Government’s respect for religious freedom declined in 2013: US State Department report

The Maldivian government’s “respect for religious freedom declined” last year, according to the US State Department’s 2013 International Religious Freedom Report published on July 28.

“The authorities did not recognise or respect freedom of religion and it remained severely restricted,” the report observed.

“Governmental pressure to conform to a stricter interpretation of Islamic practice increased, particularly in the lead-up to presidential elections.”

Moreover, press freedom was curtailed by the government using religious grounds, the report found.

“Some Muslims expressed concern about increasing ‘Islamic radicalism,’ though advocates of religious freedom generally believed the public was becoming more aware of the issue,” it added.

The report also noted incidents of “societal abuse and discrimination” based on religion, “including incidents against Maldivians who did not want to conform to a strict, conservative interpretation of Islam.”

“There was an increasing trend among political leaders to call for greater limits on religious groups and activities, and impose criminal punishments in accordance with Islamic law,” the report stated.

“The use of religion in political rhetoric increased substantially, 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.”

Religious freedom in the Maldives is restricted by law and the constitution, the report explained, which was enforced by the government.

“Restrictions were not enforced for foreign tourists on ‘uninhabited’ resort islands,” it added, noting that foreign workers were allowed to practice their religion in private while congregations, however, were banned.

Officials from the US embassy in Colombo meanwhile emphasised the importance of religious freedom to the authorities, the report noted.

“The embassy advocated the right of all residents of the country to practice the religion of their choice in the manner of their choosing, and encouraged efforts to promote religious tolerance.”

“Government practices”

Among incidents from 2013, the report highlighted the case of a 15-year-old rape victim sentenced to 100 lashes for fornication, which Amnesty International called the “tip of the iceberg” of the country’s treatment of victims of sexual abuse.

The Ministry of Islamic Affairs exercised control over religious matters, the report noted, and set standards for imams to “prevent ‘extremist’ teachings from gaining ground.”

The report referred to Islamic Minister Dr Mohamed Shaheem Ali Saeed claiming in February 2013 that Islam was threatened by a “strong psychological war” conducted by Christians and Freemasons.

In his Eid sermon last week, Shaheem reportedly warned of efforts by elements within and without to “destroy” the Islamic ideology of the Maldives through psychological tactics.

The report also noted the Maldives Media Council’s investigation of Minivan News in late 2012 at the behest of the Islamic ministry concerning an alleged breach of the religious unity law by allowing a comment deemed anti-Islamic.

Meanwhile, during 2013, “discrimination, intolerance, and harassment of individuals calling for any discussion of a different kind of Islam increased,” the report observed.

“Politicians manipulated the public discourse by calling into question the Islamic values of political rivals and effectively stopped constructive discourse on social issues,” it explained.

“This created a culture of self-censorship and fear as politicians, civic figures, and journalists were unable to initiate discussions on Islamic values or basic human rights.”

The NGOs Jamiyyathul Salaf and the Islamic Foundation of Maldives “worked closely with the country’s political parties to promote strict, conservative Islam” while the Adhaalath Party (AP) “further limited the civil, political, and religious space for any outlook that did not align closely with Sunni Islam.”

The report referred to street protests in April led by the self-titled ‘National Movement – comprised of NGOs and the AP – “calling for presidential candidate and ex-President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) to be ‘hanged’ for apostasy.”

It noted that former Foreign Minister Dr Ahmed Shaheed observed at the time that anti-Semitism, racism, xenophobia, and religious intolerance were “deeply entrenched” in the political discourse.

Moreover, a group of religious scholars issued a pamphlet in October urging Nasheed to “repent” for his alleged anti-Islamic policies, the report noted.

“The religious/irreligious rhetoric grew wider in the lead-up to presidential elections,” the report continued, referring to “laadheenee (irreligious) graffiti targeting MDP supporters” spray-painted on walls across the capital.

“Public pressure for women to conform to a narrow standard of appropriate dress intensified, and women who did not wear a veil were reportedly harassed,” the report observed.

“On the other hand, those who wore a full face-covering veil were subjected to public harassment and derogatory comments.”

Press freedom NGO Reporters Without Borders meanwhile labelled local extremists groups “predators of freedom of information,” the report noted. Such groups were accused of “misusing free expression to promote a religious agenda, using religious arguments as a ‘political and social weapon,’ and ‘resorting to violence, and even murder, to silence dissenting opinions.'”


Chief of Defence Force warns of increasing risk of terrorist attacks, youth enrolling in terror training camps

Chief of Defence Force Major General Ahmed Shiyam has warned of a rising risk of terrorist attack in the Maldives, during a joint local and US military inauguration to establish a level of alerts for terrorism in the country.

Shiyam cautioned against assuming the country was completely safe from terrorist attacks simply based on the fact that no major terrorist activities have been uncovered in the country to date, warning there was an increased risk of terrorist attacks stemming from “religious extremism and political turmoil.”

He added that while messages encouraging such activities are circulating via social media, these focused mainly against a certain group of people, or to encourage youth to partake in activities of ‘jihad’.

“Some [Maldivian] youth have already joined up with terrorist organisations. They are now travelling to various war zones and locations and enrolling in a number of terrorist training camps. Although some of these youth have managed to travel back to this country, the whereabouts of others remain unknown. This is a warning sign of how terrorism is spreading across our country,” Major General Shiyam stated.

He stated that it is immensely important for the security forces to be well-trained in counter-terrorism measures and to ensure the forces remain ready to respond should such an incident occur.

Speaking of the necessity to identify the challenges faced in counter-terrorism operations, Major General Shiyam emphasised the importance of reviewing and revising the country’s counter-terrorism policies.

Shiyam stated that terrorism is a danger that presents itself in many different forms, including but not limited to incidents which arise through political or social activities.

“Regardless of how these dangers come forth to us, ultimately the result is the same: that is the destruction of our nation’s social fabric,” Major General Shiyam said.

Increased pressure in 2012 to conform to stricter form of Islam: US

The US State Department’s 2012 Report on International Religious Freedom notes that, especially following the February 7 controversial transfer of power, there has been an increased pressure in the Maldives to conform to a “stricter interpretation of Islamic practices.”

The report highlighted that there have been increased reports of religious freedom abuses. Concerns were also raised over government restriction of religious freedom.

“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 said.

The report also referred 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.

The report further pointed out incidences of societal harassment and abuse targeted towards citizens, especially women, who do not conform to strict, narrow guidelines seen to acceptable in Islam.

No religious freedom, SOFA agreement: Islamic Minister

Minister of Islamic Affairs Sheikh Shaheem Ali Saeed has meanwhile said that the Maldives will not grant religious freedom following the release of the US State Department’s report, and further declared that he will not allow the government to sign the proposed Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the United States.

“Religious freedom cannot be granted in the Maldives, Insha Allah [God willing]. The Constitution of the Maldives itself restricts such a thing from being permitted, nor do our citizens want such a thing. It is the responsibility of our citizens to safeguard our military interests and Insha Allah they will uphold that,” Shaheem is quoted as saying in local media.

Furthermore, “There is no way that the SOFA agreement can be signed, allowing foreign forces to stay on our land. Nor can we allow them to make the Maldives a destination in which to refuel their ships,” Shaheem said.

“The reason is, the US might attempt to use the Maldives as a centre when they are attacking another Muslim state. There is no way we will let that happen,” he said, asserting that he “will not compromise on the matter at all”.

A leaked draft of a proposed SOFA with between the Maldives and the US “incorporates the principal provisions and necessary authorisations for the temporary presence and activities of United States forces in the Republic of Maldives and, in the specific situations indicated herein, the presence and activities of United States contractors in the Republic of Maldives.”

Under the proposed 10 year agreement outlined in the draft, the Maldives would “furnish, without charge” to the United States unspecified “Agreed Facilities and Areas”, and “such other facilities and areas in the territory and territorial seas of the Republic of Maldives as may be provided by the Republic of Maldives in the future.”

“The Republic of the Maldives authorises United States forces to exercise all rights and authorities with Agreed Facilities and Areas that are necessary for their use, operation, defense or control, including the right to undertake new construction works and make alterations and improvements,” the document states.

The US would be authorised to “control entry” to areas provided for its “exclusive use”, and would be permitted to operate its own telecommunications system and use the radio spectrum “free of cost to the United States”.

The US would also be granted access to and use of “aerial ports, sea ports and agreed facilities for transit, support and related activities; bunkering of ships, refueling of aircraft, maintenance of vessels, aircraft, vehicles and equipment, accommodation of personnel, communications, ship visits, training, exercises, humanitarian activities.”

Former US Ambassador to Sri Lanka and the Maldives, now Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Robert Blake, told the Press Trust of India that the agreement referred to joint military exercises and not a future base-building endeavor.

“We do not have any plans to have a military presence in Maldives,” Blake said, echoing an earlier statement from the US Embassy in Colombo.

“As I said, we have exercise programs very frequently and we anticipate that those would continue. But we do not anticipate any permanent military presence. Absolutely no bases of any kind,” Blake said.

“I want to reassure everybody that this SOFA does not imply some new uptake in military co-operation or certainly does not apply any new military presence. It would just be to support our ongoing activities,” he said.


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”.


Government will not allow religion to be used as a weapon for political purposes: Home Minister

Council members of the minority opposition Dhivehi Qaumee Party (DQP) questioned by police were unable to substantiate “slanderous allegations” that the government was working with “Jews and Christian priests” to undermine Islam in the Maldives, Home Minister Hassan Afeef said today.

Briefing press at the police headquarters, Afeef criticised Dr Mohamed Jameel Ahmed and ‘Sandhaanu’ Ahmed Ibrahim Didi for exercising the right to remain silent when they were summoned for a second time last night and challenged the DQP leaders to point out or provide evidence of “the government’s efforts to wipe out Islam.”

“Where is that priest? Where is the money that priest gave? When was it given? Which account was it deposited to?” Afeef asked.

Dr Jameel told police interrogators that his claims were based on “rumours circulating in the island,” Afeef revealed, criticising the former Justice Minister for not realising the gravity of the allegations when repeating it without proof.

Sandhaanu Didi’s statement to police was meanwhile “useless chatter” claiming the President was “a madman and a Christian,” he added.

“We cannot allow such claims to cause unrest among the public, incite hatred towards the government and lead to discord,” Afeef asserted.

He reiterated that opposition leaders had a responsibility to substantiate “atrocious” allegations that the MDP government was intent on “wiping away Islam” to introduce religious freedom and the practice of other religions.

“This government will not allow anyone to use religion as a weapon for political purposes,” he continued. “Therefore, I would like to remind [journalists] that these actions are an atrocity. The government is not going to allow such atrocities to be committed. I urge you to be mindful of this when the media reports such news.”

Afeef also suggested that the Media Council and Maldives Broadcasting Commission were failing to fulfill their mandate by not objecting to religiously-based allegations by opposition politicians on privately-owned media outlets.

Asked why the police were not investigating cases filed by the opposition against President Mohamed Nasheed, Afeef insisted that the complaints were “baseless” and that police “would investigate if there was any truth to it.”

Among the cases filed with police include a request by PPM Deputy Leader Umar Naseer to investigate President Nasheed’s remarks allegedly “encouraging drug use”.

Calling for compassion towards heroin addicts, Nasheed said in June 2011: “When we don’t provide care for them, they take off with the box cutter and steal money from the mother’s drawers. [They] need it. They need to use. They must use. We have to come to know and understand this. We shouldn’t try talking about this politically or with the intention of hiding behind a nice veil, without using the real terms and words.”

The falsehood of such claims by Umar Naseer and others was evident and “clear as night and day,” Afeef argued.

Asked about DQP’s request for police to investigate President Nasheed’s claims to foreign media that islands in the Maldives were sinking, Afeef said the President was referring to beach erosion in recent interviews and not submersion by sea level rise.

DQP also requested police investigate Press Secretary Mohamed Zuhair for allegedly “threatening the media.”

Meanwhile, according to his twitter page, Dr Jameel revealed that he and Sandhaanu Didi have been summoned to the police station tonight for a third time.

The pair were questioned by police for a second time Saturday night, but both exercised the right to remain silent. After the initial interrogation Thursday night, Did was detained for almost 24 hours and released around 7:00pm Friday night.

Sandhaanu Didi appeared outside the police headquarters with a mask and fins last night, explaining that he had cooperated with police for 30 minutes on Thursday night and intended to “go snorkeling with the police boys tonight.”


Blogger detained another 15 days as Bari requests proper punishment

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.


“Freedom of religion remains severely restricted”: US State Department

Legal restrictions on freedom of religion in the Maldivian constitution and laws are generally enforced in practice by the government, observed a US State Department ‘July-December 2010 International Freedom of Religion Report’ made public yesterday.

The new constitution enacted in 2008 designates Islam as the official state religion and states that “a non-Muslim may not become a citizen of the Maldives.”

“There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom by the government during the reporting period. Freedom of religion remained severely restricted,” the report found. “The government required that all citizens be Muslims, and government regulations were based on Sharia (Islamic law).”

However it added that “[t]here were no reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice.”

On constitutional restrictions to freedom of religion and conscience, the report noted that religion was “excluded from a list of attributes for which people should not be discriminated against.”

Meanwhile under the Protection of Religious Unity Act of 1994, any statement or action contrary to the law could be punished either by a fine or imprisonment.

Following the 2008 presidential election, the report noted, President Mohamed Nasheed replaced the former Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs with the current Ministry of Islamic Affairs and appointed the head of the religious conservative Adhaalath party as its minister.

“Minivan News reported that every Friday prayer since President Nasheed’s inauguration had been led by a religious figure from the Adhaalath Party,” the report noted. “It stated that in this way, Islam was being controlled by one group at the expense of other prominent scholars. The same report observed that a new ministry newspaper published every Friday, called Road to Steadfastness, printed only articles written by Adaalath Party members. According to government officials, the purpose was to maintain a moderate Islamic environment rather than an extremist one.”

The report also referred to the ministry’s ban on religion groups holding independent or separate Friday prayer congregations earlier than the fixed time of 12:35pm: “The ministry justified the ban, stating that separate prayer groups violated the Protection of Religious Unity Act that was intended to promote religious homogeneity.”

Although apostasy or conversion by a Maldivian Muslim to another religion was interpreted as a Shariah law violation, “there were no known cases of the government discovering converts and rescinding citizenship as a result of conversion.”

“During previous reporting periods, would-be converts were detained and counseled to dissuade them from converting; however, according to press reports, a handful of persons in the country’s blogging community reportedly identified themselves as atheist or Christian,” the report stated.

Referring to reporting by Forum 18, a Norwegian human rights organisation that promotes freedom of religion, the State Department report noted that “many persons, especially secular individuals and non-Muslims, voiced their concern over the restrictions on religion in anonymous weblogs. The organization stated fear of social ostracism and government punishment prevented this concern from being openly expressed.”

On social pressure restricting religious freedom, the report found that “there has not been a pattern of discrimination, intolerance or harassment.”

The report however referred to the suicide of Ismail Mohamed Didi, an air traffic controller who was found hanged from the control tower of Male International Airport on July 11, 2010.

“An e-mail written by Ismail, released shortly after his death, revealed that he had been seeking asylum abroad for fear of persecution over his lack of religious belief,” it stated. “Ismail had admitted he was an atheist to his work colleagues and at the time of his death, he was the subject of an internal investigation for professed apostasy. He subsequently had been harassed at work and received anonymous phone calls threatening violence if he did not repent.”

Religious Unity

Meanwhile a report by United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Heiner Bielefeldt, published in February 2011, expressed concern to the government that a number of provisions in the regulations on protection of religious unity drafted in May 2010 “may seriously hamper several human rights, including freedom of religion or belief and freedom of opinion and expression.”

The Special Rapporteurs inquired after “steps have been taken by the Government to address the situation of members of religious minorities, dissenting believers and journalists, especially in order to guarantee their rights to freedom of religion or belief and to freedom of opinion and expression.”

However the Special Rapporteur had not received a response from the government as of February this year.

“The Special Rapporteur regrets that he has so far not received a reply from the Maldives Government concerning the above mentioned allegations,” the report stated. “He would like to appeal to the Government to ensure the right to freedom of religion or belief in accordance with article 18 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”

Article 18 of the UDHR guarantees “freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching”.

The Special Rapporteur warned that “vague terms such as ‘religious unity’ or ‘disagreement’ (article 2 of the draft Regulations) makes the interpretation of the draft Regulations prone to abuse which may be detrimental for members of religious minorities and dissenting believers.”

Moreover, a number of provisions would conflict with the Maldives’ obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

In the 2006 country report, the previous Special Rapporteur had noted that “the concept of national unity appears to have become inextricably linked to the concept of religious unity, and even religious homogeny, in the minds of the population.”

In addition, the 2006 report observed that “religion has been used as a tool to discredit political opponents and that political opponents have publicly accused each other of being either Christians or Islamic extremists, both of which have proved to be damaging accusations in a country in which religious unity is so highly regarded.”

The Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression meanwhile found in 2009 “that people are prevented both by legislative provisions and through social pressure from expressing their views about issues relevant to religion or belief and as a result exercise self-censorship.”

“Against this background, the Special Rapporteur would urge the Maldives
Government to reconsider the draft Regulations, specifically taking into account the international human rights standards on freedom of religion or belief and freedom of opinion and expression,” the report concluded.

“To this end, he calls upon the Maldives Government to allow for further debate and revision of the draft Regulations due to concerns that their implementation could have a significant negative impact on human rights in the country.”