Human Rights Commission (HRCM) Vice President Ahmed Tholal has called for an immediate state response to reports of a series of vigilante attacks in the capital over recent days.
“The concern to me is that there needs to be a state response to state very clearly that we cannot just start labelling people un-Islamic as it’s a very dangerous thing,” said Tholal.
After multiple accounts of the abductions and assault of individuals perceived to be supportive of atheism or homosexuality, the HRCM plans to meet with state representatives in order to determine the cause for these events.
“I think the issue of safety of paramount. We’re not very clear why this is happening,” said Tholal. “But I think the key role is what the state response is going to be and putting an end to the speculation – to let the people know what is happening.”
After reports that senior government members met with citizens concerned about the harassment of Islam in the days before the attacks – some of whom have subsequently been linked with the abductions – Minivan News has been unable to obtain a response from the relevant authorities on this issue.
The vigilante group was believed to have been attempting to identify members of online secularist groups – some of which had repeatedly featured content defaming and mocking the prophet.
Freedom and responsibility
Tholal noted that the incidents had raised issues regarding freedom of expression but also the responsibility inherent in the enjoyment of that freedom – noting that the state should take action against criminal activity.
“It’s not just about people who are expressing these opinion,” said Tholal. “For one thing, the freedom of expression is highly sacred, and at the same time so is responsibility.”
Article 27 of the Maldives constitution grants the right to freedom of expression in a manner that is not contrary to any tenet of Islam.
Police began investigations into anti-Islamic comment posted on the ‘Maldives Atheists’ Facebook page in March this year, although no arrests have as yet been made.
Expressing his fear that Maldivian society was becoming less tolerant of diverse opinion, Tholal noted that people’s freedom of expression must be based on understanding rather than intimidation.
“Reinterpretations should be based, not on fear, but on an understanding that there are things you cannot say as they might hurt people or be hateful or incite violence,” he said.
Ismail Hilath Rasheed, a self-exiled blogger who was subjected to multiple attacks as a result of his outspoken calls for freedom of expression has also suggested greater tolerance is needed across Maldivian society.
“Freedom of expression should not be abused as to lead to anarchy and chaos. Such a balanced equilibrium can be obtained only through granting minority rights, which means the sorely missing secularism in the context of Maldives.”
“This is where we need to build bridges – a bridge to gap the gulf between moderates and extremists on all sides,” said the former journalist.
Hilath has suggested that many Maldivians – including himself – were now refraining from expressing themselves due to the current climate of fear.
“With the liberal community now opting to refrain from exercising their right to free expression, the Maldives as a culture and society will plunge into an abyss unless the powers that be give them the courage to come out and contribute to society’s collective creativity, and express free expression without fear,” he said.
A landmark ‘Threat Analysis Report’ by the Maldives Broadcasting Commission earlier this year found 84 percent of journalists surveyed had been threatened at least once, with 27 percent noting a reluctance to cover certain topics.
Journalists identified political parties to be the top source of threat, while gangs and religious extremists – both alleged to have been involved in recent attacks – were next on the list.
Other than coverage of a Maldivian Democratic Party press release expressing concern over the incidents, local media has not reported on the succession of attacks.