The Maldives has been described as undergoing a battle between liberal and literal interpretations of Islam, with serious human rights violations linked to fundamentalists, and attacks on perceived atheists and homosexuals in recent years.
The Constitution designates Islam as the official state religion, and that Islam is the basis of all laws. Other articles in the Constitution appear to make the practice of Islam mandatory, for instance Article 19 that states that “[a] citizen is free to engage in any conduct or activity that is not expressly prohibited by Islamic Shari’ah or by law”. The Constitution also states that every citizen has the responsibility of preserving and protecting Islam.
According to the Constitution, citizens can engage in activities “not expressly prohibited by Shari’ah” but rights and freedoms can be limited to protect and maintain the “tenet of Islam”. While freedom of expression is guaranteed by the Constitution, it is not respected in practise.
Criticising Islam is outlawed under Section 617 of the Penal Code. A person commits an offense if he or she “engages in religious oration and criticism of Islam in public or in a public medium with the intention to cause disregard for Islam”; or “produces, sells, distributes, or offers material criticizing Islam with the intention to cause disregard to Islam”. The “production, possession, sale, distribution, dissemination and importation of idols of worship in the Maldives”; and “attempting to disrupt the religious unity of the citizens of Maldives, and conversing and acting in a manner likely to cause religious segregation amongst people” is also outlawed. Individuals convicted of these offences face imprisonment for up to one year and a fine.
While many religious ‘crimes’ are not individually spelled out under the penal code, wide berth is given for the prosecution of ‘hudud‘ crimes under Sharia law. The penal code grants judges discretion to impose Sharia penalties, including apostasy and blasphemy.
Accusations of blasphemy can and do result in vigilante violence, even where there is no formal prosecution of the accused.
Social media crackdown
In November 2017, the government launched a new initiative, under which people making fun of Islam on social media will get house calls from government officials to “educate” them about Islam.
In 2014 police officials confirmed that they were investigating atheist social media for non-compliance with this prohibition (see “Highlighted cases”, below).
Mohamed Rusthum Mujuthaba, has been kept in extended pre-trial detention since his arrest in September 2019, and according to his family, has suffered torture and solitary confinement. At the time of his arrest Rusthum was the subject of threats from violent groups, and had requested police protection. His family have struggled to find a lawyer willing to represent him.
In November 2018, activist Aishath Velezinee was arrested upon her return to the Maldives for “causing disregard for Islam” in connection with videos she had posted online a year previously. The Islamic Ministry declared her an apostate and her statements blasphemous, charging her under Article 617 of the Penal Code. The arrest warrant also invoked the religious unity law, which criminalises “attempting to disrupt the religious unity of Maldivians or talking in a manner that creates religious conflict among people.” Her arrest followed a summons issue in May 2018 while she was residing in the Netherlands. The authorities reportedly alleged that she had to be detained for her own safety and the protection of public order. Velezinee was subsequently released into the custody of her family on the basis that she required medical treatment. There is no further information on the status of the case.
Human rights defender and blogger Yameen Rasheed, who worked as an IT professional, was found stabbed to death in the stairwell of his apartment in April 2017. He had been an ardent campaigner for justice in the case of the apparent ‘enforced disappearance’ of his friend Ahmed Rilwan (see below). Yameen had also made a series of satirical posts about the spread of radical Islam and the Maldivian government through his blog ‘The Daily Panic’. And he was previously arrested along with others in 2015 after taking part in an anti-government rally in the capital. Rasheed had in the past reported receiving regular death threats to police, but had failed to get a response and often his complaints were dropped without investigation. As of May 2021, six men are on trial for their alleged involvement in the crime; the trial has been subjected to multiple delays. In April 2021, Presidential Commission on Investigation of Murders and Enforced Disappearances (DDCom) called for the acceleration of the trial.
Journalist and well-known blogger, Ahmed Rilwan, was abducted at knifepoint in August 2014. Rilwan was outspoken about corruption, and the connections between politicians, criminal gangs and Islamist extremist groups in the Maldives. Minivan News, an independent online publication and Rilwan’s place of work, subsequently received a death threat in the form of a machete through their premises door and an SMS text reading: “You will be killed next”. In September 2019, a presidential commission investigating cold cases of unsolved murders and disappearances stated that Rilwan was abducted and killed by a local affiliate of Al-Qaeda. The investigation by the commission revealed that there were attempts by the then President Yameen to divert the investigation and his deputy had tried to obstruct justice in the case. Rilwan’s family, friends and colleagues have continued to raise concerns about the speed and current conclusions of police investigations. In April 2021, the DDCom stated that justice was nearer for abducted journalist Ahmed Rilwan over new developments in the case, indicating that a forensic report along with new evidence was due to be shared with the Prosecutor General’s (PG) Office. The commission cited COVID-19 as a cause for delays in the completion of its investigation.
In a series of kidnappings in June 2014, several perceived atheists and homosexuals in Malé city were detained and intimidated by large gangs of approximately 40 men. The abductees were interrogated on their beliefs, tested on passages from the Quran, and asked to recite the Shahadha (Islamic creed). The men were accused of atheism and homosexuality, and threatened with death. They were forced to hand over their Facebook account passwords and pressured to identify the administrators of the ‘Secular Democratic Maldives Movement’ and ‘Maldivian Atheists’ on Facebook. The Maldivian Democratic Party made a statement on the kidnappings, saying, “The extremists blindfolded the young people, took them to remote locations against their will, threatened them with sharp weapons, threatened them with death, issued sentences in a vigilante trial and are now implementing these sentences…” Sources suggest all individuals were later released, but were locked out of their social media accounts and warnings about “blasphemy” appeared on the commandeered pages. Minivan News reported that members of the vigilante group had been photographed in a meeting with Islamic Minister Sheikh Mohamed Shaheem Ali and youth groups who were protesting against homosexuality and the “harassment” of Islam, along with a meeting with the Home Minister Umar Naseer.
During the period of the kidnappings, a group of men including a man referred to in Minivan News by the pseudonym Adam Ghafoor were attacked by a mob of eight at a café. The attackers accused them of atheism and homosexuality. (The group had met for breakfast after having been at a gym, and so were dressed in shorts and t-shirts, which attire seems to have sparked the accusation of homosexuality.) One of the attackers is reported as having said, “You homosexual atheists are destroying our country – we will not stand back and watch you do it.” He asked Ghafoor to recite the Shahada. Members of the group then attacked Ghafoor and threatened him with further violence or death if they saw him again.
One of the Facebook Pages hijacked on 8 June 2014 was named ‘Colourless’. It had been run by liberal activists, and had 4,865 members, with the aim of bringing a “divided nation to a common ground as a platform to advocate peace, love and harmonic co-existence.” Having stolen passwords, the new administrators changed the group’s banner to the black Shahadha flag, and the whole page was later deleted. One of the administrators, Jennifer Latheef, said that she and the other administrators had received death threats along with warnings from Facebook users over the preceding months to remove comments they found offensive. The group decided to allow free speech but asked members not to attack or insult the religious beliefs of others. Another Facebook group called ‘Shariah4Maldives’ then posted pictures of the administrators.
Officials confirmed in March 2013 that they were investigating “anti-Islamic” social media activity. Though the “investigation” had a broader purview, the Facebook Page “Dhivehi Atheists/Maldivian Atheists” appears to have been at the forefront. The Page had been accused of “insulting God” and posting “offensive” cartoons, by the religious conservative Adhaalath party. Liked by 300 users, the majority of the posts were in local Dhivehi language, and the page encouraged Maldivians to leave Islam and “choose the path of science and reason”. Several posts made by visitors accused various people of being behind the Page and threatened to kill them. Many visitors have stated that the administrator had been identified as a woman.