Maldives President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih addresses the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly, September 24, 2019.  © 2019 AP Photo/Richard Drew

(New York) –Groups that endorse violent ultra-nationalist or Islamist ideology have tried to shut down a leading women’s rights organization in the Maldives since mid-June 2020, and have threatened other activist groups, Human Rights Watch said today. But the Maldives government has failed to act against these groups.

The government of President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih should investigate and appropriately prosecute those responsible for harassment, intimidation, or assault, instead of appeasing these groups.

“Islamist extremist groups that are a relic of the previous abusive government persist in their threats and violence against pro-democracy activists,” said Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Solih administration should demonstrate a firm commitment to free expression by taking action against those attacking it.” 

Recently, extremist groups – called “gangs” in the Maldives – opened a social media campaign demanding the government ban Uthema, the country’s main women’s rights organization. The women’s rights group had published a report assessing the Maldives government’s adherence to its obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Proponents of this campaign have accused Uthema of being anti-Islam.

A similar campaign by extremist groups in November 2019 prompted the Solih government to shut down the Maldivian Democracy Network (MDN), the country’s leading human rights organization. Islamist gangs had accused MDN of insulting Islam in a 2015 report on radicalization in the Maldives.

Islamist extremists in the Maldives have long used social media to target activists who promote the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people, or publish material and support causes that are deemed “offensive” to Islam. Some of these gangs have links to prominent politicians, and have assaulted and murdered activists with impunity.

A government-appointed commission investigating deaths and enforced disappearances in the Maldives found that criminal gang leaders planned and carried out several murders of prominent activists.

Ahmed Rilwan, an outspoken journalist who uncovered political corruption and its links to Islamist extremism, disappeared in 2014. He was murdered by a group affiliated to al-Qaeda, said the commission president, Husnu Suood. Yameen Rasheed, a blogger and social media activist known for his satirical political commentaries, was stabbed to death in 2017.

The commission also concluded that the al-Qaeda-linked gang had a “hit list” that included other activists and critics of the government. On June 22, 2020, commission members told the parliament speaker that they were unable to proceed any further with the investigations. Suood had previously warned that the criminal justice system was protecting religious extremists and their criminal acts.

The government’s failure to curb threats of violence and prosecute extremist group leaders has had a chilling effect on civil society, Human Rights Watch said. Social justice organizations have raised concerns about the shrinking civic space due to threats from violent extremist groups and the government’s failure to take action against them.

The Maldives government has obligations under international human rights law to respect and uphold the right of people to freely receive and disseminate all types of information, Human Rights Watch said.

“Maldives authorities should take immediate steps to stem violence by Islamist extremist groups that threatens the work of human rights defenders,” Gossman said. “The government should act swiftly to bring to justice those responsible for these brutal attacks, and make clear public statements in support of religious freedom and free speech.”