Attacks on opposition and media continue as elections approach in Maldives

  • State slaps opposition supporters with spurious “terrorism” charges ahead of elections
  • Opposition campaign offices and members’ properties attacked and vandalised
  • New cumbersome visa requirements for foreign journalists adds to media restrictions
  • Global human rights groups call for probe into attacks and an end to media repression

With presidential elections in The Maldives just days away, global human rights groups are expressing alarm at serious threats to democracy and fundamental freedoms in the Indian Ocean archipelago, reported ahead of the vote.

Global civil society alliance, CIVICUS, has expressed concern about cases of arrests of opposition supporters and attacks on opposition campaign offices and supporters’ property, as well as restrictions on journalists. These among a slew of violations reported by Maldivian civil society organisations on the ground, such as the Voice of Women (VoW).

VoW reports that on August 31, 18 opposition supporters in Kolamaafushi of Gaafu Alif atoll were charged with “terrorism” for allegedly vandalising a campaign office of  the ruling Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM). Two weeks earlier, Earlier, police arrested four men, including two senior local island council members, for allegedly practicing “sorcery” intended to bring the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) to power.

President Abdulla Yameen is seeking a second five-year term, contesting the poll with the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party candidate, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih. The current crackdown on dissent began in February this year after President Yameen defied a Supreme Court ruling that quashed convictions of political prisoners and ordered their release. He had the court’s Chief Justice and another judge arrested and put on trial, while imposing a state of emergency.

 “It is extremely worrying that opposition supporters are being arrested on spurious grounds,” said Josef Benedict, CIVICUS Civic Space Research Officer.

“The counter-terrorism law - with its overly broad and ambiguous provisions – continues to be the authorities’ weapon of choice when targeting the opposition. This abuse of the law must end immediately”, said Benedict.

Property belonging to opposition members and parties have also been attacked. On August 26, the home of Aishath Nahula, a politician with the opposition Jumhooree Party in Hoarafushi island was vandalised while opposition campaign offices on that island were attacked and damaged later than week.  There were also other reports of vandalization and arson attacks on opposition campaign premises in other atolls in early September. There have been no arrests in connection with these attacks.

The Maldivian government, meanwhile, is continuing its months-long campaign of media restrictions and judicial harassment. In late August, the authorities issued a statement informing foreign journalists intending to cover the elections of a new, cumbersome vetting process, which required them to  provide information about previous employment, travel history, qualifications, bank account details and a police certificate, in order to secure a work or business visa. Those not complying would be deported on arrival.

In the latest act of local media repression, on September 5, Raajje TV was forced to pay a record fine of 2 million Maldivian rufiyaa (about US$ 129,800) for broadcasting content deemed defamatory of President Abdulla Yameen and a threat to national security. Days later President Yameen filed a complaint against the private station for covering a press conference alleging his involvement in the illegal oil trade. Raajje TV has repeatedly been targeted under the 2016 Anti-Defamation and Freedom of Expression Act, a law used to silence media and social media activists.

“We see blatant disregard of the rule of law and authorities giving and implementing illegal orders working with total impunity. We are continuing to see the autonomy of independent institutions corroding and thereby check and balance mechanisms of the country being destroyed” said Thilmeeza Hussain, co-founder of Voice of Women.

CIVICUS has urged the authorities to conduct prompt and impartial investigations into all attacks against opposition property and bring the perpetrators to justice. It also calls on the government to stop intimidating and restricting news media, to enable it to freely cover election events. These acts, if continued, jeopardise the legitimacy of the poll.

The environment for civic freedoms has been in rapid decline in The Maldives since February. The CIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that tracks threats to civil society in countries across the globe, rated has rated the space for civil society in The Maldives as ‘obstructed’. In May, it added the island nation to a Watch List of six countries, in which there had been an alarming escalation in serious threats to fundamental freedoms.

ENDS.

For more information, please contact:

Josef Benedict

 

Thilmeeza Hussain

.

 

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