[The weekly commentary and analysis of the Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR) on human rights and governance issues]

Embargoed for: 08 November 2006
Review: 140/06

Intervene for reform in Maldives

As the government of Maldives tightens its grip and unleashes repression to foil the right to freedom of association and assembly of the supporters and activists of the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) on 10 November 2006 at capital Male, international community, in particular the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights must intervene to bring an end to the repression.

On 4 November 2006, Minivan News correspondent Phillip Wellman, an American national, and Graham Quick, a photographer with Britain's Observer newspaper were asked to leave the country immediately. Foreigners have been advised not to visit the country ahead of the November 10th demonstration. President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the longest serving dictator in Asia, has turned entire Maldives into an “Incommunicado Detention Centre”.

I. Failure to reform

The MDP has called the rally to press for speedy constitutional reforms. It was none other than President Gayoom who unveiled his 31-point proposals for political reforms in March 2005 to be completed within one year. As President failed to keep his own promises, those who now remind him about the promises are identified as “football hooligans”. Nothing could have been more ironic.

The government has adopted “one step forward, two steps backward” policy with regard to political reforms. In June 2005, the government allowed registration of political parties but political parties were prevented from carrying out any political activity. The political parties were also prevented from fielding their own candidates in the by-elections for the Special Majlis in three vacant seats of Male, Addu and Shaviyani held on 24 December 2005.

The government allowed registration of a few newspapers and magazines in 2005 but independent journalists were consistently threatened and prosecuted.

The government consistently denied registration of NGOs, in particular, human rights organizations.

II. Repression prior to proposed 10 November demonstration

"Police have received reports that a number of the MDP members intending to travel to Male' on 10 November and those involved in planning the illegal gathering have on their agenda not peaceful protest but intimidation, violence, arson and physical harm. They have acted on those reports and detained a few ringleaders, in the hope of avoiding large-scale violence and arrests further down the track. This is in accordance with international best practice - for example the detention of known football hooligans before a big match.” – statement of the government of Maldives in its press release (no.36/2006).

The proposed rally on 10 November 2006 indicates that the talks between the government and the opposition MDP being facilitated by British High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, H.E. Mr Dominick Chilcott obviously have failed to make any headway. Under the Westminster House Agreement, the MDP had reportedly agreed not to “ferment revolution” or engage in violent street protest in exchange for the government's commitment to release the political prisoners and speed up democratic reforms in the island nation and completion of drafting of a new Constitution by 7 November 2007.

About 40 MDP activists have been arrested since the crackdown began on 30 October 2006. Many were assaulted.

On 1 November 2006, police arrested eight MDP leaders and supporters including Saleem Ali, the President of the Gaaf Dhaal Atoll branch of the MDP; Mohamed Gasam, MDP Deputy President of Gaafu Dhaalu Atoll, Mohamed Hussein Didi (Hindu), Mohamed Yushau, Ahmed Waheed, Mohamed Nazim, Mohamed Yameen, and Mohamed Niyaz in Thinadhoo, the capital of Gaafu Dhaalu Atoll. The police also allegedly ransacked the local MDP office and confiscated all of the party's promotional material, such as banners and photos that were to be used in the assembly in Male. Mohamed Yushau was later released without being questioned. Pepper spray was allegedly used on Mr Saleem Ali.

The government imposed restrictions on the people of Ghaafu Dhaalu island from traveling out of the island without permission from police. The Maldivian Coast Guard is preventing all vessels from leaving Thinadhoo. On the night of 4 November 2006, a boat traveling from Naifaru island to Male was intercepted by the coastguards and six passengers on board were arrested and taken to Dhoonidhoo Detention Centre.

On 7 November 2006, the Maldivian Coast Guard threatened to sink a boat reportedly carrying 54 Maldivian Democratic Party supporters from Addul Atoll to Male for the party's November 10 assembly. The boat was forced to stop near Kolamaafushi, Gaafu Aliff Atoll.

III. United Nations fails to protect its legal standards in Maldives

“The resident coordinator reported the facts to the United Nations headquarters in New York… since the UN can provide protection only in cases where there is an immediate and grave threat to an individual's life, the UN headquarters in New York instructed the resident coordinator to ask Mr. Abbas to leave the premises. He did so without delay.” – UNDP in Maldives while justifying refusal of refugee status to Ahmed Abbas.

On 2 November 2006, Maldives' well known cartoonist and MDP official Ahmed Abbas was arrested by the police from the UN headquarters premises in Male after the UN's resident coordinator in the Maldives, Patrice Coeur-Bizot, denied him a safe passage to a third country. Arrest warrant against Abbas was issued after a court sentenced him in abstentia on 25 October 2006 to six month's imprisonment for criticizing the police brutality on the pro-democracy protestors in a Minivan Daily article in August 2005. Mr Abbas is being detained in Dhoonidhoo detention centre.

Obviously, the officials of the United Nations in New York ignored UN's own legal standards. Under the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, the term "refugee” shall apply to any person who “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it”.

Mr Abbas has been persecuted and sentenced in abstentia for his political opinion. Having entered the UN premises, he was unwilling to avail himself of the protection available in Maldives. Yet Abbas was denied refuge.

The United Nations exactly behaved the same way as the Indian High Commission in Male, which had earlier thrown out Abbas from its premises. The UN's action was not surprising considering that on 31 October 2006 United Nations Development Programme signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the government of Maldives to support the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives for three years by providing US$800,000. This is despite the fact that HRC of Maldives has only three out of nine members. How can the HRC function without a quorum?

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights must intervene with the government of Maldives to immediately bring an end to arbitrary detention and repression of the opposition activists, release all the detainees and allow the MDP to hold peaceful democratic protests. International community must monitor the situation in Maldives and take necessary measures to ensure democratic reforms in the island nation.

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