Maldives’ commissioner of police Mohamed Hameed addresses a press conference on the blast that targeted former president and current parliament speaker Mohamed Nasheed in Male, May 9, 2021.
© 2021 ALI NASYR/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
(New York) – Maldives authorities should drop cases against four men and cease investigations to identify others who may have engaged in consensual same-sex relations in steps that appear aimed to appease extremist groups, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should take immediate measures to repeal the provisions of Maldives’ 2014 penal code that makes “unlawful sexual intercourse” and “unlawful sexual contact” criminal offenses, contrary to international human rights standards.
Police in the Maldives said they are investigating dozens of individuals and have sought to frame charges against three men arrested on July 28, 2022, including a police officer and the brother of a prominent politician, Mohamed Nasheed, who is a former president and current speaker of parliament. The inquiries and arrests were apparently based on leaked videos and screengrabs that allegedly depicted the men having sex with a Bangladeshi man, who had been arrested on July 12. If convicted, the men face up to eight years in prison and 100 lashes.
“The Maldives authorities should immediately drop the unjust and apparently politically motivated investigations, and instead abide by international standards on rights protections,” said Graeme Reid, director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Rights Program at Human Rights Watch. “The government should repeal laws criminalizing consensual same-sex relations, which discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender citizens, migrants and tourists, and are a recipe for abuse.”
Police launched investigations after a number of videos and screengrabs were leaked on social media. The Bangladeshi national was arrested for engaging in unlawful sexual conduct and for allegedly making the video recordings. International human rights law obligates the state to provide him free legal counsel since he cannot afford a lawyer.
The police then summoned and questioned the three men who were identified in the videos and they were subsequently arrested. In a media interview, the Commissioner of Police, Mohamed Hameed, said that 38 people had been identified as having had same-sex relationships with the Bangladeshi man, and that they would all be prosecuted after investigation. The authorities have seized the passports of 18 people linked to these police investigations.
The arrests occurred while the Maldives government is facing backlash from extremist Islamist groups for detaining over 20 people, including two religious leaders and a former member of parliament for their alleged involvement in a violent attack on an event celebrating International Yoga Day on June 21. These groups deemed the event, attended by government officials and foreign diplomats, as heretical, a celebration of idolatry or polytheism. On July 25, the Adhaalath party – a partner in the ruling coalition whose leader is the minister of home affairs – declared yoga forbidden.
Prior to the arrest of Mohamed Nasheed’s brother, opposition supporters, as well as Islamist groups, had been using social media to pressure the government about its arrests for the Yoga Day attacks while taking no action against the people allegedly involved in the leaked videos.
The administration of President Ibrahim Solih has failed to credibly address threats to free expression and other rights by Islamist groups, Human Rights Watch said. The administration has neglected other essential reforms, leaving the justice system vulnerable to pressure from powerful interest groups, including groups that advocate violence against critics of the government.
In May 2021, Nasheed was critically injured in an assassination attempt, for which he blamed on religious extremists. He has recently criticized the Solih administration for appeasing the Adhaalath party.
Prior to the reform of the Maldives penal code in 2014, same-sex relationships were only regulated under Sharia, or Islamic law. Under the revised penal code, section 411(a)(2) punishes “sexual intercourse with a person of the same sex” with up to eight years in prison, while section 411(d) stipulates an additional penalty of up to 100 lashes under Sharia. Section 412 prohibits unlawful sexual conduct with a penalty of up to eight years. These provisions are applicable to both men and women.
Criminalizing adult consensual same sex-conduct contravenes broadly accepted international legal standards. Arrest for consensual same-sex relations is arbitrary. Laws against same-sex conduct make people easy targets for blackmail, extortion, and political manipulation. Even when not enforced, such laws have a chilling effect on same-sex activity.
Consensual sexual relations are protected under the human right to privacy and nondiscrimination, and the right to be protected against arbitrary and unlawful interference with an individual’s private and family life and their reputation or dignity. Criminalizing same-sex intimacy violates these international norms and standards, as affirmed by the United Nations Human Rights Committee, which monitors compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and by the UN independent expert on sexual orientation and gender identity.
“The arrest of four men for consensual same-sex conduct shows the arbitrary nature of these discriminatory laws,” Reid said. “The law leaves people open to blackmail and other abuse, and easily becomes a political tool in which those prosecuted bear the brunt of the abuse. The government should repeal the laws immediately.”