Maldives backtracking on democracy, warns MP Imthiyaz Fahmy

No additional reporting by missing journalist Ahmed Rilwan

The Maldives is facing an authoritarian reversal with a corrupt judiciary, impunity for human rights abuses, and growing religious extremism, opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) MP Imthiyaz Fahmy has warned.

In a lecture titled ‘The Maldives backtracking on democracy: human rights violations, impunity, and increasing religious extremism’ delivered last Friday (September 26) at the University of Western Australia in Perth – organised by the Centre for Muslim States and Societies – Imthiyaz stressed that the country’s problems “have nothing to do with Islam.”

“But our fear is that authorities are using few extremist individuals for their short-term political gain. This gives these few extremists a voice and influence in politics that they don’t deserve,” he explained.

“Our fear is that the lack of actions by the authorities against these few individuals could increase their influence in the society. This can be one of the biggest long-term challenges to our hopes for democracy.”

While “pundits and some ill-informed Western policy makers conclude that Islamic civilisation is in a clash with Western civilisation,” Imthiyaz argued that the “actions of a few extremists” did not warrant concluding that Islam was not compatible with democracy.

“Extremism of these individuals is not only incompatible with democracy, but most importantly for Muslims like Maldivians, Islam is not compatible with extremism,” he said.

Referring to reports of Maldivian jihadists fighting in Syria, Imthiyaz stressed that the vast majority of Maldivians were peaceful and remained “committed to the moderate values of Islam.”

Transitional justice and impunity

The turning point for the Maldives journey to democracy was the custodial death of Evan Naseem in Maafushi jail and subsequent prison shootings in September 2003, Imthiyaz observed.

Prior to the first multi-party democratic election in October 2008 following the adoption of a revised liberal constitution, Imthiyaz said the country was “ruled with an iron fist” by former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, whose 30-year reign was characterised by oppression, censorship, and torture.

The judiciary used to be the instrument which endorsed all those human rights violations and injustices that took place in the country,” he contended.

The Maldives became a forerunner to the Arab Spring, Imthiyaz continued, with the defeat of the “Egyptian-like dictatorship” in the October 2008 presidential election.

The challenges faced by the first democratically-elected government included the absence of a “transitional justice mechanism” to address human rights violations of the past, an unreformed judiciary, and incompatibility of coalitions with a presidential system, he explained.

Consequently, the MDP government was toppled in a “coup d’etat” on February 7, 2012 when former President Mohamed Nasheed was “forced to resign by mutinying police and army generals backed by politicians associated with the former dictatorship.”

Imthiyaz noted the police brutality in the aftermath of the transfer of power, particularly the heavy-handed crackdown on an MDP protest march on February 8, 2012.

He also referred to Amnesty International warning that “any attempt at political reconciliation in the Maldives would be meaningless” without accountability for human rights abuses.

Imthiyaz added that hundreds of MDP members as well as leaders were facing “selective prosecution” by the state.

Despite numerous calls by the Inter Parliamentary Union (IPU) for the government to investigate arbitrary arrests, attacks and harassment of MDP MPs, Imthiyaz said “the perpetrators have been enjoying complete impunity.”

He also observed that the Supreme Court’s repeated interference in last year’s presidential polls was criticised by the UN, the European Union, and the Commonwealth.

While the apex court dismissed the chair and deputy chair of the Elections Commission less than two weeks before the parliamentary elections in March, Imthiyaz noted that the court is currently conducting suo moto proceedings against members of the Human Rights Commission of Maldives.

Referring to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers questioning the court’s independence and impartiality, Imthiyaz said the Supreme Court was widely perceived as “as an instrument of partisan revenge than as a forum for impartial justice.”

Threats to MPs

The “growing threat” to MPs was another challenge for democracy, Imthiyaz continued, referring to the brutal murder of MP Afrasheem Ali – which police investigated in a “politicised” manner – and the stabbing of former MDP MP Alhan Fahmy.

Death threat messages have been pouring on MDP MPs mobile phones. Yet the authorities do not seem to care at all,” he said.

The IPU has said that the government’s reaction would be “a test of the country’s democratic credentials.”

Imthiyaz noted that the Maldives dropped to 108th place in the RSF Press Freedom Index for 2014.

While the perpetrators behind the arson attack on Raajje TV last year have not been prosecuted, Imthiyaz said police have not conducted “a proper investigation” into the disappearance of Minivan News journalist Ahmed Rilwan and were “unable to establish whether they are now investigating a missing person case, or an abduction case or a murder case.”