Human Rights and Democracy Report 2015 - Human Rights Priority Country update report: July to December 2016 - Republic of Maldives

The human rights situation in the Maldives continued to decline in the second half of 2016. The space for opposition voices, civil society and independent media to exercise their fundamental rights continued to shrink, and there was further evidence of the lack of judicial independence.

In September, the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group expressed “deep disappointment in the lack of progress” across a range of priority areas, including political space for the opposition, detention of political leaders and independence of the judiciary. It placed the Maldives on its formal agenda and committed to considering options, including suspension, in March 2017. In October, the Maldives announced their decision to withdraw from the Commonwealth, citing unfair treatment and Commonwealth interference in domestic politics. The Foreign Secretary expressed his disappointment at the decision.

In August, the government of the Maldives introduced a Defamation and Freedom of Speech Act, criminalising defamatory speech, writing and actions. In a joint statement, diplomatic missions in Colombo had earlier said that the draft bill represented “a serious setback for freedom of speech in the Maldives”. The UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression called the bill “a direct attack” on freedom of expression.

Pressure on the media continued to increase over the second half of 2016, leading to growing self-censorship. In December, 2 Raajje TV journalists were found guilty of obstructing police duties. Their sentencing has been postponed until late January 2017. Another Raajje TV journalist is awaiting a verdict in his case on similar charges. The offices of the online newspaper Maldives Independent and the human rights NGO Maldives Democracy Network were raided following the airing of Al Jazeera’s documentary “Stealing Paradise”. The documentary alleged widespread state-sponsored corruption and abuse of power in the Maldives. The editor of the Maldives Independent, Zaheena Rasheed, who featured in the documentary, is now in self-imposed exile out of fear of persecution. DhiTV, the first private television channel of the Maldives, shut down after 8 years on air just prior to the passing of the defamation legislation.

In August, the Maldivian parliament adopted an amendment to the Freedom of Assembly Bill, restricting protests and gatherings to designated areas. This was widely criticised as unconstitutional and intended to restrict the right of assembly.

The lack of independence within the judiciary continued to be of serious concern. In November, former Defence Minister Ameen Faisal was charged with terrorism offences related to the 9-day detention of President Yameen in 2010. The trial is being conducted behind closed doors, in line with previous trials of opposition leaders. Ameen faces up to 15 years in jail if found guilty. In July, Ahmed Mahloof, an independent MP and spokesman for the Maldivian United Opposition, was sentenced to a total of 10 months and 24 days in jail on charges of obstructing police duty. Maldives Democracy Network has petitioned a case on his behalf at the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. In November, whistleblower Gasim Abdul Kareem, a former bank official who leaked documents revealing a multi-million dollar corruption scandal, received 8 months in prison for data theft.

International efforts to encourage the government of the Maldives to engage with the political opposition failed to deliver any meaningful progress. In December, former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon encouraged all parties to engage in inclusive dialogue to resolve the current political crisis. The UN reiterated its willingness to facilitate genuine dialogue efforts.

The Maldives has repeated its intention to reintroduce the death penalty after a moratorium of more than 60 years, although no executions have yet taken place. Following the upholding of the death sentence of Hussain Humaam by the Supreme Court earlier in the year, the Supreme Court upheld two more death penalty sentences in July. One of the sentences was originally issued by the Juvenile Court in 2010 to Mohamed Nabeel, a minor at the time of the crime. In November, the High Court upheld 2 more death penalty sentences; in both cases those convicted were below the age of 18 when the offence was committed.

The International Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) both prohibit the use of the death penalty for crimes committed by individuals under the age of 18. The Maldives is a State Party to both treaties. UN human rights experts and the EU all condemned the proposed executions. The UK government opposes the death penalty in all circumstances as a matter of principle and advocates its abolition. Together with international partners we will continue to urge the Maldives government to reverse its decision to reintroduce the death penalty.

In August, the Maldivian parliament passed a Gender Equality Bill aimed at guaranteeing the constitutional rights of all individuals, irrespective of gender. The Bill was welcomed by the UN as a step towards closing the gender gap, although it stopped short of including recommendations to increase female representation in public life. The UK continues to fund programmes in the Maldives to increase empowerment of women and girls and improve gender equality.

In September, the Foreign Office Minister for Asia and the Pacific, Alok Sharma, met with Maldivian Foreign Minister Dr Mohamed Asim. During the meeting, Mr Sharma made clear the UK’s concerns over human rights and the proposed reintroduction of the death penalty in the Maldives. The UK continues to provide support for civil society in the Maldives. In December, the UK funded a human rights conference in partnership with Transparency Maldives to mark Human Rights Day.