US calls for Maldives to address rights abuses, lift restrictions on religious freedom

The Maldivian government’s respect for freedom of religion has declined in the past year, according to the US State Department’s 2012 Report on International Religious Freedom.

The report highlighted “increasing reports of abuses of religious freedom, religious intolerance and governmental restriction of religious freedom and pressure to conform to a stricter interpretation of Islamic practices” in the Maldives.

The report concluded these concerns were especially relevant after the controversial transfer of power in February 2012.

The US State Department said it had emphasised during regular missions to the Maldivian government the importance of the right to religious freedom. It detailed that “the embassy advocated for the right of all residents of the country to practice the religion of their choice, and encouraged efforts to promote religious tolerance.”

Pointing out that the Constitution of the Maldives and other laws and regulations restricted freedom of religion, the report found the government to have enforced these in practice.

“The law prohibits citizens’ practice of any religion other than Islam and requires the government to exert control over all religious matters, including the practice of Islam. There were reports of societal abuses and discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief or practice,” the findings reported.

“There was an increasing trend among political leaders to call for greater limits on religious groups and activities. There was an increasing use of religion in political rhetoric, which led to derogatory statements about Christianity and Judaism, and harassment of citizens calling for a more tolerant interpretation of Islam. Anti-Semitic rhetoric among conservative parties continued.”

The report added that according to government records, all 350,800 citizens are required to be Muslim, with the majority of this number practicing Sunni Islam. Non-Muslim visitors to the country are only allowed to practice their religion in private, it added.

Increasing abuse of religious freedom

The US issued study claimed there was also an increase in reports of abuse of religious freedom, ranging from detention of individuals to pressure to conform to a stricter interpretation of the religion.

Pointing out that conversion to Islam from another religion can lead to the rescinding of the convert’s citizenship, the report stated that no such incidences were reported in 2012.

“The government subjected individuals who made public calls for religious tolerance to extended extrajudicial police detention”, the US State Department said in the report.  It added that the government had also “deported individuals found with Christian images” while detaining “several individuals for periods of several weeks on charges of ‘anti Islamic’ behaviour before releasing or deporting them”.

The report found that the government continued to control all religious matters, mainly through its Ministry of Islamic Affairs.

The State Department also stated that the Ministry published a weekly newsletter advocating a line of religion thought as that of the ministry itself.  The report added that government officials had said the newsletter was aimed at “maintaining a moderate Islamic environment.”

Banning ‘unauthorised gatherings’, state inaction against violence

The US State Department noted a number of incidences that occurred in 2012 to back its findings.

These included a government ban on discos and the deployment of police to conduct patrols to close down ‘unauthorised gatherings’. It also refers to the mob attack on the National Museum, which saw pre-Islamic artifacts destroyed. The attack occurred at the time of last year’s controversial power transfer on February 7.

“The ministry continued efforts to curb what it described as the ‘prevalence of un-Islamic practices’ in the country due to lack of religious awareness,” the US State Department claimed.

The report highlighted the case of a Bangladesh national who was kept in detention for 23 days prior to deportation, without being charged with any crime. According to the report, his employer alleged that he was deported after police discovered books on Christianity in his possession.

The report also accused the government of inaction over the attacks on local freelance journalist Ibrahim ‘Hilath’ Rasheed, who is described in the report as being “known for his moderate views on Islam.”

The report states that Hilath believes the “attack was carried out by violent extremists in the country.”

The report claimed that the blocking in the country of Hilath’s personal blog by the Ministry of Islamic Affairs in 2011, on the justification that it had anti-Islamic content, remained in effect.

Meanwhile, the US State Department said that one of the “more prominent theories” about the murder of moderate Islamic scholar and parliamentarian Afrasheem Ali October 2, 2012, was “that violent extremists viewed Afrasheem’s very public moderate approach to Islam as apostasy and killed him to send a message to moderate Muslims that a strict interpretation of Islam is the only acceptable approach.”

The report highlighted incidences of societal harassment and abuse targeted towards citizens, especially women, who do not conform to strict, narrow “acceptable guidelines”.

Religion in political rhetoric

The report claimed there had been an increased use and continuation of anti-Semitic rhetoric by public officials throughout the last 12 months.

One example given was a pamphlet titled “President Nasheed’s Devious Plot to Destroy the Islamic Faith of Maldivians”, authored by a former home minister of the current administration, Dr Mohamed Jameel Ahmed.

Dr Jameel was recently removed from his cabinet post by President Waheed over concerns of a potential conflict of interest after he became the presidential running mate for the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) – becoming a direct rival of the incumbent.

“The pamphlet received wide-spread attention upon it’s release and played a role in the events that eventually led to the February 7 transfer of power,” it read.

The report further refers to statements made by President Waheed, who came to office following last year’s transfer of power.

“During the year, President Waheed warned the nation that foreign parties were attempting to influence the country’s ideology and promote secularism; he urged citizens to resist these impulses,” the report read.

Laws governing religion

According to the findings of the report, the government interprets the Constitutional clause naming Sunni Islam as the official religion and the government regulations being based on Islamic law as imposing a requirement that all citizens must be Muslim.

Stating that Civil Law is subordinate to Islamic Law, the report points out that the law prohibits the making of public statements which are contrary to Islam, leaving offenders subject to a two to five year jail sentence.

Furthermore, all are prohibited to publicly discuss Islam unless by prior government invitation, and Imams are not allowed to prepare sermons without government authorisation.

Several constitutional articles declare the practice of Islam as mandatory, and all schools are required to “inculcate obedience to Islam” and “instill the love of Islam” in students.

The report said that any actions found to breach the country’s Religious Unity Act were subject to criminal penalties.

Specific crimes included in the act, which is highlighted in the US issued report, include “working to disrupt the religious unity of Maldivians”, “delivering religious sermons or engaging in public discussions in a way that infringes upon the independence and sovereignty of the country” and “propagating any religion other than Islam”.


Reporters Without Borders labels Maldives’ extremist groups “predators of press freedom”

International press freedom NGO Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has included ‘extremist religious groups’ in the Maldives in its ‘Predators of Freedom of Information’ report for 2013.

The report, released to mark World Press Freedom Day on May 3, identifies ‘predators of press freedom’ around the world, including “presidents, politicians, religious leaders, militias and criminal organizations that censor, imprison, kidnap, torture and kill journalists and other news providers. Powerful, dangerous and violent, these predators consider themselves above the law.”

The 2013 report “accuses leaders and members of fanatical groups in the Maldives” of “intimidating media organisations and bloggers and threatening them with physical harm in order to force them to exercise self-censorship.”

The report also accuses extremist groups in the Maldives of “promoting of repressive legislation”, “debasement of political debate”, contributing to the “censorship of publications and the blocking of access to websites”, and “resorting to violence, and even murder, to silence dissident opinions.”

“Ever since the army mutiny that overthrew President Mohamed Nasheed in the Maldives in 2012, extremist religious groups have tried to use their nuisance power to extend their influence. They have become more aggressive as the [September 2013] presidential election approaches, intimidating news media and bloggers and using freedom of expression to impose a religious agenda while denying this freedom to others,” the report states.

The report identifies the general characteristics of media repression around the world, most notably the impunity those responsible enjoyed.

“Physical attacks on journalists and murders of journalists usually go completely unpunished. This encourages the predators to continue their violations of human rights and freedom of information,” the report stated.

“The 34 predators who were already on the 2012 list continue to trample on freedom of information with complete disdain and to general indifference. The leaders of dictatorships and closed countries enjoy a peaceful existence while media and news providers are silenced or eliminated.”

The report emphasises that failure to confront and prosecute those responsible for violations of press freedom was not due to a lack of laws, but rather selective or non-existent enforcement.

“The persistently high level of impunity is not due to a legal void. There are laws and instruments that protect journalists in connection with their work. Above all, it is up to individual states to protect journalists and other media personnel. This was stressed in Resolution 1738 on the safety of journalists, which the United Nations security council adopted in 2006,” the report stated.

“Nonetheless, states often fail to do what they are supposed to do, either because they lack the political will to punish abuses of this kind, or because their judicial system is weak or non-existent, or because it is the authorities themselves who are responsible for the abuses.”

Attacks on journalists

The Maldives plummeted to 103rd in the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) Press Freedom Index for 2013, a fall of 30 places and a return to pre-2008 levels.

“The events that led to the resignation of President Mohamed Nasheed in February led to violence and threats against journalists in state television and private media outlets regarded as pro-Nasheed by the coup leaders,” RSF observed, in its annual ranking of 179 countries.

“Attacks on press freedom have increased since then. Many journalists have been arrested, assaulted and threatened during anti-government protests. On June 5 2012, the freelance journalist and blogger Ismail “Hilath” Rasheed narrowly survived the first attempted murder of a journalist in the archipelago,” RSF noted in its report.

Rasheed, who subsequently fled the country, alleged the attacked was a targeted assassination attempt by Islamic radicals in retaliation for his public calls for religious tolerance. Police have yet to arrest anybody in connection with the murder attempt.

Subsequent to the the release of the press freedom index, Raajje TV journalist Ibrahim Waheed ‘Aswad’ suffered serious head injuries and was left in a critical condition after he was attacked on the street with an iron bar.

Waheed was attacked while he was on his way to see two Maldives Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) journalists, who were admitted to hospital after being attacked during opposition-led protests.

Following the attack, Aswad was airlifted to Sri Lanka for emergency surgery. He later recovered and returned to the Maldives.

Police have since forwarded cases against suspects Ahmed Vishan, 22, M. Carinlight Northside, and Hassan Raihan, 19, G. Fehima, for prosecution.

Press freedom day in the Maldives

Meanwhile, the Maldives Journalist Association (MJA) has launched a campaign calling for laws protecting journalists, “such as salaries, work hours and insurance for journalists,” according to MJA President and Editor of Sun Online, Ahmed ‘Hiriga’ Zahir.

The MJA showed a T-shirt promoting the ‘Working Journalists Act’, released as part of the campaign during a ceremony in the DhiTV studio.

According to Sun Online, MJA Secretary General Mundoo Adam Haleem “said that while the government has established an organisation to work for the benefit of media operators, people should ascertain for themselves who actually works for the benefit of media operators.”

Local media also reported on an acknowledgement of World Press Freedom Day during Friday’s sermon delivered all over the Maldives, encouraging people to draw a distinction between “press freedom” and “press fairness”.

An event organised by the Maldives Broadcasting Commission (MBC) to mark the signing of a five point pledge to uphold media freedom was meanwhile cancelled due to inclement weather.


“Maldives backtracking on democracy”: International Federation for Human Rights

The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) yesterday released its report into human rights in the Maldives, titled “From Sunrise to Sunset: Maldives backtracking on democracy”.

In a statement accompanying the report’s release, the group stated that it had witnessed a deterioration in the freedom of assembly and the freedom of the press as well as the “influence of radical groups detrimental to women’s rights”.

“The appointment of close allies of the former dictator Gayoom the new administration these past months, is another worrying sign that questions the respect for democratic principles and the rule of law in the country,” read the statement.

FIDH arranged a fact finding mission to the Maldives at the end of July, meeting with politicians, activists, civil society members and journalists.

The Paris-based group’s President Souhayr Belhassen called on the government to respect democratic gains made in the country, particularly implementing the recommendations of the Commission of National Inquiry (CNI) and strengthening independent institutions.

The CNI’s final report, whilst absolving the current government of any wrong-doing during February’s transfer of power, acknowledged that the police had been guilty of acts of brutality on February 8 which must be investigated.

The FIDH report describes how the past decade’s democratic reforms have stalled owing to political polarisation and institutional inertia.

“The 2008 constitution guarantees most of Maldives’ human rights obligations; however these have so far failed to be translated into domestic law,” it says.

It also suggests that the failure of the Nasheed administration to prosecute past human rights offenders has contributed to a “culture of impunity for perpetrators of past human rights violations.”

Civil society that was “flourishing and vocal during the democratic struggle became less visible during the presidency of Mohamed Nasheed”, says the report, arguing that it had become another casualty of the polarised environment.

The report detials the difficulties the country has had with separating the powers of the executive, the legislature and the judiciary which had previously been dominated by former President Gayoom.

“Tensions with the judiciary and the opposition-dominated parliament, led [Nasheed] to take unilateral decisions that exceeded his prerogatives, such as ordering the arrest of opposition leaders and a judge without following due process, or by declaring the Supreme Court defunct. Since Mohamed Waheed took over power, executive interference has continued,” read the report.

Regarding the state of the judiciary, FIDH argues that testimonies gathered from its members show that, “under the successive administrations, no political party has actually ever shown any willingness to establish an independent judiciary since each seems to benefit from the existing system.”

FIDH also notes that the government of President Mohamed Waheed Hassan has been accused of a wide range of human right violations, including violent harassment of street protesters, torture and harassment of pro-opposition media as wells as legal and physical harassment of the opposition.

“Practices to silence political dissent that had disappeared in the course of Nasheed’s presidency, have once again become prevalent under Mohamed Waheed’s presidency,” said FIDH.

The report highlights what it sees as impartial investigations of crimes, citing in particular the attempted murder of blogger Ismail ‘Hilath’ Rasheed.

The issue of the use of religion for political gains is criticised in the report: “The exploitation of religion for political gains has posed a threat to the drafting of new legislations by potentially limiting existing human rights.”

FIDH also expressed its concerns that tentative gains in women’s rights, as typified by the recent domestic violence bill, could be reversed if government aligned religious groups push for full implementation of Sharia law.

The report also criticises the apparent enthusiasm amongst politicians for implementation of the death penalty, saying: “With the current state of the judiciary and the incapacity of the police to properly investigate crimes, analysts fear judicial errors would result in the death of innocent people.”

In its recommendations to the Maldives government, FIDH urges the Maldives to remove from the domestic legal framework provisions that restrict individual right based on “race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other statu” to conform with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

Amongst its other recommendations, the report urges the government to strengthen independent institutions, to enact relevant legislation which will enable the country to fulfil its human rights obligations  and to order a thorough investigation into the attack on ‘Hilath’ Rasheed.

“The situation remains at the time of release of this report relatively confused and uncertain,” concludes the report, “however, the coming weeks will be crucial to test the Government’s ability and willingness to prevent further acts of police brutality and, in general, a deterioration of the human rights situation.”

FIDH’s report follows the release of an Amnesty International report last week which highlighted a number of politically motivated attacks by police on February 8.

Following the government’s claims that Amnesty had produced a one-sided report without seeking comment from the government, an Amnesty spokesperson stressed that the organisation was without political affiliation and had not been the only group to highlight human rights violations in the Maldives this year.

“In compiling our report we talked at length with government and police officials in Malé and Addu during our visit to the country in late February and early March. On the occasions they responded we have included their comments in our documents,” said the spokesperson.


Slashed journalist claims attack was targeted assassination by Islamic radicals

Ismail ‘Hilath’ Rasheed got out his mobile phone and called for a taxi, but no sound came from his throat.

Instead the Maldivian blogger, journalist and former Amnesty prisoner of conscience, infamous for his willingness to tackle taboo subjects, particularly religious tolerance – felt air escaping from his neck.

“A very bad kind of panic came at that moment. I knew my trachea was cut. I knew it was a deep cut, and not just on the surface of the skin,” the journalist told Minivan News, prior to fleeing his own country in fear of his life.

Moments before, on the evening of June 4, Rasheed had turned into the dark alleyway leading to the door of his apartment block to find a man in a yellow shirt waiting for him.

“Then I heard someone call me by name from behind, and two more entered the alley. As I was turning the guy in a yellow T-shirt came up beside me, grabbed me from behind, put a mid-size box cutter to my neck and started slashing.

“I put my hand up to try and stop him, but he kept slashing.”

Rasheed holds up his hand – besides the jagged slash mark across his neck that almost claimed his life, the blogger lost a digit of his index finger trying to protect himself from the knife.

“That was why they missed a vital artery. I tried to prevent it – they cut the finger to the bone.”

Job done, the three men walked “very calmly” out of the alley in separate directions, leaving Rasheed to bleed to death in the alley.

“I got a look at their faces, but it was too dark to identify them,” he says. “They all had beards, and they were very young – I would say between 18 and 24. When the man in the yellow shirt was slashing my throat I smelled his breath – it smelled of alcohol.”

Acting on instinct, Rasheed held his neck and did not let go.

“I didn’t know how bad it was – because it was a box cutter, it was a very clean cut – it wasn’t painful,” he says.

“I thought about going upstairs to inform my parents, but I thought I better go straight to hospital rather than go up all the stairs.”

Leaving the alleyway, holding his head down to prevent blood loss, Rasheed tried to flag down a passing motorcycle. In the distance, he saw two of his attackers ride away on a motorcycle, while the walked round the corner.

“I knew it was pointless to go after them as I needed to get to the hospital,” he recalls.

Three motorcycles passed without stopping to help him, even though the front of his shirt and trousers were by now drenched in blood. That was when he tried to call the taxi, only to realise the extent of his injury.

“Even at that moment, a thought came into my mind. All the people who brought change to the world, most of them died for that cause – they didn’t live to see the fruits of their effort.

“When this thought came into my mind, survival instinct took over and I felt a rage: ‘I am going to survive, I want to live to see the fruits of my work – the fight for human rights,’” he tells Minivan News.

A young couple walking down the street noticed him – and the girl began screaming. A young man on a motorcycle motorcyclist heard the sound as he came around the corner, and stopped so Rasheed could get on behind him.

“I was still holding my neck, and not talking, and pointed in the direction of the hospital. With my right hand I held onto his shoulder – I was afraid I might faint because of the blood loss and fall off. There was so much blood – there was a pool forming in front of me.”

Fighting off unconsciousness, Rasheed stumbled into the lobby of ADK hospital, the young man behind him.

“I was very appreciative but I couldn’t talk to thank him,” Rasheed says. “Because I couldn’t say thank you I just gave him a thumbs up and walked into the hospital. A doctor later said the guy promptly fainted in the doorway.”

Still holding his neck, Rasheed walked into the the emergency room: “The people waiting in the lobby started screaming as I went passed – I think they were shocked,” he says.

A Maldivian girl and a couple of foreign nurses took Rasheed to a bed – “I saw a lot of ADK officials and police officers coming in. The Maldivian girl asked me to show them the injury. I knew I had to show them the extent of the damage so they knew what kind of treatment was needed,” he says.

“I lifted my head all the way back. And quickly back down. A doctor later told me that a nurse and a police officer fainted.”

The foreign nurses quickly inserted a tube into his neck so he could breathe, and pressed bandages to his neck to try and stem the blood loss.

The staff put him on a bed and rushed him to the operating theatre.

“They gave me anaesthetic. It took a while for it to work, but I didn’t feel any pain. I could see them opening my neck, putting their hand inside. I knew they were trying to assess the damage and from what they were saying, that my trachea was severed.”

The hospital kept Rasheed under anesthetic for 48 hours – “they didn’t want to wake me up,” he says.

“My father later told me that I happened to go into the hospital when the new shift was coming in All the old shift doctors stayed on – there were 6-8 of them. My father said at that moment they told him that I had a less than one percent chance of survival, but that they would try everything they could.”

Rasheed was later told by friends who had gathered outside the operating theatre that while he was undergoing emergency surgery, one of the men who had attacked and hospitalised him during a protest for religious tolerance on December 10 – Human Rights Day – came and waited outside the emergency room.

“A relative spotted him and asked him what he was doing there – he said he was there for scans – so the relative asked him why he was waiting in front of emergency. He was the guy who attacked me with a stone on December 10 and fractured my skull, and his excuse was that he was there for a scan,” Rasheed says.

That was the first of several unsettling incidents to happen while Rasheed was in hospital. Conscious of security concerns, ADK staff forbade access to Rasheed for all apart from his parents.

“While I was under anesthetic, I was told by a friend of a friend – a gang member – that someone had been sent into the hospital to kill me – to pull the plug. Nobody would have noticed,” Rasheed says.

“This bearded guy came into the Intensive Care Unit posing as my father. While he was near me a doctor who knew my father just happened to come into the ICU. The doctor was suspicious, and asked him who he was – he said he was my father. The doctor said ‘I know Hilath’s father, you are not his father,’ and called security to have him thrown out. He’s on the hospital’s CCTV footage.”

Four days later, Rasheed woke up on a ventilator, astounding doctors at his miraculous recovery.

“They said they had never seen anyone recover so fast from such an injury,” he says.

Rasheed has no doubt in his mind as to the motivation behind his attack – the third in just a few months. The attack was unusual in that most of the wave of recent gang stabbings in the Maldives have involved multiple stab wounds to different parts of the body – targeted throat slashing is new.

In July 2009, Rasheed broke news of a story on his blog concerning an under-age girl allegedly being kept by a family as a ‘jaariya’ – a concubine. Concerns were initially raised when the girl was taken to Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital (IGMH) and was found to be pregnant.

“Ever since I reported the story on my blog I have received death threats. Things like: ‘If we see you on street we will slash your throat’, ‘we will behead you’, ‘don’t walk in a dark alley,’ things like that,” says Rasheed.

One of only several Maldivian bloggers to write under his own name, Rasheed courted controversy by continuing to tackle taboo subjects in the Maldives – particularly religious intolerance, and the constitutional provision that all Maldivians were required to be ‘100 percent Sunni Muslim’. This was at odds, Rasheed argued, with the country’s Sufi history and new-found commitment to freedom of expression – which had ironically, he argued, also given a voice to more extreme interpretations of the religion.

The attitude of many to Rasheed’s work was summarised in comments made by spokesperson for former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and newly-appointed Minister for Human Resources, Mohamed ‘Mundhu’ Shareef, who told AFP following the attempt on the blogger’s life that while the government condemned the attack, “Hilath must have known that he had become a target of a few extremists.”

“We are not a secular country. When you talk about religion there will always be a few people who do not agree,” Shareef said.

Both the administrations of Nasheed and Waheed showed little interest in prosecuting those who threatened and attacked Rasheed – regardless of the number of photos and witnesses.

“I reported the threats to police. In fact an intelligence officer met me after the concubine story. Nothing came of it. The man who attacked me with the stone on December 10 – there were photos of him, I gave his identity and everything. Police never arrested him, and as far as I know he’s still roaming free around Male.”

Police are investigating the latest attack on Rasheed, but despite claiming to have access to CCTV footage of the area, no arrests had been made at time of press. Police Sub-Inspector Hassan Haneef told Minivan News that while the investigation was proceeding, the case was “sensitive”.

The reason for that, Rasheed says, “is very obvious.”

“This coup government is collaborating with Islamic extremists. The extremists together with the Adhaalath party are now in power. I don’t think they will arrest my three attackers, even this time, and I don’t think I will get justice as long as Waheed’s coup government is in power,” the blogger says.

Days before the attempt on his life, Rasheed and a friend were passing the Furqan mosque in Male’ on their way to the swimming tracks. Six members of the same gang who attacked him on December 10 – who were inside setting up a sermon – came out and began punching him in the face.

“They cornered me, and pushed me into the wall. And started punching my face. As they were punching me I told them I had repented and was a Muslim. One of them said: ‘We don’t know that. You have to make a public announcement that you are a Muslim. Otherwise we will kill you.’”

The sight of a passing police jeep caused the group to cease their attack and scatter – “apart from one. He was one of those who threw stones on December 10,” Rasheed says. “Right in front of the police, he punched me in the face.”

The police saw the incident, came out of the jeep and arrested his attacker, says Rasheed.

“They asked me and my friend to come to the police station. We filed a case. That night they took him to court and extended his detention by five days.”

However while Rasheed was at home one of the gang members “called me, and told me to withdraw the case, and that in return I would never be attacked by Maldivian Wahabis again.”

The following morning Rasheed went to the police station and withdrew the case. He rang the gang member, “who said he was very happy.”

“A few days later this happened,” says Rasheed, pointing to his scarred throat. “I guess they are not good at keeping their word,” he laughs bitterly.

While Rasheed cannot identify his attackers in the June 4 attack, he claims that besides calling out his name, the assailants told him the attack was “compliments” of three senior political and religious figures in the country.

“I was told by a friend of these gang members that [two of these figures] met this gang and told them to murder me, and that it would not be a sin, and that in fact they would go to heaven because I had blogged about freedom of religion and gay rights,” Rasheed says.

“The friend also told me via the gang member that the extremists have drawn up a list of MDP members and supporters who are advocating secularism on Facebook and Twitter. I haven’t seen this list, but I’m told it exists. I have advised all my friends to be extra careful about their personal safety.”

Both sides of the political spectrum in the Maldives have on occasion accused the other of employing gangs for political purposes, such as attending and disrupting political rallies, in exchange for money and alcohol. However, Rasheed’s allegation that radicalisation is now being used as a control technique is new.

“These gangs are very easy to radicalise,” Rasheed explains. “They have committed all kinds of evil acts and sins, and it is very easy to brainwash them. These Sheikhs go and tell them that because they have done all these activities, the only way for them to get salvation is to subordinate themselves to Allah and undertake jihad against secularists and unbelievers. It is very easy.

“I think because the Islamists are now in power these people feel powerful and immune, and protected by this new culture of impunity. They are doing what they want to do, and what they are told to do. As long as this coup government is in power, this country will be lawless with gangs and Islamic extremists dictating our lives and murdering their opponents who disagree with them.”

Some of the more conservative Sheikhs have even privately expressed concern about the growing radicalisation of gang members, Rasheed says.

“One of them told a relative of mine that it was a disgrace – that these were gang members, taking heroin, abusing alcohol, that they were just criminals posing as Salafis,” says Rasheed.

“He said he was really concerned about groups taking over mosques because it was giving a bad name to Salaf and all the other Wahabis.”

International response

The attack on Rasheed has been widely condemned by international human rights NGOs, as the first apparently targeted murder attempt of a journalist in the Maldives.

Several human rights NGOs raised the attack during a recent debate at the UN Human Rights Council with UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, Frank La Rue.

During the debate, NGOs led by the Centre for Inquiry and the International Humanist and Ethical Union criticised the growing “climate of intolerance and impunity for such crimes” in the Maldives.

“The government of the Maldives has made no effort to arrest Rasheed’s attackers despite credible photographic evidence of the attack,” the NGOs contended, expressing alarm at the growing influence of extremists in the Maldives.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemned the blocking of Rasheed’s blog – – in 2011 by Communications Authority of the Maldives (CAM) on the order of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs. The Ministry had made the request on the grounds that the site contained anti-Islamic material.

Rasheed at the time described the crack-down as “just the beginning”, claiming there was no material on it that contradicted his Sufi interpretation of Islam.

“If Sunni Muslims are the conservatives, then the Sufi Muslims are the liberals,” he told Minivan News. “I think this is a conservative attack on the site. They think if you’re not a Sunni, you’re an unbeliever.”

After his attack, RSF issued a statement noting that it had “all the hallmarks of a targeted murder attempt.”

“Rasheed has made many enemies through his outspoken blogging. The authorities in charge of the investigation should not rule out the possibility that this was linked to his journalistic activity. He is a well-known journalist who has repeatedly been censored, arrested and threatened.

“The police must, as a matter of urgency, put a stop to the harassment of Rasheed and take the issue of his safety seriously. Any lack of response on their part will constitute a criminal failure to assist a person in danger,” RSF stated.

Amnesty International also issued a statement, noting that “religious groups opposed to Ismail Rasheed’s long campaign for religious freedom are suspected of being behind the attack.”

“People linked to these groups hit him with stones in December 2011, fracturing his skull, because he had arranged a rally to call for religious tolerance. Although that attack took place in front of onlookers and there is photographic evidence that can be used to identify the attackers, no one has yet been brought to justice for that attack,” Amnesty said.

For his part, Rasheed is no longer in the Maldives and has said he has no specific plans to return.

“In my opinion, I can never return to the Maldives. Right now, with the coup government hand-in-hand with Maldivian extremists, I believe the Maldives is a terrorist state. We need elections as soon as possible to bring back democracy,” he said.

The apparently newfound willingness of some politicians to use radicalised groups for political gain was “a devil’s pact”, Rasheed warned.

“Expect more political murders in the near future. It is not just me they want to get rid of – there are a lot of people. I forsee a lot of bloodshed.”


Democracy suffers in Maldives in the face of rising fundamentalism: Asia Sentinel

The Indian Ocean paradise Maldives, until recently a moderate Muslim state, is the latest Asian country to witness a troubling rise in ultraconservative Wahhabi Islam imported from the Middle East, writes Annapoorna Karthika for the Asia Sentinel.

On June 2, Ismail Rasheed, popularly known as ‘Hilath,’ was attacked outside his home when his throat was slit through his trachea, missing a vital artery by millimetres. Rasheed, an outspoken blogger advocating freedom of religion and a fierce critic of the growing religious extremism in the archipelago country, is expected to survive the near-fatal attempt on his life, the second.

The gruesome assault on Rasheed cannot be treated as an isolated episode. It is an upshot of the rising religious radicalization in Maldives, whose constitution does not allow any national to practice a religion other than Islam.

Maldives, like many other countries in the world, fits a description of democracy in which popular attention to real democracy remains constrained, with the government paying only lip service to its forms but not its core values. According to the scholar Amitai Etzioni, the world today conflates its understanding of democracy with liberalism. The casting of votes by the people of a territory toward electing a government is indispensable for a flourishing democracy irrespective of the commitment of the elected government toward liberal principles such as individual’s freedom of speech and expression, indispensable civil liberties and rights of individuals.

In Maldives, the parliament’s decision to create a multiparty system in 2005 was upheld as significant progress in welcoming democracy to the country. In this regard, the emergence of the conservative Adhaalath party is criticized to have contributed toward the precarious swelling of religious intolerance, which threatens the realization of substantive democracy in Maldives. Although many scholars believe in the compatibility between Islam and liberal democracy, the Wahhabi movement in Maldives has been able to radicalize the religion by encouraging the use of violence to suppress voices of dissent.

Yet Maldives continues to be called a democracy. The forthcoming days are critical to see if they affirm the fundamentalist belief that democracy is a scourge to the freedom and individual rights of Maldivians.

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Reporters Without Borders condemns stabbing of Hilath Rasheed: “All the hallmarks of a targeted murder attempt”

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has condemned the stabbing of well-known Maldivian journalist and blogger Ismail ‘Hilath’ Rasheed.

Rasheed had his throat slashed outside his house in Male’ around 8:15pm on Monday night, and was rushed to ADK Hospital for emergency surgery. Sources at the hospital said that the attack severed his trachea (windpipe), missing a vital artery “by millimetres”, and initially gave him a five percent chance of survival.

Hospital staff stabilised Rasheed’s condition around 2:30am on Tuesday, and as of Wednesday evening his condition was said to be improving. An informed source told Minivan News that Rasheed was unable to speak due to his injuries, but had communicated with his parents in writing.

“This knife attack has all the hallmarks of a targeted murder attempt,” Reporters Without Borders said in a statement.

“Rasheed has made many enemies through his outspoken blogging. The authorities in charge of the investigation should not rule out the possibility that this was linked to his journalistic activity. He is a well-known journalist who has repeatedly been censored, arrested and threatened.

“The police must, as a matter of urgency, put a stop to the harassment of Rasheed and take the issue of his safety seriously. Any lack of response on their part will constitute a criminal failure to assist a person in danger,” RSF stated.

The organisation noted that Rasheed had previously been attacked on December 10, 2011, suffering a fractured skull “while attending a peaceful demonstration in support of religious tolerance.”

“The police then arrested him for taking part in the demonstration and held him until 9 January,” RSF added, noting that Rasheed’s blog,, had also been blocked on the orders of Ministry of Islamic Affairs on 19 November 2011 on the grounds that it contained “anti-Islamic” material.

“If it is confirmed that the attack was prompted by his journalism and blogging, Rasheed would be the first journalist to have been the target of a murder attempt in Maldives,” RSF observed.

The Maldives Journalist Association (MJA) has also condemned the attack on Rasheed.

“The violent attack on Hilath was an attempt to kill him. The association calls on the authorities to find those who had involved in this crime and bring them to justice,” the MJA stated.
“We call on the police and political figures of this country to stop quarrelling for power and make the country – especially the capital Male’ – a place where families and children can live without fear.”

The MJA added that if the trend of violent murders across the country continued, the resulting impact on the country’s tourism-based economy would be “irrevocable”.

Minister for Human Resources and spokesperson for former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, Mohamed ‘Mundhu’ Shareef, told AFP that while the government condemned the attack, “Hilath must have known that he had become a target of a few extremists.”

“We are not a secular country. When you talk about religion there will always be a few people who do not agree,” Shareef said.

Police Sub-Inspector Hassan Haneef meanwhile said that while no arrests had been made, police had obtained CCTV footage of the area and were in the process of analysing it.

Police were also investigating the stabbing of a Bangladeshi man at 11pm on the same evening, Haneef said. The victim suffered minor injuries and was discharged from hospital on Tuesday.

The Maldives was ranked 73rd out of 179 countries in the 2011-2012 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index. The country jumped from 148th in 2005 to 51st in 2009, following the introduction of multiparty democracy and freedom of expression.


Prominent blogger Hilath Rasheed in critical condition after stabbing

Prominent Maldivian blogger and journalist Ismail ‘Hilath’ Rasheed is in a critical condition after he was stabbed in the neck near his house in Male’ on Monday evening.

Police Sub-Inspector Hassan Haneef confirmed that Rasheed was stabbed around 8:15pm and was undergoing emergency treatment in ADK hospital.

No arrests have been made, “however there is CCTV in the area and we are trying to get something on it,” Haneef stated.

Police had cordoned off the area around the blood-stained pavement at time of press. There was on Monday evening no indication as to the motivation of the attack.

An informed source at ADK hospital said Rasheed was bleeding but conscious when he was brought to the hospital, and that he was expected to remain in surgery until 2:30am.

“They slit his throat clean through the trachea, and missed a vital artery by millimetres,” the source said, around 11:30pm, giving Rasheed a “five percent chance …  It doesn’t look good.”

Early on Tuesday morning the source reported that Rasheed’s condition had stabilised: “He’ll be in intensive care for a couple of days. He’s breathing through a tube now.”

Sub-Inspector Haneef said a second individual was stabbed in the back at 11:00pm near Male’s garbage dump and had been taken to Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital (IGMH) in a critical condition. Local media reported that the victim was believed to be a Bangladeshi national.

Second attack

Rasheed, a once outspoken blogger against extremism and former editor of newspaper Haveeru, was previously attacked by a group of men on December 10, 2011 – Human Rights Day – while attending a protest calling for religious tolerance.

A group of men attacked the protesters with stones, and Rasheed was taken to IGMH with a fractured skull.

He was subsequently arrested by police for questioning over his involvement in the protest gathering, and jailed for over three weeks.

Amnesty International declared him a ‘prisoner of conscience’, and said it was “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 Foreign Ministry subsequently called for an investigation “by relevant authorities” into the attack on the protest.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) also condemned both the December 10 attack on Rasheed and his arrest, noting that he was not only one of the country’s leading free speech advocates, but one of the few Maldivians bloggers to write under his own name.

“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,” RSF stated at the time.

Censored blogger

Rasheed’s popular and controversial blog,, was blocked in November 2011 by the Communications Authority of the Maldives (CAM) on the order of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs. The Ministry made the request on the grounds that the site contained anti-Islamic material, CAM confirmed at the time.

Hilath claimed he was being censored for expressing his version of Islam, and called for more freedom of interpretation within the faith.

“I call upon all concerned to amend the clause in the constitution which requires all Maldivians to be Sunni Muslims only,” his statement read. “‘Unto you your religion and unto me my religion,’ and ‘There is no compulsion in religion’,” he said, quoting Qur’an 109:6 and 2:256.

Hilath claimed at the time that the blocking of his website had a political edge: “If Sunni Muslims are the conservatives, then the Sufi Muslims are the liberals,” he told Minivan News. “I think this is a conservative attack on the site. They think if you’re not a Sunni, you’re an unbeliever.”

Following the blocking of his blog and his attack in December, Rasheed became less outspoken on the subject of religion and withdrew from the public spotlight.

On May 12 he tweeted his intention to stop blogging altogether, and stated that he had “repented and am now a Muslim. But a very tolerant one at that.”


Prison conditions “unchanged since Gayoom’s time”: detained blogger

Amnesty International has welcomed the release from prison of Maldivian blogger and journalist Ismail ‘Khilath’ Rasheed last Friday, whom the organisation had designated a ‘prisoner of conscience’, but expressed alarm at the government’s failure to prosecute his attackers.

Rasheed was jailed for 24 days in Male’ Custodial following his participation in a ‘silent protest’ on December 10, 2011, International Human Rights Day, calling for religious tolerance.

During the protest at the Artificial Beach he was attacked by several men armed with stones, and was hospitalised with head injuries. He was subsequently arrested on December 14.

“While the release of Ismail Khilath Rasheed is a welcome development, the fact that his attackers have not been investigated points to a serious failure of the government to end impunity for human rights abuses in the country,” said Abbas Faiz, Amnesty International’s Maldives researcher.

“Instead of defending his right to advocate religious tolerance, the government locked Ismail Khilath Rasheed up and have done nothing to bring his attackers to justice – thereby sending a message to the public that crushing a peaceful demonstration is acceptable,” he said.

Amnesty observed that radical religious groups in the Maldives were advocating that “only Sunni Islam is allowed under the constitution”, noting that opposition politicians had sided with these groups “in a political campaign against the President”.

“It is time for the Maldives government to bring to justice all perpetrators of human rights abuses – past and present – including those who attack religious minorities. The first step in this process should be to carry out an independent, impartial and effective investigation of those who used violence against Ismail Khilath Rasheed and other demonstrators on 10 December,” Amnesty declared.

In November 2011 Rasheed’s blog,, was blocked by the Communications Authority of the Maldives (CAM) on the order of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, on the grounds that it contained “anti-Islamic” material.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has also issued a statement on Rasheed’s release, but expressed concern about the ongoing blocking of his blog on the order of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs.

“The journalist’s unlawful detention is a reminder that it is impossible to establish a totally free press so long as the government subjects itself to religious extremism, as displayed by the Islamic Affairs Ministry,” RSF said.

“Religion is becoming a taboo subject in the Maldives and media workers are under threat of imprisonment every time it is debated.”

“Just like Gayoom’s time”

Despite the Maldives’ international stand on human rights issues, the prisons “remain unchanged since Gayoom’s time”, Rasheed told Minivan News, following his release.

During the police investigation of his involvement with the protest, 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, Rasheed said.

The room was so small and crowded it was impossible for 12 people to fully stretch out and sleep properly, and despite provisions requiring inmates be allowed out for at least an hour’s exercise every day, no one was allowed outside during his detention, Rasheed said.

Inmates had to summon the duty officer to be taken to the toilet, which did not flush. There was no shower, and inmates washed themselves by filling a bucket at the water basin, which was also used to flush the toilet. Inmates in other cells with attached toilets were not allowed out at all.

The prisoners had no bedding apart from a small pillow, and slept on the tiles. Every three days they were given a small amount of detergent to wash the floor of the cell.

Rasheed said that the Prosecutor General (PG)’s office visited once during his detention and observed that prisoners were not being properly treated.

“There were no medical facilities, or means of treating heroin addicts going into withdrawal. One of my cellmates had a [withdrawal] fit and we had to put a slipper in his mouth [to stop him swallowing his tongue],” Rasheed said. “I held his hand.”

Most of the cell’s occupants were awaiting prosecution for drug offences, muggings, theft, and for carrying weapons.

“People had been in there for three months and were very frustrated, and were venting that frustration against the government. The Constitution sets limits to people’s detention, but people are in limbo. One guy accused of murder has been in there for 1.5 years, and still his case has not been sent to the PG’s office for prosecution,” Rasheed said.

The blogger was presented to the court following the expiration of the first 24 hour detention period.

“The investigating officer stated that I was the organiser of the protest and should be detained as I was disrupting the religious unity of the Maldives, and was a threat to society,” Rasheed said.

Police also presented Ali Ahsan to the court, developer of the December 23 protest website which had briefly published slogans calling for the murder of “those against Islam”.

Police argued that Ahsan’s release “could endanger Maldivian religious unity and even threaten life” and requested the court grant a 15-day extension of his detention.

Ahsan’s lawyers however argued that the slogans had been uploaded by hackers, and the website developer was released. Rasheed’s detention was extended by 10 days.

After 10 days in custody, Rasheed was again presented to the court.

“The investigating officer told the judge he had reason to believe I had no religion at all, and that I was promoting gay rights, and therefore my case could be concluded only after the Islamic Ministry provided me with counseling to bring me back to Islam,” said Rasheed, who self-identifies as a Sufi Muslim.

The magistrate extended Rasheed’s detention a further 15 days.

On Friday January 6, two days before he was due to be released, Rasheed was told that his case had been sent to the Prosecutor General’s office and that he was free to go.

“The day I was released a different investigating officer said I had been put in prison for my own protection – the same thing my family had been told. He said they had intelligence suggesting that a gang of brainwashed extremists were out to kill me and anybody identified as associated with the protest.”

Rasheed said he now fears for his safety and is unwilling to walk around Male’.

“The majority of Maldivians are not violent people. But I am concerned about a few psychotic elements who believe they will go to heaven if they kill me – people who don’t care if they go to jail for it. Those people I am afraid of, and I will not provoke the country in the future.”

Rasheed’s blog remains blocked, but he says he is unwilling to risk his own safety by resuming blogging anyway.

“The [silent protesters] made their point, which was in no way anti-Islamic,” he said. “Their point was: the majority of people want to eat apples, but a minority want to eat oranges. We said we have no problem with anyone eating apples, but let us eat oranges.

“We said nothing about trying to get people to leave Islam. Everyone should be able to think and practice and follow what they feel personally, and Islam teaches tolerance. Extremists twist this around, and equate it with apostasy – and call for those who leave Islam to be killed.”

Rasheed said he felt that the majority of Maldivians disagreed with extremism, and were generally “a very laid-back, moderate people who want a peaceful life. They are concerned about disruption to families and society, rather than other religions or beliefs.”


Controversial blogger and “prisoner of conscience” released from custody

Ismail ‘Khilath’ Rasheed was released from police custody last night, where he had been held since December 14 without charges while police investigated his role in a peacefully-intended protest held on December 10.

Police confirmed that Rasheed was released on a court order, and said that the investigation into his involvement in a silent peaceful protest on December 10 had been concluded with no findings against him.

Rasheed was arrested on December 14 for his involvement in a protest for religious tolerance held at Male’s Artificial Beach on International Human Rights Day. The group of approximately 30 protestors were attacked with stones, and Rasheed was taken to the hospital with head injuries.

Rasheed’s detention was twice extended by the court, which subsequently launched an investigation into the contents of his controversial blog which was previously blocked by the Islamic Ministry on the grounds that it contained anti-Islamic content.

After Rasheed’s detention was extended a second time on December 27, Islamic Minister Dr Abdul Majeed Abdul Bari requested parliament’s National Security Committee to include a clear, strong punishment for those advocating religious freedom within the Maldives in the new Penal Code currently at committee stage.

Meanwhile, Amnesty International declared Rasheed a prisoner of conscience, and Reporters Without Borders (RSF) challenged Bari’s argument that calling for freedom of religious was unconstitutional within a democratic Muslim society.

“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,” read the statement by RSF.

Minivan News was unable to reach Rasheed at time of press.