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NGO shutdown ‘shows repression hasn’t gone away’: Amnesty

Amnesty called on the government to reverse its decision to ban MDN.



The government’s decision to dissolve NGO Maldivian Democracy Network over the alleged slander of Islam in a 2016 report shows that “old patterns of repression” remain in place despite the change of government one year ago, Amnesty International said on Tuesday.

The ministry of community empowerment deregistered the NGO on Tuesday after the Islamic ministry and police concluded that MDN’s ‘Preliminary Assessment of Radicalisation in the Maldives’ mocked Islam and Prophet Mohamed. The 2003 associations law prohibits NGOs from contradicting tenets of Islam or undermining religious unity, the ministry noted.

“The new Maldivian government was supposed to mark a break with the island nation’s repressive past. The decision to shut down the MDN’s operations, however, show that time-worn tactics to intimidate human rights defenders and shrink space for civil society remain a threat,” said Dinushika Dissanayake, South Asia Research Director at Amnesty International.

“The MDN is being punished for exercising its legitimate right to freedom of expression. The fact that a more than four -year-old report is being cited now as grounds to shut down the NGO raises suspicions as to the true motives behind this decision. Is the new government just as intolerant of critical voices as the one it replaced?”

She called on the government to “immediately reverse this decision, investigate threats made against MDN staff, offer MDN staff protection, and create a tolerant and enabling environment that allows NGOs to continue their important work freely and without fear.”

The MDN campaigned with Amnesty for the release of political prisoners during former president Abdulla Yameen’s administration, the human rights group said in a statement, noting that MDN’s reports over recent years have included research on police reforms, torture, enforced disappearances and threats to lawyers and human rights defenders.

MDN said the decision to cancel its registration was made “without due process and without informing us the correct point of law” and called on the government to reverse the “arbitrary and unlawful” decision.

“The Solih administration pledged protection of fundamental rights and barely out of the first year, has placed itself as the record breaking first government out of the last five governments, to ever shut down a civil society organisation in the Maldives,” MDN tweeted on Tuesday.

The decision to dissolve the NGO came after weeks of campaigning led by religious scholars. After screenshots of offensive sections in the report were widely shared on social media, more than 140 out of 200 local councils backed calls to ban MDN and protest marches took place on several islands over the past four weekends. Citing “widespread public condemnation,” the government suspended the NGO on October 10 after the Islamic ministry asked police to investigate but the campaign continued unabated and opposition parties seized upon the cause with protests of their own.

MDN executive director Shahindha Ismail told AP that the ban came before any of the report’s authors were questioned. She had been told to appear for the investigation on Wednesday along with the three other authors, all of whom reside overseas.

“The government has been giving into all the demands religious extremists have been calling for,” she said. “The government is being controlled by these groups and I don’t think banning MDN is going to solve problems.”

In an English statement released on Tuesday evening, the community empowerment ministry recognised the “positive role NGOs play in enriching our civil society and democracy” but stressed that such activities must respect social norms and public sentiment.

“The government remains firmly committed to upholding all of the rights enshrined in the constitution, including the freedom of speech, assembly and association and would like to use this opportunity to remind civil society actors ‘to promote democratic values and practices in a manner that is not inconsistent with any tenet of Islam,'” the ministry said.