“The growing political and institutional influence of radical Islamic groups has undermined the Maldives’ progress towards realisation of rights guaranteed under [The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)]”, according to a report compiled by the Helios Life Association (HLA) NGO.
The claims were made in a report entitled: “Maldives: Sudden Reversals in the Implementation of ICCPR Commitments”, which alleges an “alarming increase” in the violation of human rights outlined within the ICCPR that was adopted by the Maldives back in December 2006.
The report by HLA – a non-profit NGO from Switzerland- will be among several documents submitted to a hearing of the UN Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) in Geneva on Thursday (July 12).
The UNHRC has already identified key issues to be taken up with the Maldives concerning its commitments to the ICCPR. A document outlining these issues – drawn from the country’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) (with submissions from government, HRCM and civil society), was published in August 2011 – prior to the controversial change of government and fresh allegations of police brutality and attacks on journalists.
The government of President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan, which came to power through a controversial transfer of power on February 7, responded to the list of issues earlier this month, ahead of its session with the committee this week.
Representatives of the Waheed administration including Home Minister Dr Mohamed Jameel , State Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dunya Maumoon and the Maldives’ Permanent Representative in Geneva, Iruthisham Adam, will be present during Thursday’s session to discuss the country’s human rights commitments.
ICCPR in the Maldives
In discussing the role of the ICCPR and human rights issues in the Maldives, the HLA report said that a new constitution adopted in the country on August 8, 2008, paved the way to implement “most of the rights” outlined in the covenant.
However, the report did note some exceptions to the ICCPR, including sections of Article 18, – “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion” – that it alleged had directly impacted a number of other articles in the covenant.
“The fall of the old autocratic regime following the first free and fair elections in the Maldives in October 2008, provided a further boost in the observation of the rights protected under the Covenant,” the report claimed. “An example of this was the agreement during the Maldives’ Universal Periodic Review (UPR) to address a number of concerns relating to non‐compliance with Article 18.”
In responding to issues raised with the UN on the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, the Maldives government said that “the reservation states that the application of the principles set out in article 18 will be without prejudice to the Constitution of the Maldives. Chapter II of the Constitution on fundamental rights and freedoms does not include, among the rights guaranteed, freedom of thought, conscience and religion.”
The HLA report also highlighted “concerns relating to the competence, independence and impartiality of the judiciary,” an issue central to the events leading up to February’s transfer of power following the controversial detention of a serving Criminal Court Chief Judge. The detention saw former President Mohamed Nasheed’s government criticised around the world.
Drawing attention to what the report called the “institutional influence of radical Islamic groups”, HLA claimed that the law on Religious Unity, implemented back in September 2011 under the Nasheed administration, had impinged on parts of Article 19 of the ICCPR relating to human expression.
“This growing radicalisation resulted in the creation of a coalition of political parties in December, called the 23rd December Coalition for the Defence of Islam. As well as extremist religious elements, the 23rd December Coalition comprised of a range of political groups and individuals linked to the country’s former autocratic leader, Mr Maumoon Abdul Gayoom,” the findings added.
“The Coalition had been formed in direct opposition to the observance of international human rights law, particularly to the undertaking given at the UPR process that a national debate will be held on ending forms of punishment not consistent with Article 7.”
HLA also drew attention to the visit of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay to the Maldives and calls she made for debate on the issue of public floggings, particularly for women. The calls were derided by the December 23 coalition at the time.
“The [December 23] Coalition proceeded to carry out a coup d’etat on February 7, which was executed by elements of the army and police loyal to Mr Gayoom, his close allies and former members of his government, and other parts of the 23rd December Coalition, following a call by the then Vice‐President, Dr. Mohamed Waheed, to ‘defend Islam and the Constitution’”, the report alleged.
“The coup saw elements of the police and army threaten the Maldives’ first democratically‐elected President, Mr Mohamed Nasheed, his family and colleagues from the ruling Maldives Democratic Party (MDP), with physical harm or worse unless he resign by a certain time.”
Dr Waheed has always denied accusations that his coalition unity government came to power illegally, claiming his appointment to the presidency was constitutionally mandated upon the resignation of former President Mohamed Nasheed.
Shortly after his resignation, Nasheed contended that he had been forced to resign under duress – calling for fresh elections.
Since February’s transfer of power, the report added that former opposition parties involved in demonstrations and activities associated with the December 23 movement were now part of the coalition government, while only one major political party in the form of the MDP stood as opposition in parliament.
HLA’s findings alleged that the coalition now exercised “undue control” over the national judiciary, whilst occupying the executive and holding a combined parliamentary majority in the People’s Majlis.
“It also asserts undue influence over over‐sight bodies such as the Human Rights Commission (HRCM), the Police Integrity Commission and the Anti‐Corruption Commission (ACC). Consequently, the opposition and its supporters find themselves victimised without proper recourse to redress,” the report claimed.
HLA claimed that a “significant rise” in political violence had also followed the transfer of power amidst accusations that law enforcement agencies were not investigating crimes by bodies of gangs linked to government-aligned politicians, focusing instead on potential felonies committed by opposition figures.
“The perpetrators of these violent crimes remain at large whilst the courts are filled with political protesters who face criminal charges,” the report added.
In looking at the present government’s commitments to freedom of assembly, freedom of speech and freedom of expression, the report noted that “legitimate public order concerns” regarding ongoing demonstrations had been raised during a series of All Party Talks that last convened back in June. However, HLA claimed that a number of other issues raised during the talks appeared to target negating certain “fundamental rights” in this regard.
“It has become routine, once again, for the president and senior members of the government to equate dissent with terrorism, as in numerous public speeches made by the president,” the report stated.
HLA added that allegations of torture as well inhuman or degrading treatment were also on the increase following February’s political upheavals, pointing to claims made by female anti-government protesters.
As well as the use of high power water canons by police during March 2012, allegations were also raised by that some women had been sexually molested or suffered other “degrading punishments” following arrest in the first few months following the transfer of power.
The allegations in the report were based on testimonies from several women aged between 22 and 49 years of age.
Meanwhile, HLA’s findings claimed that the issue of debating flogging, a practice also conducted during Nasheed’s administration, had been deemed by MPs, the judiciary, local NGOs and representatives of the former government as “unconstitutional”.
“On November 25, 2011, the Chief Justice himself publicly rejected a call to implement the commitment given during UPR with regard to ending flogging as a form of punishment,” the report claimed.
The present government has responded that, while corporal punishment was not explicitly prescribed in the penal code, it was administered for “certain offences prescribed in Sharia.”
“The government is, however, looking at ways to ensure that the punishment is not applied in a discriminatory manner. At present, women are far more likely to be publicly flogged than men – mostly because of outdated court procedures such as reliance on confessions rather than forensic evidence – though as noted above this is changing,” the Waheed administration stated in its official response to the UN.
Considering Article 9 of the ICCPR, which relates to “liberty and security of person” and the prevention of arbitrary arrest or detention, the report also discussed the actions of the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) under the Nasheed administration to seize Criminal Court Chief Judge Abdullah Mohamed.
The detention, which the the government claimed had been made over concerns about “national security” owing to allegations that Judge Abdullah was involved in perjury and “blatant collusion” with the previous administration, was widely criticised by international bodies at the time.
Since February, the HLA claimed that some 400 protesters had reportedly been “arbitrarily detained”.
“There is serious concern that nearly everyone who has been charged is facing fabricated charges. A pattern has developed whereby people are arrested without any explanation being given as to the grounds of their detention,” the report claimed. “They are then asked to provide a urine sample and accused of having taken drugs or drunk alcohol. They are also often presented with a pre‐prepared confession and asked to sign it. All of this takes place while the detainees are denied access to a lawyer. “
HLA also stressed concerns over a “lack of independence and professionalism” within the country’s judiciary, which was claimed to be setting back the country’s obligations under the ICCPR.
Along with criticisms of the effectiveness of watchdog body, the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) – particularly in the regards to Criminal Court Chief Judge Adbullah Mohamed – the capacity of the country’s Supreme Court was also questioned.
“The Supreme Court of Maldives consists of seven judges. Six of whom, including the chief justice, are only trained in sharia law,” stated the report. “They do not have a well‐grounded understanding of international human rights law. They have articulated positions that are contrary to the fundamental rights guaranteed under the ICCPR.”
HLA alleged that there had also been an increase in the reporting and incitement of acts of “religious hatred” including anti-Semitism.
The NGO’s report pointed to incidents including attacks on participants of a silent protest calling for religious freedom in December 2011. One of the participants attacked in December, Prominent Maldivian blogger and journalist Ismail ‘Hilath’ Rasheed, was stabbed in the neck just last month before fleeing the country after partly recovering from his injures. He later alleged the attack was the work of Islamic radicals.
HLA also singled out the publication of a pamphlet by the Dhivehi Qaumee Party (DQP), whose members now hold some senior government positions, entitled: “President Nasheed’s devious plot to destroy the Islamic faith of Maldivians” and an attack on pre-Islamic period Maldivian artefacts in a Male’ museum as further examples of the spread of religious hatred.
“In January 2012, efforts by the police to investigate incitement to religious hatred were blocked by the Chief Judge of the Criminal Court Abdulla Mohamed, triggering a sequence of events that resulted in the displacement of the elected government by the members of the December Coalition in a coup d’etat,” the report added.
Helios reported that despite a period of “relative improvement” in the right to freedom of expression in the country, there were concerns that such developments had been set back in recent months.
“After a period of relative improvement in the right to freedom of expression, there has been serious retraction in this regard in recent months. Subsequent to the coup, there has been harassment of journalists and media outlets that criticise the new Government,” the report alleged. “This has led the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of expression to place the Maldives on his watch-list of countries where there has been a rise in harassment and attacks against journalists.”
Aside from reports of sections of the police and military seizing and re-branding state television and radio on February 7 without any judicial warrant, concerns were also raised that artists, musicians and users of social networking websites allegedly continue to face threats from law enforcement authorities for expressing dissent against the government, the report added.
“The president, speaking on 24 February 2012, branded those who ‘defame the Government’ as ‘traitors’. His Press Secretary, Mr Abbas Adil Riza, has condemned on several occasions those who have called for international sanctions on regime leaders,” the report claimed.
HLA also raised issue with claims that the Ministry of Education back in March issued a “compulsory directive” for curriculum textbooks to class the transfer of power as a legitimate act – without the conclusion of a Commission of National Inquiry (CNI) set up by the government to probe the circumstances of February 7.
The Waheed administration has nonetheless denied the harassment and intimidation of journalists. Instead, it contended that “media freedom has remained steady with the constitution protecting freedom of expression but also restricting freedom of speech contrary to the tenets of Islam.”
While the government blocked websites controversial to Islam, it “is working to ensure the media is free to tackle any subject. It was by the current administration of President Dr Waheed Hassan who took office in February 2012 that Maldives National Broadcasting Corporation was handed over to the Parliament-created Maldives Broadcasting Corporation that had ended executive control of the media.”