Human Rights in Asia-Pacific; Review of 2019 - Maldives


Human rights defenders came under attack, with threats from hard-line religious groups and the government shutting down a prominent human rights group. The Supreme Court’s chief justice and other judges were replaced. Two women became Supreme Court judges for the first time. There was some progress on investigations into past attacks on journalists and activists, but these failed to result in arrests or prosecutions. Civil service employees were granted paid parental leave. The representation of women deteriorated in parliament, with only six women elected out of a parliament of 85 members.


Following its election in September 2018, the new Maldives Democratic Party-led government of President Ibrahim Solih vowed to introduce wide-ranging reforms. By the end of 2019, the Supreme Court’s chief justice and other judges were replaced, the government had not reduced overcrowding in prisons or improved poor prison conditions, guarantee the right to freedom of expression, and deliver justice in prominent and long-running cases of attacks on activists and journalists. The government took steps to address the effects of climate change which continued to impact on the country, particularly in industries like tourism and fishing.

Justice system

In August, the government nominated Aisha Shujune and Azmiralda Zahir to serve as the country’s first women judges on the Supreme Court. In September, parliament resisted pressure from religious clerics, who said women could not serve as judges, to confirm their nomination. In November, the two judges were appointed to the Supreme Court.

The changes were part of a broader overhaul of the Supreme Court, which saw the previous Chief Justice and other judges replaced amid allegations of corruption.

Maldivian prisons continued to suffer from overcrowding and prisoners were subject to harsh conditions, including not being allowed out of their cells for exercise during the day. There was at least one incident where prison authorities used force against a prisoner.

In June, the government promised to improve conditions in the overcrowded Maafushi prison in the Kaafu Atoll administrative division following media reports of torture and other ill-treatment of inmates. The government said it had ordered a prison investigation into the incidents. The parliamentary Committee on Human Rights and Gender also launched its own investigation.

An estimated 60 percent of criminal cases in the Maldives are drug-related with mandatory sentences, the overwhelming majority of which are for drug use. Lawyers and human rights defenders called for a reform of Maldivian drug laws to end mandatory sentences and to promote rehabilitation as an alternative.

There was some limited progress by the government appointed Commission on Deaths and Disappearances into prominent cases of attacks on journalists and activists. The government failed, however, to arrest anyone for the 2014 disappearance of journalist Ahmed Rilwan in 2014. The trial of six men accused of the 2017 murder of blogger Yameen Rasheed was subject to constant delays.

Police and security forces

Seven officers out of the 11 of the Drug Enforcement Department were transferred to other departments, demoted and their most recently awarded disciplinary color or medal revoked, after a video was released showing police brutality, including an attack on a 36-year-old foreign national in the capital, Malé. The other four officers are facing an investigation.

Human rights defenders

Human rights defenders were targeted and subjected to verbal attacks including hate speech and death threats. In August, the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, an NGO, said it had information about at least 15 human rights defenders and activists - including journalists, lawyers, and NGO workers – who had been repeatedly harassed and subjected to online threats since November 2018. In November, the Maldivian Democracy Network was shut down by authorities, under pressure from religious hardliners and an opposition party, for a 2015 report published by the human rights group. The authorities alleged that the report insulted Prophet Muhammed but their decision to shut down a widely-respected NGO shows that old patterns of state repression had not gone away.

Women’s rights

Concerns about the influence of religious hardliners seeking to limit the social and cultural lives and roles of women persisted, with the Fatwa Council and conservative political parties opposing the appointment of two women judges to the Supreme Court. The number of women representatives in parliament fell from 6.5% in 2014 to 4.6% after parliamentary elections held in April 2019. Only six out of 85 parliamentarians were women and few women held senior roles in the public sector. In March, the government pledged to grant six months’ maternity leave pay and one month’s paternity leave pay for civil service employees. In March, it committed to allocate 20% of funds from the “Small and Medium Enterprise Loan” to women as well as to youth and people with disabilities.