CIVICUS speaks to Shahindha Ismail, Executive Director of the Maldivian Democracy Network, about the ongoing crackdown on dissent and the upcoming presidential elections in the Maldives.
A widespread crackdown on dissent began in the Maldives in February 2018 when a court ordered the release of opposition leaders. This decision led to the arbitrary arrest of judges, scores of opposition politicians and activists who face a variety of trumped-up charges from bribery to terrorism. Police also used unnecessary force to disperse peaceful demonstrations, and in some cases, indiscriminately used pepper spray and tear gas. There are also documented cases of people being ill-treated in detention. At least a dozen journalists were injured while covering protests, with reporters being arrested and ill-treated.
With elections due on 23rd September 2018, civic space is likely to become increasingly contested. Already in May 2018, the Electoral Commission moved to bar four opposition leaders from running in the upcoming presidential elections.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
1. What is the state of civil society freedoms in the Maldives ahead of the elections?
Civic space is practically nonexistent now and has been for a few years. No one but those who support the government are allowed to speak freely or assemble. All rallies organised by the political opposition or civil society are dispersed, and their organisers and participants are arrested. The police intimidate people. Defamation is criminalised, and this has been a challenge, as media houses and individuals are fined millions of Rufiyaa and face the prospect of imprisonment for expressing themselves or broadcasting alternative views.
Those working in countering radicalism and violent extremism also face violent threats, including the possibility of disappearance or murder, from vigilante groups sanctioned by the government. These groups operate with full impunity and have targeted organisations and individuals promoting tolerance, offering alternate narratives and promoting secularism.
2. Can you tell us about the work of the Maldivian Democracy Network, and how it has been affected?
The Maldivian Democracy Network (MDN) was founded in September 2004, following the mass arrests of August 2004, and was originally named Maldivian Detainee Network. It began as a torture documentation civil society organisation (CSO) and focused on assisting detainees and their families and fostering the establishment of a network of families that could support one another. Two years later, after several delays, MDN finally achieved registration with the Ministry of Home Affairs. In 2010 MDN amended its statutes and changed its name to Maldivian Democracy Network, following the introduction of a new Constitution that recognised most of the detainee rights that MDN advocated for. Presently MDN conducts a wide range of work, including monitoring parliament, monitoring trials and advocating for detainee rights, protecting human rights defenders, advancing the rights to freedom of expression and assembly, and countering violent extremism.
In the current situation we have to do most of our work underground, and anything that we do publicly requires extra care. As human rights defenders (HRDs), we are constantly looking over our shoulders and have to take extra caution when moving around. We fear for the safety of our families. Those who are part of the HRD community and work in the civil service or at government-owned companies also fear the loss of their jobs. As an organisation, funding has become a serious challenge and we are on the brink of shutting down.
3. What should the international community do to support fundamental freedoms and free and fair elections in the Maldives?
The resolutions of the European Union about the Maldives, including the latest one issued in March 2018, are strong and encouraging. We would like to see their framework on targeted sanctions replicated and implemented by other states.
I believe it is critical that the international community have a strong presence in the Maldives in the final run-up to the elections as well as during and after the elections. An international observation mission is still the best we can ask for, and I hope that it happens.
4. What is your hope for the future?
I hope that we get a good change in this election, and that the new government will be more inclusive of the human rights community and CSOs when they plan reforms and implement them, as HRDs and civil society have had first-hand interactions with vulnerable groups and have represented them in difficult times. These experiences have given civil society an insight into some possible reforms and lots of training in advancing human rights issues in the Maldives. For example, we advocate for and hope that the government will include a strong civic education programme in the national school curriculum, in order to help produce critical, informed and articulate new citizens.