A week after Maldivian authorities launched a crackdown on peaceful protests and media workers ahead of King of Saudi Arabia Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud’s visit, who later postponed it, the Amnesty International on Wednesday urged the Maldives government to respect the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and expression, and to not suppress public debate about any development plans in the country.
It also urged the government to effectively respect and protect the right to peaceful protest, even when they
themselves are the focus of demonstrations.
Earlier this month, the Maldives government had said a planned multi-billion dollar, Saudi-funded investment project on one of its atolls would focus on high-end tourism. It had rejected opposition claims that the islands would be sold to the Saudi Arabia government.
Maldives former president Mohamed Nasheed’s party had said the project would effectively give a foreign power control over Faafu atoll in a form of colonialisation by Saudi Arabia.
According to the Amnesty International, there have been persistent rumours in Maldives that the government is planning to sell the whole of Faafu atoll (a group of some 23 islands southwest of the capital Malé) to Saudi Arabia for around $10 billion, and that this deal would be announced during the King’s visit.
So, the company recommended the Maldives authorities to end all attempts to arbitrarily restrict the rights of freedom of expression and peaceful assembly or to limit public debate around the plans to develop Faafu atoll with Saudi Arabian investment.
On March 17, the government of Maldives announced that Salman’s visit was postponed due to the high prevalence of the flu in the country. “The Maldivian authorities sought to suppress critical reporting around the Faafu deal and harassed media workers and activists. On 2 March, a relative of a ruling party MP allegedly threatened to assault and destroy the equipment of two journalists from the Maldives Independent, Hassan Mohamed and Hassan Moosa, when they were visiting Faafu. After the incident, police took the journalists into “protective custody” for nine hours, during which they confiscated their phones and refused to let them contact their editors or families”, said Amnesty International in its report. It also said, “The Maldives Independent in a statement said they were “extremely disappointed” with the police’s conduct: “The police claimed [the journalists] were held in protective custody but they were treated like suspects.”
The opposition-linked privately owned TV station Raajje TV, on March 1, stated they received repeated threats over phone against a team of its reporters visiting Faafu. A day before, on 1 March 2017, the opposition-linked privately owned TV station Raajje TV stated that it had received repeated death threats over the phone against a team of its reporters visiting Faafu. A number of sources in Maldives told Amnesty International they believe it was a direct threat against journalists who cover this issue.
On 16 March, Police arrested the well-known social media activist Thayyib Shaheem, who has been an outspoken critic of the Faafu project, from Malé on suspicion of spreading false information on social media, and “creating panic” through his tweets about the swine flu outbreak. He was remanded for eight days on March 17, and is currently kept in a high-security jail on Dhoonidhoo island. He risks up to one year and three months in prison if convicted under the sections in the penal code listed on his arrest form. According to Amnesty International, “Thayyib Shaheem has been detained solely for exercising his right to freedom of expression, and therefore considers him a prisoner of conscience”. It has asked the government to immediately and unconditionally release Thayyib Shaheem from detention, and drop any criminal proceedings which is running against him.
On 13 March, police also confiscated the phone of Shammoon “Lucas” Jaleel, another influential social media activist who has criticised the alleged Faafu sale.
There have been public protests about the project over the suspected land sale it involves. Despite its reputation as a tourist paradise, the largely Muslim island chain of 400,000 people is struggling with a large number of youths enlisting to fight for Islamic State in the Middle East. The opposition says allowing Saudi influence in the country would result in more radicalisation.