The Maldives is one of the world’s most desired holiday destinations. This curl of islands in the Indian Ocean, renowned for its wondrous natural beauty, attracts more than a million people each year. The sweeping views of turquoise water, the white sand beaches shaded by sloping palm trees, and the warm hospitality of its people have earned it comparisons to paradise.
This week, however, the country is drawing attention for the ugly actions of its government. The Maldives is poised to carry out its first executions in more than 60 years. Against the backdrop of a political crisis, the embattled government wants to send three men to the gallows in a feeble attempt to look tough and distract attention.
If they are allowed to go ahead, the executions would violate the Maldives’ commitments under international law. There are serious questions about the fairness of the proceedings that consigned the three men to their fate. One of them, Hussain Humaam Ahmed, was convicted of murder on the basis of an apparently coerced “confession” that he later retracted.
The cases have drawn the attention of the United Nations. Last year, the Human Rights Committee called on the government to stall Humaam’s execution until an appeal could be considered on his behalf. And last month, the UN body issued similar requests in the cases of the two other men, Ahmed Murrath and Mohammed Nabeel, also convicted of murder.
The government’s determination to press ahead the executions underscores just how far the Maldives has regressed when it comes to respect for human rights. For decades, the islands led the way for the region, as one of the earliest countries to shun the use of the cruel and irreversible punishment. Now, when most of the world has abolished the death penalty, it is heading in the wrong direction.
Using an excuse favoured by the world’s most notorious implementers of the death penalty, the Maldives government has said the executions are necessary to thwart crime. There is no evidence to support such claims. Research has shown that the death penalty is no unique deterrent to crime. Countries have not made themselves safer by depriving people of their lives.
The real reason for the executions was apparent in the Maldives parliament last week. The political opposition had planned to impeach the Speaker, but four MPs were disqualified and the vote was called off. Days later, when they arrived at the building, however, they were stopped from entering. Soldiers then surrounded them, roughed them up, used pepper spray and fired tear gas.
Such heavy-handed measures have become depressingly familiar to the people of the Maldives. Over the past year, the authorities have invoked anti-terrorism legislation to silence government critics. Members of the opposition have been imprisoned for lengthy terms on trumped up charges in manifestly unfair trials.
The space for civil society and journalists has shrunk dramatically with the introduction of the draconian Defamation and Freedom of Speech Act, criminalizing people’s freedom of expression with penalties that include prison sentences of up to six months and fines of up to £100,000.
At the same time, the government amended legislation, seemingly to make it easier to execute people. Timelines for appeals were set, and the power to grant pardons or commutations remove from the President in intentional murder cases, eliminating the possibility for the prisoners to apply for executive clemency – a breach of international human rights law.
There are now 20 people currently languishing on death row in the Maldives. At least five of them were convicted and sentenced for crimes they committed when they were below 18 years of age, compounding the injustice and disregard for international safeguards.
The Maldives has so far resisted international pressure. Last year, it withdrew from the Commonwealth after its appalling human rights record was put to scrutiny. President Yameen is working from the cynical calculation that people will still flock to Maldivian beaches, even as people are being put to death on a nearby island.
The international community must disabuse him of such notions. There are already signs of the serious damage that would be done to the Maldives if these three men are executed. The storming of parliament has triggered a travel advisory for British citizens, while Richard Branson has called on other businessmen to take notice.
President Yameen must be told that unless he pulls back from this reckless course of action, putting the Maldives on the wrong side of history when it comes to the death penalty, this island may become known less for its natural beauty and more for his cruelty.
Biraj Patnaik is Amnesty International’s South Asia Director
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