In a scathing report on the state of affairs in the Maldives, Human Rights Watch has accused the government of intimidation of the political opposition and media. It says the ruling dispensation’s action threatens the prospects for free and fair elections in September.
HRW in its report openly says that the upcoming general elections will be far from fair as the government has interfered with the judiciary and the national electoral commission in order to tighten its grip on power.
The Maldives became a multiparty system in 2008 ending decades of autocratic rule but, according to rights groups, the nascent democracy has been at risk since Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom, took office following a disputed election in 2013.
According to HRW, Yameen has, ahead of the presidential elections, moved to expand his use of broad and vaguely worded laws to intimidate, arbitrarily arrest, and imprison critics. Among these are counterterrorism laws widely used against opposition activists and politicians; anti-defamation laws used against the media and social media activists who criticize the president or his policies; and restrictions on assembly that prohibit or severely limit peaceful rallies and protests.
The general elections are scheduled for September 23, 2018. But, the main opposition leader Mohammad Nasheed -- the first president to be democratically elected to office in the archipelago is living in exile after Yameen had him arrested and tried on terror-related charges. The United Nations has said that Nasheed’s prosecution was politically motivated.
Yameen has also had his half-brother Maumoon Abdul Gayoom arrested in a sweeping raid that also put into jail judges of the Maldives’ Supreme Court.
HRW has listed names of journalists’ and bloggers who have been killed or been missing for their criticism of the government which has turned to right-wing Islamic parties to shore up its support base. It says that the government’s abuse of laws has had a crippling effect on the Maldives’ nascent democracy and struggling civil society.
Yameen has drawn close to China and Saudi Arabia during his time in office, with both countries investing heavily in the tiny tourist archipelago in the Indian Ocean, and his actions show that he believes he has enough support to weather global criticism as well as retain his grip over the island nation.
Maldives’ drift towards China has come at India’s expense. The Indian government had expressed its displeasure at the State of Emergency imposed by Yameen earlier this year. Since then, the Yameen government through significant actions is working to reduce Indian presence on the islands – from refusing to resign contracts for surveillance aircrafts to denying visas to Indian diplomats. The government has also cracked down on Indians working in the hospitality industry and has not allowed the reissuing of work visas of hundreds of Indians.
HRW is hence calling on the United Nations to appeal to the Maldives to put an end to the abuses, which, it says are eroding fundamental human rights. Patricia Gossman, associate director of the HRW Asia division says, “I think it's time for the international community - who largely look at the Maldives as a luxury tourist destination - to really look seriously at what it's like for ordinary Maldivians who have to bear the brunt of this increasingly repressive government."