The detention of controversial blogger Ismail ‘Khilath’ Rasheed has been extended by another 15 days, following Sunday’s Criminal Court hearing.
Meanwhile, Islamic Minister Dr Abdul Majeed Abdul Bari has requested that appropriate punishments for those who call for religious freedom be added to the nation’s penal code.
Rasheed, a self-declared Sufi Muslim, was arrested on December 14 by a Court Order for his involvement in a silent peaceful protest calling for religious tolerance in honor of International Human Rights Day. The protest ended violently when a group attacked the approximately 30 protestors with stones, sending Rasheed to the hospital with head injuries.
His detention was extended by 10 days on December 17. He has been held without charges.
The Criminal Court has cited Rasheed’s blog, which was shut down on the Islamic Ministry’s order in November for its alleged anti-Islamic content, as grounds for his extended detention, Haveeru reports.
Ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) MP ‘Reeko’ Moosa Manik called for an investigation into the gathering, along with religious conservative Adhaalath Party and NGO Jamiyyathu Salaf.
The parliament’s National Security Committee (NSC) currently reviewing the silent protest had summoned Rasheed for questioning today, however it was cancelled when officials decided “not to proceed with the hearing at this time,” said an NSC official.
The parliamentary committee did hear Islamic Minister Dr Bari, who observed that the law lacks any clear punishment for individuals promoting religious freedom.
“The protestors did not announce that they had abandoned their religion but they called for religious freedom. The law has no defined punishment. They are just defying the religious unanimity of the country. I don’t believe there is any legal action against the call as no legal action can be taken until one publicly declares apostasy,” he said.
Dr. Bari requested parliament to pass these “much-needed legislations”, and advised that the punishments be added to the Penal Code currently under review.
Guraidhoo MP Ibrahim Riza pointed out that in cases where no clear penalty is stated, punishments can be given under Penal Code Article 88(a), (b) and (c), reports Haveeru.
Dr Bari countered that the code only provides soft punishments.
In a statement protesting Rasheed’s detention, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) challenged the claim that the December 10 gathering violated the Maldives’ national religion.
“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,” reads the statement.
The Maldivian laws state that those seeking elected political office must be Sunni Muslims.
Police commissioner Ahmed Faseeh responded to Bari’s concerns at the NSC meeting by assuring a thorough investigation would be completed within 15 days. He called the case a serious matter.
“I will give the details [later] and I will point out everything even if it includes negligence on our side,” he said.
“We have done a lot and several have been summoned. We are determining the identity of those believed to have participated in the gathering via CCTV footage and video clips received from the public and we are summoning them,” he is quoted as saying in Haveeru.
Meanwhile, Rasheed’s detention has also attracted concern from Amnesty International.
Following RSF’s statement, Amnesty International declared Rasheed a prisoner of conscience and called for his “immediate and unconditional” release.
Calling the attack on Rasheed and his subsequent detention a “clear example of the erosion of freedom of expression in the Maldives,” Amnesty stated that,
“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 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 debate over religious tolerance has been gathering steam for several months.
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.
United Nation’s Human Rights Chief Navi Pillay spoke against flogging as a punishment for extra-marital sex in November, prompting protests and demands that she be “flayed”.
On December 23, the protests to defend Islam had members of various opposition parties and religious NGOs calling for full Shari’ah, while the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) stood for the national tradition of moderate Islam. The protests were executed peacefully, however the tense build-up prompted the United Kingdom to issue a travel advisory for the Maldives.
The Islamic Ministry today announced that it will hold a conference this Saturday and Sunday to discuss the religious controversies currently afoot in the Maldives. The ministry’s Assistant Director Admedullah Jameel has told Haveeru that 64 scholars will be in attendance.