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Maldives: Government Dissolves Human Rights NGO over Report on Radicalization

(Nov. 29, 2019) On November 5, 2019, the government of Maldives decided to dissolve the Maldivian Democracy Network (MDN), a nonpartisan NGO that aims to promote human rights and democratic values and principles in the Maldives, over the contents of its 2016 report entitled Preliminary Assessment of Radicalization in the Maldives. The report, which “examined school text books for each grade on how Islam is taught and how some Friday sermons allegedly incited hate and intolerance,” was “deemed contrary to the tenets of Islam.”

In early October 2019, Islamic religious scholars launched a campaign to ban the MDN after “screenshots of offensive sections in the report were widely shared on social media. More than 140 out of 200 local councils backed the calls[,] and protest marches took place on several islands during the past four weekends.” According to Human Rights Watch,

[t]he recent campaign against the organization began after the government introduced new legislation on terrorism that religious extremists and criminal gangs affiliated with powerful opposition politicians feared would be used against them. Several hundred Maldivians have fought abroad with the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), which some clerics and Islamist activists in the Maldives have promoted.

On October 10, the government imposed a “temporary cessation of activities” upon the (MDN) following what the government called “widespread public condemnation” of the report. It was also reported that the government had suspended the NGO “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.” The decision to dissolve the organization came in an announcement by the Ministry of Youth, Sports and Community Empowerment after an investigation by the Ministry of Islamic Affairs and the police concluded that the MDN’s 2016 report “mocked Islam and Prophet Mohamed.”

This action appears to have been taken under section 32 of the Associations Act (No 1/2003), which allows the cancellation of the registration of an association that commits “an act mentioned under section 19 of the Act.” Section 19 stipulates that “[t]o maintain harmony and sovereignty of the country,” it prohibits the incorporation of an association if it is “[c]onflicting with principles of Islam, or disregarding Islamic religion, or rebuking or undervaluing religious harmony of the country, or expressing or propagating the thinking and beliefs of any another religion other than Islamic religion.”

The NGO was told by the Ministry of Youth, Sports & Community Empowerment to “settle its debts and matters related to its property within 45 days.”

Article 27 (“Freedom of expression”) of the Constitution of Maldives stipulates that “[e]veryone has the right to freedom of thought and the freedom to communicate opinions and expression in a manner that is not contrary to any tenet of Islam.”

Reactions to the Government’s Decision

Sheikh Dr. Mohamed Iyaz, a religious scholar and senior member of the Adhaalath Party and a campaign leader “thanked the president for following through on assurances ‘even if it came a bit late.’” Sheikh Ali Zaid, another leader of the movement to ban MDN, also “congratulated the president and expressed confidence that the report’s authors would be prosecuted.” Dinushika Dissanayake, South Asia Research Director at Amnesty International, reportedly reacted to the suspension of the NGO with the following statement:

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, shows that time-worn tactics to intimidate human rights defenders and shrink space for civil society remain a threat. … 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?” … [The government must] “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.”