The foreign affairs committee of the European Parliament on Monday discussed the human rights situation in the Maldives, raising concerns over radicalism and the reintroduction of the death penalty.
Briefing committee members, Dietmar Krissler, head of the European External Action Service for the Maldives region, said the “political and human rights situation” has been a source of concern since President Abdulla Yameen came to power in November 2013.
“We deplore that many opposition leaders are in prison or restricted in their movements,” he said, noting that many were convicted under controversial anti-terrorism laws and disqualified from challenging Yameen in next year’s presidential election.
“There’s also a worrying trend of reduced freedom of expression and freedom of association and some journalists and media are facing intimidation and harassment.”
Other concerns include plans to resume executions after a six-decade moratorium, a high incidence of abuse and violence against women, and a recent supreme court ruling that declared itself the final authority to determine the legitimacy of the parliament’s removal of state officials.
Krissler noted that the concerns were raised during the third annual EU-Maldives policy dialogue in late May.
The death penalty was “high on the agenda” when EU heads of missions visited the Maldives last month, he said in response to questions posed by MEPs.
“A strong message was passed to the government on the EU’s principled rejection of the application of the death penalty,” he said.
“I found it interesting and I will also point others to this idea that tourists could be made aware of this issue. That is, of course, something where we have to start reflecting how we could go about this.”
Krissler said the EU should also press for electoral reforms to ensure that the 2018 presidential election is credible, transparent and inclusive. He noted that the Maldives has invited the EU to conduct a mid-term assessment as a follow-up to the observation of the 2013 presidential election.
He added that “eliminating” contenders in the 2018 race appeared to be “a deliberate policy of certain elements of the government”.
The EU should be “very adamant” on the expectations for next year’s election, he said.
Ahmed Shiaan, Maldivian ambassador to the EU, meanwhile sought to downplay the human rights concerns in the wake of the committee meeting.
He told local media that the discussion was “routine” and stressed that MEPs did not consider imposing sanctions. “This is a big encouragement for the Maldives,” he told Sun Online.
In February last year, a visiting delegation of MEPs warned that the EU will consider imposing targeted sanctions if the government does not release political prisoners and engage in dialogue with political parties.
“There is no chance that elections that are due to place here in 2018 will be rated as free and fair by Europe or the international community unless these steps start and start now,” Richard Howitt, MEP and vice president of the delegation, told the local press.
In December 2015, the European Parliament also passed a resolution with an overwhelming majority calling on member states “to introduce restrictive measures in the form of targeted sanctions to freeze the assets abroad of certain members of the Maldivian government and their leading supporters in the Maldivian business community, and to impose travel bans on them.”
International human rights groups say the Maldives has been undergoing an “authoritarian reversal” since the widely condemned imprisonment of opposition leaders during President Yameen’s three-year administration.
Earlier this month, a group of NGOs urged the UN Human Rights Council to take action in response to “alarming levels” of attacks against human rights defenders and to push the Maldivian government to reverse the re-criminalisation of defamation and a ban on street protests in Malé.
The government should also allow international observers and experts “unimpeded access” to monitor the investigation into the brutal murder of liberal blogger Yameen Rasheed, the human rights group suggested.
David McAllister, chair of the foreign affairs committee, also listed the killing of the human rights defender as part of “a negative trend” in the country during Monday’s exchange of views.
Other worrying developments include “the continued lack of respect for the peaceful expression of the political opposition, worsening security trends including sharp radicalisation of parts of society and the high number of foreign fighters from the country joining the ranks of ISIS, as well as the overall decrease in the respect for fundamental rights and freedoms,” he said.
In his briefing, Krissler meanwhile noted that the EU is “very keen” to cooperate on counter-terrorism efforts as nearly half a million European tourists visit the Maldives annually.
He recommended that the EU “should use its influence to press the Maldivian government to evaluate better the threat from radicalisation on the islands” and assist the new counter-terrorism centre with capacity-building to counter violent extremist narratives.
The EU has also asked the government to provide a better definition of how a person is considered a terrorist in the Maldives, he said.
“For example, we would like to get a list of whom they think are actually people belonging to terrorist groups, what is it exactly that makes a Maldivian citizen a terrorist, because this is I think not entirely clear,” he said.
He observed that the “broad definition” of the 2015 anti-terror law allows for application in many different situations.
The EU’s counter-terrorism coordinator will attend a conference due to take place in the Maldives later this year, he noted.
The Maldivian government is also keen to work with the EU to implement recommendations of a judicial expert mission in 2016, he said, which involves reforming the legislative framework, procedures and practices of the judiciary.