Amnesty International has declared imprisoned blogger Ismail ‘Khilath’ Rasheed a prisoner of conscience, and called for his “immediate and unconditional” release.
The controversial blogger was arrested on December 14 following his participation in a ‘silent protest’ on Human Rights Day, calling for religious tolerance in the Maldives.
A group of men attacked the protesters with stones, and Rasheed was taken to Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital (IGMH) with a fractured skull. He was subsequently arrested for questioning over his involvement in the silent gathering, and the Criminal Court granted police a 10 day extension of detention for the investigation.
“The continued detention of Ismail ‘Khilath’ Rasheed is in breach of international treaties on freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which the Maldives is a state party,” Amnesty said in a statement.
“Amnesty International is dismayed that instead of defending Ismail ‘Khilath’ Rasheed, who has peacefully exercised his right to freedom of the expression, the government of Maldives has detained him. Moreover, the government has taken no action to bring to justice those who attacked the ‘silent’ demonstrators, even though there is credible photographic evidence of the attack.”
The attack on Rasheed and his subsequent detention was a “clear example of the erosion of freedom of expression in the Maldives,” Amnesty stated.
“This basic human right is not just under attack from some religious groups; it is also violated by the government of the Maldives. All people in the Maldives should be able to enjoy their right to freedom of expression without being attacked or detained by the police.”
President Mohamed Nasheed was himself declared an Amnesty prisoner of conscience in 1991, following his repeated and prolonged incarceration by the former government.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has also called for Rasheed’s immediate release.
“All he did was start a debate about the issues of religious freedom and tolerance in Maldives,” RSF stated.
“The authorities must explain the reasons for his arbitrary detention and release him at once. It is disturbing to see the government yet again yielding to pressure from the most conservative fringes of Maldivian society.”
Rasheed was one of the country’s leading free speech advocates and one of the few Maldivians bloggers to write under his own name, RSF observed.
“The Maldivian constitution bans the promotion of any religion other than Islam but guarantees freedom of assembly and expression as long as it does not contravene Islam. Rasheed professes to be an adherent of Sufism, which emphasises the inner, spiritual dimension of Islam.”
President Mohamed Nasheed’s Press Secretary, Mohamed Zuhair, told Minivan News that Hilath had been arrested under an existing regulation passed by parliament that had no bearing on the [executive] government.
“The government’s policy is to allow freedom of expression to the greatest extent possible under the Constitution,” he said.
Under new regulations published by the government in September, interpreting the 1995 Religious Unity Act passed by parliament, media is “banned from producing or publicising programs, talking about or disseminating audio that humiliates Allah or his prophets or the holy Quran or the Sunnah of the Prophet (Mohamed) or the Islamic faith.”
Violation of the Act carries a prison sentence of between 2-5 years, and the Communications Authority of Maldives (CAM) in November blocked access to Rasheed’s blog on orders from the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, on the grounds that it contained anti-Islamic material.
Rasheed was arrested amid growing religious and political tensions in the Maldives in the lead up to a ‘Defend Islam’ protest to be held on Friday, December 23.
The protest follows several incidents of religious intolerance in the past few months, including as vandalism of the ‘idolatrous’ SAARC monuments in Addu Atoll and hostility towards calls by the UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay for a moratorium and debate on the flogging of women for extramarital sex.
The December 23 protest is being organised by a coalition of religious NGOs and opposition political parties, who have attacked the government for decisions such as its diplomatic relationship with Israel.
“The government is saying that the Maldives has had an unbroken Islamic tradition for 800 years, and 90 consecutive Chief Justices who have applied Sharia Law,” Zuhair said.
“The President is asking everyone to take a stand tomorrow on the 23rd for the continuation of the Maldives’ moderate Islamic tradition,” he said.
It was “not accurate” to suggest that the government was yielding to fundamentalist fringe elements, he insisted.
“This is political. [Former President] Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and his cronies are testing their support base. The people who are funding this so-called Islamic gathering are the same people selling pork and alcohol.”