The Maldives has scornfully dismissed calls by more than 30 countries to restore constitutional freedoms, allow space for political opposition, and prevent the intimidation of human rights defenders.
The appeals came at the UN Human Rights Council on Wednesday in a statement delivered by the UK on behalf of more than 30 countries including the United States and Germany.
The Western countries welcomed the government’s avowed commitment to ensure justice for the brutal murder of liberal blogger Yameen Rasheed – whose father was present at the opening of the council’s 35th session in Genea – and called for “steps to prevent the intimidation of human rights defenders including by those promoting violent extremism.”
The statement noted that Yameen had “repeatedly drawn attention to the threats he was facing” and “visited this council to raise awareness of the shrinking space for freedom of expression, as well as the abduction and disappearance of fellow blogger Ahmed Rilwan, whose fate remains unknown.”
It also emphasised the importance of allowing space for opposition parties and expressed regret that constitutionally guaranteed freedom of expression “is being increasingly curtailed”.
“It is equally important that the Maldives enhance the independence of its judiciary and other domestic institutions and ensure that they provide the checks and balances which are essential for any democracy,” the statement added.
In a right of reply delivered at the council session, Dr Hala Hameed, the permanent representative of the Maldives to the UN, called the statement “unwarranted and unconstructive” and accused the UK of “unduly attempting to affect domestic politics in the country”.
Citing concerns raised by Amnesty International and a UN special rapporteur, she criticised the British government’s record on freedom of assembly and association and noted the rise of hate crimes as well as a drop in legal aid.
On the widely condemned murder of Yameen Rasheed, Hameed said the Maldivian government “immediately qualified” it as an attack against freedom of the press, adding that the police have since arrested suspects.
“The politicisation of this young man’s death and its subsequent relation to an alleged narrowing of democratic space is of great concern,” she said.
“The true reality of the situation in the Maldives is being misrepresented. Links that do not exist are being drawn. And our efforts consolidating democracy and ensure a safe space for democratic congress in line with our international obligations are ignored or mischaracterized.”
She insisted that the current administration is committed to protecting human rights and consolidating democracy.
“Given the only three working days provided for any consultation or consideration of this statement, there has been only a token effort at being constructive, and is tantamount to a small nation being targeted by a large one,” she added.
“We only ask to be measured by the same benchmark, for a little bit more patience, encouragement and support from our multilateral partners.”
Contrary to Hameed’s claims, international human rights groups say the Maldives has been undergoing an “authoritarian reversal” since the widely condemned imprisonment of opposition leaders during President Abdulla Yameen’s three-year administration.
Earlier this week, a group of NGOs led by Forum Asia called on the Human Rights Council to take action in response to “alarming levels” of attacks against human rights defenders and restrictions on constitutional freedoms.
“The government has failed to conduct credible investigations on past and ongoing attacks on journalists, media outlets and human rights defenders,” the NGOs said in an open letter.
“In the last few years, perpetrators of such crimes have enjoyed impunity adding credence to accusations of government and police complicity and negligence.”
Yameen Rasheed’s family has also questioned the ability of the police to conduct a credible investigation due to the failure to investigate numerous death threats or arrest suspects in the abduction of Maldives Independent journalist Ahmed Rilwan and the near-fatal attack on blogger Hilath Rasheed.
Like Yameen, both Hilath and Rilwan were prominent liberal voices against radicalisation and extremism.
No arrests were made in connection with Hilath’s attempted murder and the police initially denied any link between Rilwan’s disappearance in August 2014 and a reported abduction outside his apartment building.
In April last year, the police said he was taken into a car that belonged to a notorious gangster. But a prime suspect caught tailing Rilwan on security camera footage had left the country.
The human rights groups urged the council to push the Maldivian government to allow international observers and experts “unimpeded access to monitor the progress of these investigations” and to reverse the re-criminalisation of defamation and a ban on street protests in Malé.