Maldives comes under fire for death penalty, and free speech crackdown | News | DW | 09.08.2016
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Maldives comes under fire for death penalty, and free speech crackdown

The country abandoned the death penalty in favor of life in prison in 1954, but now 17 people are on death row. And a new defamation law is seen as a full frontal attack on free speech and a free press.

The picturesque Maldives archipelago is becoming increasingly repressive, turning away from Western concepts of human rights and free speech.

The United Nations' human rights advocate is imploring the country to maintain a decades-old moratorium on the death penalty. Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein, issued a statement on Tuesday applauding the country's historically "important leadership" in ending the use of the death penalty.

President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom (headshot)

President Abdulla Yameen is under fire at home and abroad

But he went on to say that it was "deeply regrettable that a series of steps have been taken to resume executions in the country."

A country with an estimated population below 400,000 people, the Maldives has 17 people on death row. Three are potentially imminent, including convictions against a 22-year-old man, Ahmed Murrath, and his partner Fathimath Hana.

Both have been convicted in the stabbing death of a prominent member of parliament in 2012. The country's Supreme Court reaffirmed the death penalty against Murrath in June. Shortly before this court decision, the government amended its rules to allow the death penalty by lethal injection or hanging. Former Foreign Minister Dunya Maumoon, the president's niece and a former leader's daughter, cited this issue when resigning from her post in July.

The Maldives suspended the death penalty in 1954, converting all such sentences to life in prison.

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The death penalty is not the appropriate means to deter and prevent crimes, the UN's al-Hussein stressed on Tuesday. Revenge should never be confused with justice.

He also took a jab at the country's suspect judicial system, saying a process that is unable to guarantee fair trials, should not have the last word about life and death.

"I urge the authorities and all people in the Maldives to get the moratorium upright and to work for a total ban of the death penalty," al-Hussein said.

In addition, the Maldives government and its lawmakers are under fire for a new defamation law that critics say is overly broad, and the punishment overly harsh.

Parliament passed the law with a 47-31 majority vote on Tuesday. Anyone convicted of criminal defamation can be fined as much as $130,000 - a massive sum in a country with an average annual per capita income under $15,000. Failure to pay the fine can result in six months' imprisonment.

Maldivian journalists and opposition politicians, as well as the European Union and the embassies of the US, Britain, Norway, Germany and the Netherlands, all urged the government not to pass the bill.

The law not only criminalizes free speech, but also empowers the government of President Abdulla Yameen, to close down news organizations.

"This is truly the end of free media in the Maldives," said Ali Naafiz, assistant editor of the private Mihaaru news website. "The government no longer needs an excuse to shut down media outlets or crack down on dissenters."

bik/msh (AP, AFP, KNA)

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