The Foreign Ministry has called on “relevant national institutions”, including police and the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives (HRCM), to investigate allegations of violence that led to the hospitalisation of blogger Ismail ‘Hilath’ Rasheed on December 10.
The statement came in response to Amnesty International’s expression of alarm at the government’s failure to prosecute a group of men who attacked the blogger with stones for his participation in a ‘silent protest’ calling for religious tolerance. Images of the attackers were provided to police and posted online by the protesters, despite threats against them if they did so, however no arrests were made.
Rasheed was designated an Amnesty ‘prisoner of conscience’ after he was arrested and detained for 24 days while he was investigated for his role in the protest, and the content of his blocked blog which the Islamic Ministry had earlier deemed anti-Islamic. He was released on January 6 without charge.
In its response to Amnesty, the Foreign Ministry stated that Rasheed was “treated in full accordance with his human rights as guaranteed under domestic law”.
“The Constitution of the Maldives affirms that Islam is the religion of the State of the Maldives. The Constitution does not allow for freedom of religion,” the Foreign Ministry stated, observing that the Maldives “maintains a reservation [on the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights] under Article 18 on freedom of religion and conscience.”
“The basis of the police investigation into Mr Rasheed’s blog was therefore reflective of and in accordance with domestic law and with the Maldives’ international human rights obligations,” the Ministry argued.
The Ministry noted “with concern” the attack on Rasheed, but criticised the protesters for failing to inform the authorities about the protest, “a step which would have allowed the police to maintain order and protect him and other members of the public.”
“The right to freedom of assembly is enshrined in Maldivian law. However, under the law, while it is not necessary to seek authorisation for assemblies from the authorities (in line with international human rights norms), it is necessary to inform the authorities so that protests can be effectively policed,” the Ministry argued.
“Mr Rasheed and others participating in the December 10th gathering did not comply with these legal requirements, a fact which unfortunately contributed to the breakdown of law and order on that day when the protesters were violently attacked,” the statement read.
Speaking to Minivan News this week following his release, Rasheed observed that prison conditions “have not changed since [former President] Gayoom’s time”.
The blogger was locked for three weeks in a small, three-sided room with 11 other people. Despite the opening there was no airflow, the room was unventilated and the fan in the room was broken, he said.
The room was so small and crowded it was impossible for 12 people to fully stretch out and sleep properly, and despite requirements that inmates be allowed out for at least an hour’s exercise every day, no one was allowed outside during his detention, Rasheed told Minivan News.
The blogger also expressed concern that some of his fellow inmates had been remanded in custody for up to three months without charge pending police investigations, trapped in “legal limbo”.
In its statement, the Foreign Ministry said it “takes note of comments made by Mr Rasheed in the press regarding mistreatment while in detention.”
“The Foreign Ministry notes in this regard that, as a State Party to the Convention against Torture (CAT) and its Optional Protocol (OPCAT), a national mechanism exists to investigate such claims and related issues such as conditions in places of detention – namely the National Preventative Mechanism (NPM).
“The Foreign Ministry therefore expresses its confidence that the NPM will immediate look into the claims made by Mr Rasheed and will publish its independent findings.”
The Ministry concluded by “welcoming” Amnesty International’s “interest in and engagement with human rights issues in the Maldives.”
“The government has a strong and positive relationship with Amnesty International at both a domestic level and at the level of the UN, and looks forward to a continued constructive dialogue with them and with other international human rights NGOs.”
President Mohamed Nasheed was himself designated a prisoner of conscience during his incarceration by the former government.