Human rights activist faces death threats in the Maldives
Shahindha Ismail, Executive Director of the Maldives Democracy Network (MDN) is reportedly being investigated by police for the ‘crime’ of allegedly advocating for secularism in the Sunni Muslim state.
According to this report, the prominent human rights activist sparked outrage in December 2017 when she responded in a tweet to a speech by President Abdulla Yameen, in which he had vowed to crack down on what he said were domestic and international efforts to propagate faiths other than Islam in the Maldives. She wrote:
Religions other than Islam exist in this world because Allah allowed for it. No other religion would exist otherwise, is it not?
Her post prompted threats, with one Twitter user saying:
I’m one of hundreds who will cut people like that to pieces.
That post has since been deleted.
Several comments on Facebook also called for attacks on Ismail and said she should:
Be thrown out of the country.
She now says:
I do not feel safe in the Maldives and I fear for my life.
On December 28, amid the furore, the Ministry of Islamic Affairs issued a statement urging Maldivians to refrain from:
Nonsensical talk that advocates for any faith other than Islam in the Maldives.
Islam is the official religion in the Indian Ocean archipelago of 400,000 people.
Hours later, the police announced that it had launched an investigation against Ismail.
Several ruling party politicians, including Majority Leader Ahmed Nihan, thanked the police for the probe.
A police spokesman said Ismail was being investigated under the Religious Unity Act, which criminalises actions that may lead to religious strife in the Maldives. It carries a prison sentence of up to five years.
Police have announced an investigation against me while ignoring the open threats against me on social media. Human rights defenders have always been labelled as anti-Islamic or as Western agents to wipe out Islam. Too many of us have been attacked, disappeared and murdered for any of us to be safe any more.
A liberal blogger – Yameen Rasheed, 29, above – was stabbed to death last April in the Maldives’ capital, Malé, after he lodged a police complaint over death threats against him.
Ismail has previously criticised law enforcement agencies for inaction over attacks against liberal and moderate voices, which also include the disappearance of a journalist in 2014 and the killing of a parliamentarian in 2012. Both of these cases remain unsolved.
Rights groups have previously criticised the country’s government for using new laws and criminal cases to silence, among others, human rights defenders and civil society groups.
A vocal critic of Yameen’s human rights record, Ismail said threats against her “escalated” after the pro-government tabloid Vaguthu Online published a news article headlined, “Shahindha has indirectly called for other faiths in the Maldives.”
The MDN, which Ismail heads, said it was “appalled” that the police have chosen to investigate the content of her Twitter post:
Rather than those who have openly called to kill and behead her.
Ismail said she believed the outcry over her tweet was “part of the same trend of extensive profiling and incitement” that preceded previous physical attacks on the blogger, journalist and parliamentarian.
Forum Asia, an Asian rights-group based in Thailand, said it was “seriously concerned” by the threats and the police inquiry against Ismail.
The police have “failed to respond appropriately” to calls for violence against critics and dissidents in the past, said Refendi Djamin, a board member of the organisation.
The Maldives government must protect human rights defenders instead of targeting them.