Renewing calls for the release of “political prisoners,” the US and the UK have condemned the imprisonment of Adhaalath Party leader Sheikh Imran Abdulla on a terrorism charge over a speech he gave at a mass anti-government rally last year.
UK Minister for Asia Hugo Swire said Imran’s jailing represents “a step backward” for the Maldives.
“This is the second conviction of an opposition party leader in the Maldives on terrorism charges in the last year. It raises worrying questions about freedom of speech, the rule of law and the government’s commitment to democracy,” Swire said in a statement yesterday.
“As a valued member of the Commonwealth I urge the government to work towards greater judicial independence and to restore confidence in democracy. The government should release all political prisoners, end politically motivated trials and ensure all-party dialogue is genuine and inclusive.”
Swire said he had encouraged the government to “live up to its international human rights commitments” during a visit to the Maldives in January, and noted the “positive intent shown by the government in granting former President [Mohamed] Nasheed medical leave and announcing its intention to convene an all-party dialogue”.
At a press briefing yesterday, Mark Toner, deputy spokesperson of the US State Department, called Imran’s trial “deeply flawed” and noted that he is “the third prominent politician to receive a lengthy sentence in just the past 12 months”.
“In each instance the government failed to provide an appropriate – or rather failed to provide appropriate procedural and substantive protections in accordance with Maldivian law and Maldives’ international obligations,” he said.
“We renew our call for the Maldivian Government to end politically motivated trials and to take steps to restore confidence and a commitment to democracy and human rights including freedom of expression and the rule of law and judicial independence.”
— Amb Atul Keshap (@USAmbKeshap) February 18, 2016
Canada’s High Commissioner to the Maldives, Shelley Whiting, meanwhile said in a tweet that Imran’s sentencing “appears inconsistent with Maldives government’s invitation to mulitparty talks.”
Canada urges #Maldives govt to foster political climate to facilitate good faith, open & transparent dialogue among all political parties
— Shelley Whiting (@shelley_whiting) February 18, 2016
Imran’s sentencing also drew strong condemnations from the main opposition party, NGOs, lawyers, and religious scholars.
Former President Nasheed said in a tweet that there is “not the slightest bit of doubt” that President Abdulla Yameen influenced the outcome of Imran’s trial.
“We will do everything we can to free Sheikh Imran with courage and without taking a single step backward,” the opposition leader vowed.
Nasheed is currently in the UK on a 30-day medical leave. He was also found guilty of terrorism and sentenced to 13 years in prison after a rushed trial in March last year that a UN rights panel has said was unfair and arbitrary.
Condemning Imran’s sentencing in a statement last night, Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party called it “an absolute injustice” committed in violation of the principles of Islamic Sharia, the Maldivian constitution, and the country’s obligations under international law.
Human rights NGO Maldivian Democracy Network meanwhile said in a statement that Imran’s trial contravened the constitution.
The NGO accused Judge Abdul Bari Yousuf of bias and noted that he had refused to summon witnesses for the defence.
While Imran was accused of inciting violence, MDN observed that “the prosecution and subsequent verdict was based upon acts committed by protesters after the rally was dispersed.”
Imran was also held in pre-trial detention for nine months in violation of his constitutional right to be tried within a reasonable timeframe, the MDN statement added.
Thorig Hamid, programme manager for the local branch of Transparency International, warned that Imran’s verdict could undermine the constitutional right to freedom of expression.
“This verdict sends out a chilling signal – one of fear. Despite the various democratic challenges we have had over the past few years, people generally had the freedom to voice out their discontent through media and public assemblies. This ruling will have a chilling effect on that freedom,” he said.
Imran’s trial was conducted in “blatant disregard of the civil and political liberties entitled to all Maldivians in our constitution and treaties we have signed,” he said.
“The sentencing of Sheikh Imran demonstrates and has further substantiated what different actors have been highlighting about the Maldivian judiciary and the politicized nature of these trials.”
Echoing Thoriq’s concerns over criminal liability for exercising the right to free expression, Imran’s lawyer Husnu Suood told The Maldives Independent: “During a speech even if someone refers to something indirectly, it can be used to bring charges against them saying it seems to provoke crimes. This is a clear obstruction to freedom of expression.
“It is beyond a person’s control to stop 20,000 people from getting into violent clashes. What else can a man do but ask them not to do that? You have to be responsible for what thousands of other people if you are officially the principal organiser of the protest. This is a grave threat to freedom of assembly.”
I condemn the court ruling on Sh. Imran’s case. The biased judgement will accelerate the end of Yameen’s regime. — Mohamed Jameel Ahmed (@MJameelAhmed) February 16, 2016
Verdict on Shk Imran could be serious fall back of our constitutional rights specially freedom of speech. Another sad day to our democracy! — Abdulla Riyaz MP (@riyazabdulla) February 16, 2016