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Events of 2023

Maldives President Mohamed Muizzu speaks at COP28 UN Climate Summit, December 1, 2023 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. 

© AP Photo/Rafiq 2023

Respect for freedom of expression and peaceful assembly in the Maldives deteriorated in the lead-up to the September presidential elections. The police used excessive force against protesters and journalists covering demonstrations. The government continued to approve land reclamation projects without adequately mitigating the environmental impact, leaving island communities at risk of flooding and loss of livelihoods.

In August, the government ratified the United Nations International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. However, it failed to enact crucial reforms to deliver accountability for these abuses.

The Maldives election went to a runoff on September 30, with Mohamed Muizzu of the Progressive Party winning. Shortly after the election, president-elect Muizzu secured the release from prison of the former president, Abdulla Yameen, who had been convicted of corruption and sentenced to 11 years in prison in 2022.

On November 22, the Criminal Court acquitted the last two suspects in an investigation into past attacks on journalists. Civil society groups had criticized the trials for delays and alleged political interference.

Freedoms of Expression and Assembly

The government ignored calls from civil society organizations to amend the Freedom of Assembly Act, which the government used to block protests in the lead-up to the presidential elections. On June 19, police used excessive force against protesters and opposition party members at campaign rallies. In August, during President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih’s campaign trip to the southern island of Madaveli, the police arrested four protesters who had accused Solih of failing to deliver on campaign promises.

Human rights defenders, LGBT rights activists, and civil society organizations faced intimidation and threats on social media, often from Islamist extremist groups. On March 28, the Maldives civil court upheld a December 2019 decision to deregister the Maldivian Democracy Network (MDN), a human rights organization, following attempts by the group’s executive director to reverse the ban. The initial deregistration of MDN appeared to be a politically motivated move to appease powerful Islamist groups in the Maldives, which had long threatened and incited violence against MDN.

In her March report, Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, the UN special rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights, expressed deep concern about the “level of impunity” in the Maldives for abuses, including enforced disappearances. She highlighted the closing down of civic space in the Maldives and the lack of protection for civil society actors and human rights defenders. On July 11, Family Legal Clinic, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) providing pro bono legal services in the Maldives, released a statement detailing threats its staff had received and vandalism to its property.

The authorities seldom investigate and prosecute the perpetrators of threats, intimidation, and violence against civil society groups and critical voices in the Maldives. The families of Ahmed Rilwan, a prominent outspoken journalist who was forcibly disappeared in 2014, and Yameen Rasheed, a blogger and government critic who was murdered in 2017, still await justice.

Freedom of Media

The use of excessive force against journalists intensified, particularly against those covering the elections and opposition protests. In February, police assaulted journalists Hassan Shaheed and Ahmed Misbaah while they were covering protests held by an opposition party in the capital city of Malé. In March, police assaulted and arrested journalist Hussain Juman while he was covering an opposition rally in Malé. In July, police assaulted a media worker, Misbah, and a journalist, Maathu Hussain, who were also covering an opposition protest.

The Evidence Act, under which courts can compel journalists to reveal their sources, is still in effect in the Maldives, despite promises that it would be amended. In March, the authorities proposed an amendment to the Elections Act that would prevent freelance and foreign journalists from reporting on the voting process.

The Maldives dropped significantly in the World Press Freedom Index in 2023, ranking 100th out of 180 countries, down from 72nd place two years ago. Reporters Without Borders cited the Evidence Act in particular as a reason for the drop.

Women’s and Girls’ Rights

Despite calls from UN experts in 2022, the government failed to take concrete steps to address gender-based discrimination and violence in the Maldives. At the UN Human Rights Council in March, Special Rapporteur Ní Aoláin warned that Maldivian women human rights defenders were increasingly vulnerable to online harassment and intimidation.

Women and girls in the Maldives continue to suffer from structural discrimination rooted in pervasive societal norms, gender-stereotyping, and religious conservatism, contributing to the significant barriers that women face to equal participation in the labor force.

In 2021, the Maldivian government outlined plans to criminalize female genital mutilation (FGM) following recommendations from the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. Nevertheless, two years on, and despite relentless campaigning from women’s rights groups, the practice remains legal in the Maldives.

Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

Adult consensual same-sex sexual conduct remains a criminal offense under the Maldivian penal code. Punishment can include prison sentences of up to eight years and lashes, which applies to both men and women. Same-sex marriage is also illegal and punishable by up to one year in prison.

In March, the Maldivian High Court commuted the sentence of police officer Abdul Rahman Rafeeu, who was convicted of engaging in same-sex relations with a Bangladeshi man in September 2022 and sentenced to over 14 months in prison. The sentence was reduced by 2 months and 12 days. The police officer was initially arrested along with two other men for engaging in same-sex sexual acts; the Bangladeshi national was also sentenced to jail time.

Climate Change and Environmental Harm

Low-lying Maldives is acutely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, with over 80 percent of the country less than one meter above sea level. The Maldives has maintained a strong voice on climate-related issues in international forums, including at the UN. Domestically, the government has yet to live up to its standards by failing to enforce its own environmental laws, consult local communities ahead of reclamation projects, heed environmental impact assessment recommendations, and provide resources for the ongoing monitoring of development projects.

Key International Actors

Due to the Maldives’ historical ties and geostrategic location, both India and China vie for influence by granting development loans and building bridges and other infrastructure. India has also strengthened its military relations with the Maldives.

In recent years, the US, Australia, and the United Arab Emirates have also taken steps to increase their diplomatic presence in the country and strengthen bilateral cooperation, particularly in the realms of security and climate change.

In September, the United States government established its first-ever diplomatic embassy in the Maldives, having previously managed relations from its embassy in Sri Lanka. At a meeting with the Maldivian ambassador, US President Joe Biden praised the Maldives for its efforts to mitigate the impacts of climate change.

The Maldives retains strong bilateral ties with the European Union. At a meeting between EU and Maldives officials, the EU emphasized the importance of maintaining a commitment toward “the protection of human rights” and “implementing reforms in the justice sector.”