As world leaders gather this week in New York for the 71st session of the UN General Assembly, the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) will also meet on the sidelines to discuss democracy and human rights standards in the Maldives. The oversight body, tasked with addressing serious or persistent violations of Commonwealth political values, will meet for the third time this year – a rare feat in its institutional history.
The spiralling political turmoil and deteriorating human rights situation in the Maldives had pushed the CMAG to convene an extraordinary meeting in February this year. The ministers expressed their concern about the shrinking political space available to the opposition, the detention and custody of political leaders, separation of powers and the independence of the judiciary. In its concluding statement, the CMAG added six priority areas for urgent action in order to restore the country’s democratic credentials. After another meeting in April to review its recommendations, the CMAG expressed its disappointment and concerns regarding the lack of progress. Since then, the situation in the archipelago nation has steadily worsened.
To begin with, President Abdulla Yameen’s administration has banned opposition political parties from using public grounds to hold meetings. To further disempower them, on August 27, the Majlis — where the president’s Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM) commands a floor majority — passed an amendment to the Political Parties Act that required fingerprint re-registration for all party members. In an archipelago, this presents a herculean challenge. It takes 3000 registrations to form a political party and 10,000 members for a party to avail the state sanctioned funds for political parties. The government is yet to disburse these funds, making it extremely difficult for political parties to reach out to their constituencies. In fact, the number of political parties in the country has reduced drastically from 16 to six. Interestingly, the PPM is exempt from fingerprint re-registrations.
Former President Mohamed Nasheed’s trial and conviction for 13 years on terrorism charges was a textbook case of an unfair trial, with total disregard for established legal procedures. The trial was concluded swiftly within 20 days and Nasheed’s legal defence was not allowed to call its own witnesses. Two of the three judges hearing the case, as well as the prosecutor-general, were witnesses of the prosecution. The sham trial was condemned for being in contravention to international standards of a fair trial and the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention urged Nasheed’s immediate release.
Former defence minister Colonel Mohamed Nazim, Sheikh Abdullah, leader of the opposing Adhaalat Party, and former vice-president Ahmed Adheeb have all been convicted for a decade under the country’s anti-terror laws. The only independent member of parliament, Ahmed Mahloof, has been put behind bars for staging a rally calling for the release of dissidents. Incidentally, most of those charged under the country’s anti-terror laws happen to be political prisoners.
With opposition parties handicapped and dissidents behind bars, the government has now begun to attack the media and journalists. On August 9, the Maldivian parliament passed the Defamation and Freedom of Speech Act, drawing widespread condemnation from civil society and the international community. The act criminalises defamation – which had been de-criminalised in 2009 – and imposes hefty fines on those who contradict the tenets of Islam, defame a person, violate social norms or pose a threat national security. The law is crafted in such a manner that the defendant must first pay a fine before they can appeal. Non-payment of the fine can lead to criminal proceedings with a jail term of up to six months. Although, no one has been charged as yet, the chilling message this Act sends to civil society is clear.
Freedom of speech and expression, freedom of peaceful assembly and association, and free and fair elections are the cornerstones of democracy. The CMAG – government representatives from Cyprus, Guyana, Kenya, New Zealand, Malta, Pakistan, Solomon Islands, Namibia and India – will meet at a crucial moment when the entire democratic structure in the Maldives is tottering on the brink of collapse. The government has displayed clear disregard for the core values of the Commonwealth Charter, namely democracy, human rights, freedom of expression, separation of powers, rule of law, good governance and the role of civil society, among other things.
Despite the turmoil and instability in its neighbourhood, India has kept quiet on the Maldives. Along with Pakistan, it spoke in defence of the island state at the February meeting of the CMAG. Since then, Yameen and his cabinet ministers have been lobbying hard with the Commonwealth member states to seek protection from punitive action. It is evident that the Maldivian government is concerned about the CMAG’s verdict, which will have an adverse impact on its economy.
During Yameen’s visit to New Delhi on the eve of the April CMAG meeting, Prime Minister Narendra Modi pointed at India’s role as the “net security provider” in the Indian Ocean. If indeed “Maldives’ security and stability is linked to Indian national interests” then the Indian government must move from rhetoric to action. As a CMAG member state, India is poised to play a pivotal role in preventing Maldives’ slide back to authoritarianism of the past. At the next CMAG meeting on September 23, India will have a choice to make – call for action against the Maldivian government to restore democracy and human rights, or join the list of countries that offer protection at international forums to regimes involved in human rights violations.