Maldives: Concerns for safety of social media activist following conviction

  • post Type / Humanists At Risk
  • Date / 15 August 2022

Humanists International is deeply concerned for Maldivian human rights defender Mohamed Rusthum Russo following his conviction for criticizing Islam and possession of obscene material on 14 August. Rusthum was handed down a four-month prison term, but will not be required to serve the time owing to the amount of time he was held in detention in relation to the case.

Maldivian activist Mohamed Rusthum Mujuthaba

Mohamed Rusthum Mujuthaba, also known under his pseudonym Rusthum Russo, is an advocate for human rights on social media, including the right to freedom of religion or belief. As a result of his activism, Rusthum regularly receives threats and lives in hiding. He has spent almost half of the last three years in detention.

Rusthum reports that he was first detained in September 2019 after authorities reportedly arrested him on suspicion of insulting Islam and for possession of obscene material, however, no charges were ever filed. Shortly after his release in March 2020, Rusthum was re-arrested and convicted of ‘obstructing the course of justice’ for which he served a one-year term.

Criticizing Islam is outlawed in the Maldives under Section 617 of the Penal Code and punishable by up to a year in prison and a fine. While many religious ‘crimes’ are not individually spelled out under the Penal Code, a wide berth is given for the prosecution of ‘hudud‘ crimes under Sharia law. The Penal Code grants judges discretion to impose Sharia penalties, including in cases of so-called ‘apostasy’ and ‘blasphemy.’
Accusations of ‘blasphemy’ can and do result in vigilante violence, especially where actors feel the State has failed in its duty to prosecute the accused. A climate of impunity for attacks on alleged ‘blasphemers’ emboldens would-be assailants to carry out further attacks, in the knowledge that they will face no consequences for their actions.

According to Rusthum, the Maldivian authorities brought charges against him in connection with his first detention in November 2021. Like many others who face allegations in countries with the harshest penalties for ‘blasphemy’, Rusthum was unable to find a lawyer willing to represent him. According to media reports, Rusthum was given just one week in which to find a lawyer. He subsequently felt forced to skip multiple hearings while he sought to find someone to represent him.

At a hearing held on 10 August 2022, representing himself before the court, Rusthum plead guilty to the charges. During the hearing, the prosecutor was reportedly forced to apologize for mistakenly informing the court that Rusthum had only been held in custody for 29 days in connection with this case. Correctional service records confirmed that Rusthum’s own account of being detained for six months was, in fact, accurate.

Although Rusthum is free, he is not safe. Rusthum reports that since his conviction, he has faced an increase in threats and fears for his life. Given that his photograph was released in the media, he is a recognisable figure in the community. An atheist in a country where non-religious people face grave violations of their rights, Humanists International fears that Mohamed Rusthum Mujuthaba is being targeted for his peaceful exercise of his rights to freedom of religion or belief and expression.

Humanists International calls on the Maldivian authorities to protect Mohamed Rusthum Mujuthaba. To this end, the organization calls on the authorities to repeal its blasphemy laws.

Headline Photo by Luis Villasmil on Unsplash

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