Maldivians not allowed to express or assemble freely: Maldivian Democracy Network

The Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) and the Maldivian Democracy Network (MDN) jointly reiterated their call on the government of Maldives to make substantial changes to the laws on assembly and association at a press conference held yesterday (August 17).

“The people of Maldives are not allowed to express or assemble freely, which is a fundamental right they are taking away from them,” argued Shahinda Ismail, Executive Director of MDN.

Changes need to be made in order to meet the country’s constitutional guarantees of fundamental rights and legal obligations under international human rights law, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Maldives is party, read a press release from FORUM-ASIA.

One of the main issues raised at the press conference was the freedom of association law. According to this law, protests cannot take place near schools, mosques, or hospitals, Shahinda told Minivan News.

Malé – the capital of the Maldives – is home to approximately 150,000 residents in 6 square kilometers of land, making it among the most densely populated capitals of the world. Therefore, facilities like schools and mosques are abundant.

“When you really look at Malé, there’s a mosque on every block,” Shahinda argued, “there is hardly any space left for people to demonstrate.”

“The restrictions on protesting must be made in consideration with the geography of the landscape,” she added.

Restriction not regulation

Another point highlighted at the conference was the wide range of powers given to police in controlling demonstrations.

“The problem we see is it doesn’t provide for police to protect demonstrators. It doesn’t regulate the right, it curbs the right [to demonstrate],” Shahinda stated.

“There must be a provision where police engage with demonstrators and try to bring order before deciding to disperse,” she added.

Furthermore, Shahinda the highlighted vague phrases in the legislation, which she fears are open to numerous interpretations.

“The word ‘reasonable’ used many times. It’s very subjective and we don’t feel it’s appropriate to use in the law.”

Another line could be interpreted as restricting right to assembly solely to police, added Shahinda.

“It’s just one line, a sub-section off a sub-section,” she notes, “but it can be interpreted in a number of ways.”

The right to freedom of assembly doesn’t not stand alone, it has to come with freedom expression and association,” Shahinda warned.

Shahinda went on to connect the issues raised to the recent disappearance and feared abduction of Minivan News journalist Ahmed Rilwan Abdulla.

“The problems that people face in freedom of expression – Rilwan is at the height of it,” said Shahinda.

“We opened the press conference raising concern and calling on authorities to speed up the investigation, and we ended on the same note.”

Systemic Failures: Transparency Maldives

Earlier this month, a press release from local NGO Transparency Maldives (TM) revealed they are currently working to reform the Associations Act in order to create a more enabling environment for civil society.

“Governance, transparency and functioning of CBO’s [community based organisations] will improve if the systemic issues in the regulatory framework are addressed,” TM announced.

Christopher Roberts, TM’s consultant on freedom of association, released a set of comments and recommendations discussing the international best practices of freedom of association legislation and to share his experience of freedom of association in transitional democracies.

The report addresses several legal issues with the 2003 Associations Act of the Maldives.

“The definition of associations provided by article 39(a) of the act is circular and inadequate,” states Christopher Roberts, legal expert on freedom of association.

“The law should instead adopt the definition used at the international level,” argued Roberts.


Finding missing journalist of “high priority,” says police

The Maldives Police Services have said finding Minivan News journalist Ahmed Rilwan Abdulla – believed to have been missing since August 8 – is of “high priority.”

The police held a press conference at 9pm on Sunday night (August 18) and confirmed Rilwan has been seen on CCTV footage wearing black near to the Friday mosque at 12:40am and later around 12:45am at the Hulhumalé ferry terminal in Malé.

However, head of Serious and Organised Crime Department Chief Inspector Abdulla Shatheeh revealed no new information on Rilwan’s disappearance.

According to phone records, Rilwan’s last phone call was made at 10:19pm on August 7 and his last phone activity was at 2:30am on August 8, possibly in the Henveiru ward of Malé.

The phone location conflicts with evidence that points to Rilwan having boarded the Malé – Hulhumalé ferry, including a tweet made at 1:02am reporting seeing local actor Yoosuf Shafeeu onboard the ferry.

Minivan News asked the police if phone records show Rilwan using his phone in Hulhumalé that night, though police declined to comment saying investigations are ongoing.

The police also declined to comment on whether Rilwan may have left the ferry terminal after arriving there. Shatheeh said police are considering all evidence and following all leads.

A police team has been conducting a search in Hulhumalé for the past three days, Shatheeh said, adding that regional police stations have been informed of Rilwan’s disappearance.

The chief inspector called on the public report any new information and pledged protection to any informers or witnesses.

Meanwhile, President Abdulla Yameen’s Spokesperson Ibrahim Muaz Ali said the government is “deeply saddened and concerned” over Rilwan’s disappearance.

President Yameen and Muaz are both in China on an official state visit at the moment.

The ruling Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM) also expressed concern over Rilwan’s prolonged disappearance and called on law enforcement agencies to expedite investigations.

The party also called on the public and its supporters to support the search.


The opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) meanwhile held a protest outside the United Nations (UN) head office in Malé on Saturday night calling for assistance in the investigation of Rilwan’s disappearance.

Speaking at the demonstration, MDP MP Imthiyaz Fahmy called on the UN to “pressure” the government to conduct a speedy and thorough investigation.

“We call on the UN to provide cooperation to all of us, the Maldivian people, in investigating [the disappearance] because we are certain that the government of Yameen Abdul Gayoom cannot investigate the abduction of people, intimidation of journalists, intimidation and death threats to members of parliament, and death threats to ordinary citizens,” Imthiyaz said.

Imthiyaz noted that the Human Rights Commission of Maldives (HRCM) has brought the matter to the attention of UN and that the MDP has alerted the international community over the disappearance.

“We know that the only party to stand up when the rights of the Maldivian people are violated is the MDP,” he said.

The MDP would not sow discord in society or incite strife, he added, but was protesting over a real and serious issue.

“The reason we suspect that a journalist has been abducted is because that journalist himself has previously received death threats. And the journalist had told the paper that he had been followed,” he said.

He also referred to death threats sent to a number of journalists via text message earlier this month as well as the arson attack against opposition-aligned private broadcaster Raajje TV and near-fatal assault of Raajje TV journalist Ibrahim ‘Asward’ Waheed.

“We don’t see a full investigation being conducted into any of this or [police] finding those behind [the attacks]. This is why we want to bring this to the UN’s attention,” he said.

Fahmy said he had also raised concerns at a workshop organised by the UN yesterday.

While writers who criticised the government were jailed without due process in the past, Imthiyaz contended that journalists were facing the same intimidation and fear after the “toppling” of the MDP government in February 2012.

The government should properly investigate Rilwan’s disappearance “if only to show” that it was not involved, he continued, and called on the police and the Maldives National Defence Force to launch a joint search operation to find Rilwan.

“MDP wishes for the blessing of Allah and for success in the efforts of Rilwan’s friends and family [to find him],” he said, adding that the MDP would do “whatever we can” to ensure that the missing journalist is found.

A free press was essential for good governance, he said, accusing the government of attempting to undermine to “destroy” free media out of fear that its “atrocities” would be exposed to the world.

After rising to 51st in the Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index in 2009 under the MDP government, Imthiyaz noted that the Maldives plummeted to 103rd “after the coup government took over”.


Missing journalist caught on ferry terminal CCTV footage

Missing Minivan News journalist Ahmed Rilwan Abdulla has been seen on CCTV footage from the Hulhumalé ferry terminal in Malé at 12:45am on August 8.

He is seen wearing a black shirt, black trousers and carrying a black backpack. He is wearing while soled Crocs shoes. He is 28-years-old, of medium build, around 5ft 10 inches tall, with a short beard.

Footage shows him buying a ticket from the counter, going into the bathroom, then coming out and handing his ticket to a ferry terminal staff and walking to the waiting area.

Rilwan lived by himself in Hulhumalé at the time of his disappearance. Today is the ninth day since he was last seen.

The CCTV footage contradicts an earlier statement by a friend of Rilwan who claimed to have seen him wearing a turquoise shirt late on the night of August 7.

Family, friends, and Minivan News were unable to identify Rilwan when they first viewed the footage on Saturday, as they were looking for a man in a turquoise shirt.

Minivan News apologises for the mistake.

It now appears Rilwan boarded the one o’clock ferry. The new information corroborates with earlier evidence, including a tweet from his account @moyameeha at 1:02am in which he reported seeing local movie star Yoosuf Shafeeu on the ferry.

A witness on Thursday also told Minivan News and the Maldives Police Services that he had sat next to Rilwan on the early morning ferry on August 8.

Based on eyewitness accounts, the police released a statement on Thursday stating Rilwan was wearing a turquoise shirt and was last seen in the early morning on the Malé – Hulhumalé ferry.

After the incorrect statement by family members and Minivan News, the police subsequently told local media they were unsure if Rilwan had boarded the ferry. The police told Minivan News the search is ongoing.

Before Rilwan went into the ferry terminal, he parked his motorbike near the carnival grounds in Malé. The motorbike is still parked at the same location.

Rilwan’s final Viber message was sent at 1:42 am.

A group of 30 people conducted a land search of Hulhumalé on Saturday, but found no sign of Rilwan. During the search, a member of Rilwan’s family has reported receiving an call from an unlisted number warning him to stop the search and go home.

The International Federation of Journalists together with its affiliate the Maldives Journalists Association has called on the government to speed up investigation to clarify of whereabouts of Rilwan.

The Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) meanwhile put out a statement last night expressing concern with the police investigation and efforts to locate Rilwan, which it contended were “inadequate”.

The main opposition party noted that Rilwan disappeared at a time when journalists were facing intimidation and receiving death threats.

The MDP referred to the party bringing to the government’s attention the abduction of alleged advocates of secularism by a vigilante group in June.

“However, we note with regret that the government has taken no action concerning [the abductions],” the statement read. The party also referred to previous threats against journalists and the arson attack against the opposition-aligned private broadcaster Raajje TV.

At the time, the party claimed to have “received information that some religious extremists have kidnapped young people claiming they had committed irreligious acts.”

Rilwan, also known as moyameehaa by his followers on Twitter, is a softly spoken yet passionate advocate of democracy and free speech. He writes on many subjects, including religion, politics, and the environment.

He had reported some online intimidation, as well as instances of being followed from work in recent months, but he had not reported having received any threats in days prior to his disappearance.

After studying journalism in India, Rilwan worked for both the Human Rights Commission of Maldives and local newspaper Miadhu before joining Minivan News last December.

Police have also confirmed that immigration records show he has not left the country, while there is no evidence to suggest that he returned to his apartment.

Anyone with further information call the Police Hotline 332 2111, or Serious and Organised Crime Department at 9911099. Alternatively, Rilwan’s family can be contacted on 775 4566 or 977 3250.


Bureaucrats drag at Durban as Maldives lobbies for survival

“It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

UN Chief Climate Change official Christiana Figueres quoted former South African president Nelson Mandela in her opening speech to the 17th UN Climate Conference, which began Monday in Durban, South Africa. Figueres urged all parties to be flexible.

At the top of the agenda is renewing the Kyoto Protocol, an international and legally binding agreement to cut greenhouse emissions which is due to expire at the end of 2012.

Within hours of the opening discussions, however, Canada said it would not commit to a second term of the Kyoto Protocol and even moved to withdraw early, while China, a leading emitter, and the G77 group said their participation in a global deal depended on all developed nations signing a second Kyoto term.

The United States said China’s participation was a basic requirement for its own involvement, but provided no guarantee.

The European Union voted in favor of a second term, but stipulated that the largest emitters, US and China, should agree to legally-binding emission cuts by 2015.

The UN conference is attended by approximately 15,000 delegates from 194 nations.

Departing for Durban today, Environmental Minister Mohamed Aslam said the Maldives would not relent to any country during the talks. During the 12-day conference, Aslam said the Maldives would lobby for a new international agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions and prevent a rise in sea levels.

“We can’t go on without finding a conclusion to this. The Maldives will lobby for and say whatever we have to say to any country it is that we will not be able to move forward without endorsing this agreement. Our survival will be our top priority,” he told Haveeru.

The last climate talks were held in Copenhagen in 2010 amidst great international excitement and pressure. However, the vague outcome–an accord with no binding articles – disappointed the public to the point of protests in Copenhagen.

Minister of Foreign Affairs Ahmed Naseem tried to correct public skepticism at the Climate Vulnerable Forum in Dhaka earlier this month.

“Today, conventional wisdom suggests that Copenhagen was a failure,” Naseem said. “I beg to differ. In my opinion, the Copenhagen Accord was not an admission of defeat, but the first step on the road towards a solution – a solution based on the vision laid down in the Male’ Declaration. That vision was simple: that global warming will only be halted when States realize the futility of arguing over whom should cut emissions, and begin competing to become the leaders of the new industrial revolution – a revolution based not on the finite power of coal and oil, but on the infinite power of the sun, sea and wind.”

Naseem called on conference attendees to push towards a climate-friendly resolution based on positive action.

Yet so far, Copenhagen’s results appear to haunt Durban.

“The main problem we face is that some countries don’t want to discuss a binding international pact,” Aslam said, echoing a key obstacle at the conference two years ago.

Aslam and other officials at the Environmental Ministry were not responding to phone calls for further commentary at time of press.

Presenting its annual report on climate trend at the conference yesterday, World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) said 2011 caps a decade that ties the record as the hottest ever measured. In the past 15 years, 13 have broken records for high temperatures.

South Africa’s Minister of International Relations and the conference chair Maite Nkoana-Mashabane echoed the Maldives’ plea when she said that the world’s poorest countries – many of them in Africa – were dependent on swift action to stave off the catastrophic effects of global warming which affect them most.

South Africa stands to suffer high disease and mortality rates, longer droughts, intense flooding and decreasing biodiversity as temperatures rise. Agriculture would also suffer in a country where nearly half of the population lives below the poverty level.

BluePeace founder Ali Rilwan told Minivan News doubted politics would carry the day at Durban, but hoped that the public would begin to carry the issue at hand.

“I don’t think anything striking will come out of [the conference]. It’s been a ritual thing for what, 20 years? And Durban is not like Copenhagen, the excitement isn’t there, and the level of participation is also low,” he said.

Calling climate conferences “talk shows,” he said the Maldives “should pay more attention to what we can do at home. For a micro-state like the Maldives, by acting locally we could have a global impact.” But not much has been done to resolve issues threatening the country’s reefs, aquatic vegetation and mangroves, he observed.

When asked if the Maldives was focusing too much on international support, Rilwan said, “we need expertise and funding. And some international parties have given that. But we don’t see anything happening.”

Rilwan’s hopes lie with the people. “The people are getting stronger. We saw it at Copenhagen and we will see it at Durban as well. They are slowly losing faith in their leaders and instead are starting to network world-wide. I think they can push their leaders to be more active on climate change,” he said.

Indeed, “Occupy Durban” has gathered momentum. US-based The Huffington Post reports that the movement stems from frustration with world leaders, and that activists doubt the people are being accurately represented.

“We had faith 16 times before but no more…most of us are saying it’s a conference of polluters,” said Patrick Bond, a professor in the in the University of Kwazulu-Natal, who is part of the occupy movement. “If anything good starts to happen then Washington will sabotage it does it again and again.”

Activists have formed a People’s General Assembly in contrast with the UN’s General Assembly. One member pointed to the decision to hold the conference in an area known for South Africa’s petrochemical industry as a sign that public and political views were at odds.

While the official conference appears to side-step stated goals, the people’s conference is still articulating its purpose. “What we’re trying to do is reengage with politics on a people based level,” one activist told Huffington Post. “What we’d like to see is a much more non-hierarchical localized politics.”

The Occupy movement currently claims a few hundred participants, but those interviewed said they were hoping for thousands to turn out a rally scheduled for December 3.