicians, threaten human rights defenders, journalists, and civil society groups. Targets during 2019 included people who promoted freedom of expression and religion, published material deemed offensive to Islam, or backed the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people.

Despite the government’s pledges to strengthen judicial independence, politicians and gangs exercised influence over the courts. In a landmark vote on September 3, the parliament defied opposition from religious clerics to confirm the first two female justices of the Maldives Supreme Court. The Judicial Service Commission opened an investigation into sexual harassment in courts after a string of recent complaints against members of the judiciary.

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