The Maldives government on Thursday shut down human rights group Maldivian Democracy Network over “content slandering Islam and the Prophet Mohamed” in a 2016 report on radicalisation.
Citing an ongoing police investigation prompted by public outrage, the registrar of associations at the community empowerment ministry ordered the NGO to suspend its operations. In a statement released shortly thereafter, the foreign ministry said the Maldives remains committed to upholding constitutional rights but noted that free speech in the country was “subject to refrainment from creating communal discord or blatantly contravening the fundamental tenets of Islam.”
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights also recognises that the right to freedom of expression “cannot be exercised maliciously, in the form of hate-speech, or in a manner that contributes to public discord and enmity,” it added.
“The maintenance of public order and communal harmony while ensuring the rights of citizens are the highest obligations of any government. Islam is one of the fundamental sources of our country’s democratic framework as well as a source of unity and peace within our community,” the statement continued.
“The government unequivocally condemns those who foment hatred, send out threats and call for violence against others in the name of defending religion. We will not hesitate to use the full force of the law against those who do so. We call upon all parties to exercise their rights in a manner that is respectful of each other and the sentiments of the wider Maldivian community.”
A campaign led by religious scholars to ban MDN was launched earlier this month after screenshots of offensive sections in the report were widely shared on social media. The Islamic ministry asked police to investigate as President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih promised to take action.
In the face of the public outcry, MDN removed the report from its website and apologised for offending public sensitivities with the language used in the report. The NGO said it has decided to revise the report with the help of religious scholars.
In a second statement last week, MDN reiterated that it does not “accept or condone disrespect to Islam” and warned of “targeted campaigns to spread disinformation and hatred” in an alleged attempt to divert the focus of new counter-terrorism efforts. The NGO condemned death threats made against its members and staff.
“We accept the unfortunate use of language in some sections of the report. We have offered an apology for any offence to public sensitivities as soon as these issues were raised, and have since retracted the report for further review. MDN is providing full cooperation to the Maldives Police Service in its investigation against this organisation,” it added.
MDN Executive Director Shahindha Ismail told The Wire that the government was “trying to appease extremists and in doing so contradicting with due process and democratic principles by obstructing the legitimate work of a 14-year-old human rights organisation.”
On Friday, Human Rights Watch called on the government to immediately reverse MDN’s suspension and “investigate Islamist groups responsible for inciting violence against rights groups in the Maldives.” By shutting down the NGO, President Solih was “feeding a frenzy of threats and incitement by Islamist groups,” said Patricia Gossman, Asia associate director at the international human rights organisation.
HRW’s call was echoed by the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders.
“Instead of impeding the legitimate and important work done by MDN, the government should address rampant religious extremism and protect human rights defenders,” said Adilur Rahman Khan, FIDH Vice-President.
“It’s the ongoing use of social media to threaten and intimidate Maldivian human rights defenders that should be investigated, not a three-year old report that impeccably described instances of radicalisation among certain sectors of Maldivian society,” said Gerald Staberock, OMCT Secretary General.
The Registrar did not have the decency to afford a right to answer or communicate a decision against MDN to MDN.
Let’s not even start about the legal issues in this statement that will end up with @ibusolih having to face the UPR and many others. https://t.co/jJnwcd4Gse
— Shahindha Ismail 🎈 (@HindhaIsmail) October 10, 2019
1/3 I am also concerned about calls for bans and the threats veiled against @MDN_mv and its staff on social media. Since 2016 I have come to know MDN as an active and committed NGO promoting democracy, rule of law plus highlighting the dangers of religious extremism in the MDV. https://t.co/IjVgoz7F1k
— Joern Rohde (@joern_rohde) October 9, 2019