HRW: Maldives election under threat amid crackdown on dissent

Activists, journalists and Supreme Court justices have been targeted with intimidation and arrest by the government.

    Earlier this year, a state of emergency was declared over a judicial dispute, which led to near-daily protests [Mohamed Sharuhaan/The Associated Press]
    Earlier this year, a state of emergency was declared over a judicial dispute, which led to near-daily protests [Mohamed Sharuhaan/The Associated Press]

    A government crackdown on dissent threatens the prospects for free and fair elections in the Maldives, according to a new report by Human Rights Watch (HRW).

    The presidential election expected to take place in September is feared to be marred by prolonged attempts to quash political freedom in the Indian Ocean archipelago.

    The report, published on Thursday, accuses President Abdulla Yameen of introducing vaguely-worded laws as a way to intimidate and arbitrarily arrest critics including activists, journalists and Supreme Court justices.

    Patricia Gossman, associate director of the HRW Asia division, said the scales are unfairly tipped against opposition candidates ahead of the September 23 ballot.

    "The day of the vote only gives you a very small picture of the problems going on, one really has to look at what's been happening over the past few months and years at whether there's really been a level playing field for the opposition, whether the media has been able to criticise the government, whether people have had access to that kind of information," she told Al Jazeera.

    "This is a problem that really goes back several years with the enactment of laws that criminalise peaceful dissent, make it very difficult for opposition parties to function and really crack down on the media," she told Al Jazeera. "Now we're seeing the culmination of that in these last few months leading up to the election, with the detention of even Supreme Court justices who dared to defy the president."

    According to the report, Yameen's government has interfered with the country's judiciary and elections commission, while so-called "religious extremists" and politically-affiliated gangs have assaulted and killed people with impunity.

    An ongoing crackdown

    The Maldives became a multiparty system in 2008 ending decades of autocratic rule but, according to rights groups, democracy has been at risk since Yameen was elected to office in 2013.

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    In May, Yameen lifted a 45-day state of emergency he imposed after the country's Supreme Court overturned criminal convictions against nine of his opponents.

    Following the ruling, Yameen sent the military to storm the Supreme Court building and arrest members of the bench, along with his estranged half-brother, former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.

    Two former presidents, one of Yameen's vice presidents and two former Supreme Court judges are among those who have been jailed in trials that were criticised as lacking due process.

    The crisis prompted near-daily protests by opposition supporters and resulted in sporadic clashes between demonstrators and police. 

    HRW is calling on the United Nations to implore the Maldives to put an end to the abuses, which, it says are eroding fundamental human rights.

    "I think it's time for the international community - who largely look at the Maldives as a luxury tourist destination - to really look seriously at what it's like for ordinary Maldivians who have to bear the brunt of this increasingly repressive government," said Gossman.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies


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