The Maldives

Like many in the Senate I am a great believer in freedom. In Australia we are fortunate to have constitutional government and strong democratic institutions to uphold and protect our freedom. Sadly, in today's troubled world, there are peoples who cannot boast of such things.

Tonight, I wish to drawn attention to the challenges confronting the people of the Maldives as they seek their own democratic future.

The story of their struggle, a political fairytale where the prisoner defeated the jailer, of the fall of dictatorship, the establishment of a nascent democracy and the gradual slide back towards tyranny is a reminder to each of us that safeguarding freedom is a perpetual battle.

When people think of the Maldives, they think of a far-flung tropical island paradise: of white sandy beaches, blue lagoons and vibrant coral reefs. But under former dictator Gayyoom, Asia's longest serving dictator, the Maldives was renowned for harsh treatment of political opponents, including imprisonment and torture, curtailments placed on freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of association.

In 2008, in that country's first free multiparty elections, Mohamed Nasheed was elected, a reformist president. I should declare a conflict of interest; I worked on that campaign. He introduced pensions, health insurance for all, disability allowances, inter-atoll transport and democratic reforms to freedom of expression. He also fought drugs. Under President Nasheed, international measures of freedom of speech and freedom of the press improved markedly.

Interestingly, as a very peaceful person, he refused to punish those miscreants, those criminals, who transgressed under the former regime. But in February 2012 there was a coup. And, no matter how it is dressed up, a democratically elected president was removed from power.

Tonight, in the time allotted to me, I want to talk about judicial corruption, political violence, suppression of the media and the abduction and possible murder of journalist Ahmed Rilwan Abdulla. Following Nasheed's departure from power, the political situation in this island paradise began to deteriorate and slide into authoritarianism and religious extremism. There were police crackdowns on Maldivian Democratic Party supporters. Over 800 supporters of the MDP were arrested in the first year following President Nasheed's resignation. President Nasheed himself faced arrest and had to flea to the Indian High Commission for sanctuary.

However, let us talk about the judicial process in the Maldives. A worrying trend has been for the Supreme Court to violate the separation of powers outlined in the 2008 constitution and interfere with electoral and human rights organs of state.

The presidential election in 2013 was held amidst controversy, with the Supreme Court and the independent Electoral Commission clashing over who had constitutional authority over the elections. The Supreme Court of the Maldives ultimately prevailed, whereby it twice cancelled and delayed elections that it appeared Nasheed would win. Indeed, The Economist magazine noted that the Maldives held as many elections as were needed to stop President Nasheed from winning power. The third attempt at the election was won by Abdulla Yameen, younger brother of former dictator Gayyoom.

Prior to the parliamentary elections in 2014 the Supreme Court, under unusual procedures which allowed it to initiate proceedings, prosecute and pass judgement, took action against the Maldives Elections Commission. The four commissioners were charged with contempt of court and disobeying orders for not following the Supreme Court's election guidelines.

More recently, in September 2014, the same Supreme Court, filled with appointees of the former dictator, issued similar proceedings against the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives for their report submitted to the UN on the deteriorating human rights position in the Maldives. The Human Rights Commission of the Maldives is charged with undermining the constitution and sovereignty of the Maldives.

We move from judicial corruption into political violence. In September this year the MDP headquarters, in capital, Male, and President Nasheed's family home were vandalised. That same day individuals were seen to destroy the security cameras of Minivan News, an independent news website, with a machete left in the office door. In October, only days ago, the MDP held a rally in Addu City, an MDP stronghold. The rally was attacked by masked men with wooden planks, iron rods, and stones. The same night, the MDP office in Addu City was torched.

In October this year, Amnesty International, the Inter-Parliamentary Union, and the European Union all expressed concern over the violence prevalent in the Maldives, noting it posed a critical test of the Maldivian government's will to maintain democracy. Only days ago, members of the Majlis, which is the parliament of the Maldives, were urged not to go out at night, amid the growing threats of violence and risks of attack upon elected officials.

This leads me to the suppression of the media and free speech. In July 2012, there was a near fatal attack on a blogger, Hilath Rasheed, an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience, which it is claimed was carried out by Islamic extremists. Journalist Aswad Ibrahim Waheed of Raajje TV, the MDP-aligned news channel, was nearly beaten to death in February 2013. This same TV station was torched in October 2013.

In June of this year vigilante groups abducted young men identified for promoting secularism on social media. The democracy focused Facebook page 'Colorless' had its administration hijacked by vigilante justice groups. But most concerning of all, apart from the violence that is being let upon the people of the Maldives, and especially the journalists of the Maldives, is that in September of this year the government announced regulations requiring government approval to publish poetry and literature, allegedly to protect social etiquette and align publications with religious codes, a move widely condemned as censorship and a blatant attack on free speech and in stark contrast to progress made under Nasheed.

Most concerning of all is that on 8 August 2014 Maldivian journalist, blogger and social media activist Ahmed Rilwan Abdulla was abducted outside his apartment. He has not been seen or heard from since. Rilwan had received numerous death threats from religious extremists for several years for his views on tolerance and freedom of expression, and advocacy against religious extremism. Shortly before he disappeared, Rilwan wrote about 15 Maldivian journalists who had received death threats over their coverage of gang related violence. The abduction of Rilwan is an attack on free press. It is an attack on freedom of expression, a right Maldivians have long fought and struggled for. Human rights NGO Maldivian Democracy Network commissioned a UK based private investigator to conduct an investigation into the journalist's disappearance. The investigator concluded that radicalised criminal gangs were involved in the abduction, with the help of corrupt government and police officials likely.

As a friend of the Maldives I say to the government of the Maldives that your country might be small but your people are strong-hearted and stand tall in the fight for freedom. The world is watching you, President Yameen. Be a true leader and let your people be free. Let them speak freely. Let them be without fear of violence. Let them have rights of association. Let them talk, write and join together as free peoples. Do not lead your country into the shadows of fear and hate and violence. Stamp on ISIS and other agents of hate. Let the Maldives be free. President Yameen, the world is watching you.