Civil society groups CIVICUS, FORUM-ASIA and Voice of Women called for greater respect for civic freedoms within Maldives in a report submitted to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC).
The report regarding civic freedoms was presented ahead of the UNHRC's Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Maldives which is scheduled for May 2020.
Despite welcoming human rights improvements under the administration of President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, the report highlights ongoing restrictions to freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression as well as unwarranted restrictions on human rights defenders since the last UPR examination in 2015.
The NGOs positively remarked on the government for opening greater space for the exercise of fundamental freedoms, establishing a commission to probe unresolved disappearances, reviewing legislation restricting civic space and the bill to protect whistleblowers.
However, the report expressed alarm concerning incoming reports of harassment or threats against human rights defenders and journalists, particularly by extremist groups, and the lack of effective action by law enforcement authorities.
The report described the recent suspension of Maldivian Democracy Network (MDN) as regressive and an effort to silence civil society groups. It stated that the move set a dangerous precedent for freedom of expression and association, threatening the positive steps towards restoration of fundamental freedoms and human rights.
Therefore, the report to the UNHRC expressed the necessity of reversing the suspension and creating a safe and enabling environment for human rights defenders and organisations to carry out legitimate work without fear of reprisal or harassment.
Regarding freedom of expression, the report praises the annulment of the Freedom of Expression and Defamation Act, enacted in 2016, which was systematically used against the media, opposition activists and dissidents.
However, the report expressed concern about threats against government critics, highlighting that Mandhu College chairman and former lawmaker Ibrahim Ismail came under attack in January 2019 for criticising the sentencing of a woman to death by stoning for adultery.
The report to the UNHRC also noted the slow progress in initiating comprehensive reforms for laws related to the freedoms of association and peaceful assembly. It urged the government to review the Freedom of Peaceful Assembly Act of 2013 which was described as imposing undue limitations on assemblies and granted the police wide discretion in granting permission.
The NGOs also called for revisions to be brought to the Associations Act to ensure that it complied with international human rights standards, noting that the previous government used the act to stifle critical civil society groups.
The Maldivian government was presented 258 recommendations following the previous review which included granting protection to journalists, human rights defenders and other civil society actors in addition to creating a conducive environment for such individuals. Other recommendations included guaranteeing freedom of expression and media as well as upholding freedom of assembly.
At present, the government has only partially implemented these recommendations.
Overall the report called on the Maldivian government to increase efforts to fulfil the commitments made in the 2015 review and systematically consult with civil society to implement UPR recommendations.
The NGOs also urged the international community to support the people and government of Maldives in the endeavour, asserting that international scrutiny was crucial to sustaining improvements secured during the previous year.