The Maldives, otherwise known for its natural beauty and tourism, has recently been in the news for political turmoil and the trampling of civil rights. President Abdulla Yameen, whose party commands majority in the People’s Majlis since assuming power in November 2013, has curtailed civil liberties, democracy, and rule of law in violation of the Maldives constitution as well as internationally recognised principles. The independence of parliament (People’s Majlis) and judiciary too has been curbed and rendered subject to the wishes of the executive.
The country is indeed small – with a tiny population of about 0.4 million people. Should the world outside be concerned? There are enough reasons why it should.
This trend towards a restricted civic and political space is accompanied by the rise of radicalised non-state actors keen on harassing those who are religiously unorthodox and propagate a polity based on respect for civil rights and democracy. There’s this strong perception among Maldivian civil society activists that the government is not only failing to take meaningful measures against radicalisation but also using radicalised groups as a tool to curb political dissent.
The country embarked on the path of democracy in 2008 when former president Mohammed Nasheed, respected for his zeal for human rights, was elected to office after a three-decade long autocratic rule of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. In the process of learning, the leaders of the nascent democracy tried to do quite a few good things and made mistakes too.
During Nasheed’s time in office (2008-2012), important political reforms, such as holding successful parliamentary and local council elections, were implemented. However, his government faced stiff resistance from Gayoom’s supporters, who were present in all state institutions; this resulted in frequent obstacles in the implementation of important structural reforms and drafting and passing of foundational laws. The administration of criminal justice in the country is vitiated by the absence of these basic legal frameworks and further undermined by a politicised judiciary. It is worth noting that most of the judges appointed by Gayoom’s administration are still sitting in Maldivian courts.
Nasheed fell victim to an imperfect and partisan judicial system. In February 2012, he was forced to resign prematurely and unceremoniously – following his decision to arrest and detain a Criminal Court judge Abdulla Mohamed – as a result of a protest campaign by the opposition and pressure from the country’s security establishment. Furthermore, a case was registered against him under Section 81 of the Penal Code (‘illegal arrest or detention’) that invited a maximum punishment of three years imprisonment. For three years, Nasheed had been preparing a defence against the illegal detention charge only to see it dropped in February 2015, and to be booked a week later under the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1990.
Nasheed’s trial was marred by a total violation of fair trial standards. Nasheed was not allowed to be fully and freely represented by a defence counsel nor was he allowed to call defence witnesses or present evidence. The trial process was shortened and the right to appeal stood curtailed as a result of judicial and executive excesses.
Three weeks later, the former president was sentenced to 13 years imprisonment. His party – the Maldives Democratic Party – has since then been protesting against the sham trial and resulting conviction. The protesters have been dealt with an iron hand by the Maldivian police. So have media and civil rights groups, who feel their freedom of expression has shrunk significantly since 2012.
Yameen’s administration spearheaded several legislative measures such as the new Anti-terrorism Act of 2015; political observers have raised concerns over these laws. There’s a consensus among stakeholders that the law is in violation of the constitution as well as obligations of the Maldives under international law, and is designed to curb political opposition.
The Maldivian parliament, dominated by Yameen supporters, has passed a number of other laws that restrict the political rights of prisoners, freedom of assembly, and especially freedom of expression. The threat from an increasingly authoritarian government is amplified by the rise of the ultra-conservative. Radicalisation is a critical but often overlooked problem in the Maldives, steadily advancing and changing the fabric of Maldivian society – putting dissent, diversity, richness of opinion and religious freedom in physical danger. The ruling dispensation has allowed and tolerated the preaching of violent ideologies. This has led to significant numbers of local youth joining the ranks of extremist outfits abroad. It is estimated that more than 200 Maldivians are in Syria and Iraq with different fighting factions, including the Islamic State (Isis).
All these trends should be cause for serious concern to the outside world. Nasheed was recently conditionally released for medical treatment abroad. But the rulers are adamant that he returns and completes his prison term without any guarantee of a fair trial.
A recent report prepared by a fact-finding mission organised jointly by the International Commission of Jurists and South Asians for Human Rights urges the government of Abdulla Yameen that Nasheed and other political opponents should be provided with a fair trial before an independent and impartial tribunal. Any such process should ultimately result in their freedom so that the journey of democracy that started in 2008 is resumed.
At the same time, the international community – and especially South Asian countries – cannot stand by and watch the Maldives descend into a state of autocracy and extremism. Failure for the Maldives will mean failure for all of us.
Asad Jamal is a Pakistani lawyer. Uladzimir Dzenisevich is a lawyer affiliated with the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) as research officer. Both writers were members of a fact-finding mission that visited the Maldives in November 2015. The CHRI is releasing a report prepared by the mission members today.
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