For the last few years, the Maldives has been witnessing a descent into authoritarianism. Since 2012, death sentences have been more frequent and, in 2014, the President Yameen’s Government voted in favour of a law which, in particular, extended the death penalty to juveniles.

Today, NGOs on the ground are concerned that the de facto moratorium which has been in place for more than 60 years might be broken. In February, ECPM joined the movement to support three prisoners sentenced to death who risk imminent execution.

To mark the 6th World Congress Against the Death Penalty in June 2016, we met Mushfiq Mohamed and Ahmed Mohamed, members of the Maldivian Democracy Network NGO, to find out more about what has been happening in a country better known for its beautiful sandy beaches than human rights violations.

What is the status of application of the death penalty in the Maldives?

The last execution in the Maldives dates back to the start of the 1960s. The authorities then established a de facto moratorium. But in 2014 a new Government came to power, led by Abdulla Yameen, half-brother of the former dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. In April 2014, this Government voted in favour of a law which re-establishes use of the death penalty by lethal injection. Recently, we saw some cases being pushed through very quickly, cases involving politicians, lawyers…it would appear that the authorities are seeking to get rid of certain people.

After failing to obtain any lethal products, the authorities declared a few days ago that they would now execute people by hanging. As we speak, we are waiting for verdicts from the Supreme Court concerning four prisoners sentenced to death. According to the law, the Supreme Court can consider a case for 30 days. If, after that time, the Court’s decision has been confirmed, the prisoner can be executed at any moment. So, these people could be killed within the next month.

How are you planning to take action against the death penalty?

We started a project on this topic in 2015. The Maldives is a Muslim country so we decided to focus on the religious arguments used by that religion to justify the death penalty. We asked an Egyptian-American Islamic scholar to participate in some workshops for students and lawyers. Originally, we wanted to organise a public sermon but the Islamic minister did not give his authorisation, unsurprisingly. The authorities claimed that he did not have the necessary skills, despite the fact that he has a degree in Islamic law and a thesis in the United States. We also analyse the cases of prisoners sentenced to death and make a list of human rights violations within the framework of trials. Our aim is to show the public just how corrupt and insufficiently informed the judiciary is. You can’t count on that kind a judicial apparatus to render justice and even less to decide whether someone should die.

How did the death penalty become flavour of the day again in the Maldives?

There was a brief democratic transition between 2008 and 2012, and then a coup d’état overthrew the Government. During the elections which followed, the Supreme Court intervened three times without a valid reason on the basis of false reports from the police. People finally voted and the newly elected Government promised to reintroduce application of the death penalty. It was a way of obtaining the support of the Islamic party.

Is it difficult to be part of an NGO at the moment in your country?

Very difficult. We have to overcome a number of obstacles. First, pressure from the Government. The Maldives does not have a strong civil society. It is something which is very new and which started at the beginning of the Millennium. Only a few NGOs work on human rights in the Maldives. Then, there’s the fact that it is very difficult to get funding. In fact, the Maldives is managed by a few local companies which do not want to support NGOs. As regards international backers, it is difficult to focus on the Maldives, it is so small…And yet, when you see that 200 people have left the country to go to Syria to join terrorist groups, you might say that it is urgent to push for more human rights and democracy in the country.

NGOs are not the only ones suffering. Journalists are also finding it hard to do their work. One of them disappeared in August 2014 and we still don’t know what happened to him. Our organisation published reports by private investigators about this disappearance and the Government quickly denied the information and threatened to take us to court.So no, it is not a safe environment for anyone who wants to express their opinions freely. Recently, they even forced one of the country’s biggest newspapers to close. The situation is very worrying.

Do you think that a boycott would be an effective way to open a dialogue with the regime?

If you look at the tourism industry in the Maldives, which represents about 70% of GDP, you can see that most tourists come from Europe. It is a very big market for the Maldives. More than a million Europeans go to the Maldives every year which represents 40% of tourists.

We are not calling for a boycott personally, but it would be interesting to look at the issue and see how it could be done. There is a website, Ethical Maldives, which lists tourist companies which finance the regime. I think that a targeted approach would be the best solution. Actually, the EU voted in favour of a resolution in that regard but no country has adopted it individually.

These sanctions could encourage the Government to take into account the international community. Today, most politicians in the Maldives are either in prison or in exile. The international community has intervened to open a dialogue but we are still waiting for a response from the authorities. The Government is still refusing to talk to the opposition…without real international mobilisation, no dialogue will be possible.

But if such a dialogue were to take place, it must involve civil society and allow NGOs to be part of the conversation. That would make it possible for the Maldives to escape from this cycle of coup d’etats which have cause this little country such suffering.