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Cases of concern

Mohamed Rusthum Mujuthaba

  • Location / Maldives
  • Reason for persecution / Apostasy laws
  • Current Status / On Trial
  • Last Updated / 28 June 2022
  • Name of Individual / Rusthum Russo
  • Country of Origin / Maldives

Mohamed Rusthum Mujuthaba (also known as Rusthum Russo) is a Maldivian activist who advocates for freedom of religion or belief and secularism. Despite threats to his safety, he choses to remain in the Maldives where he feels he is best placed to conduct meaningful advocacy. Rusthum currently faces up to five months in prison if he is convicted of charges under Sections 617 and 622 of the Penal Code. The case against him forms part of a campaign of judicial harassment that he has faced since 2019.


History of the Case

2022

June
On the day of the scheduled hearing – 23 June 2022 – Rusthum was informed that the hearing had been postponed.

May
Rusthum appeared in court, having missed several hearings in an attempt to extend the period of time in which he could find a lawyer. However, unsuccessful in finding someone to represent him, he represented himself. During the hearing, Rusthum argued that the case against him should not proceed as he had already been detained without charge for six months between 2019 and 2020 while under investigation for the alleged offences. The prosecutor constested Rusthum’s claim, stating that records showed he had been held in custody for a total of 29 days, 22 hours, and 19 minutes. As a result, the judge ordered the prosecution to further clarify this matter. The Judge also indicated that the trial would continue nonetheless and that any reductions in sentencing owing to time served would be calculated after its completion.

2021

November
On 21 November 2021, Rusthum was arrested and charged with criticizing Islam and possession of obscene material under sections 617 and 622 of the Penal Code, respectively.

March
Rusthum was released from prison on 30 March having served 1 year and 12 days following his conviction for obstructing the course of justice under Section 530 of the Penal Code

2020

March
On 15 March, Rusthum was arrested on charges of obstructing the course of justice.

Rusthum reports that he was released from arbitrary detention after six months on 12 March.

2019

September
On 10 September 2019, Rusthum was arrested and held without charge.


Background information

Rusthum was born in Thinadhoo island of Maldives. He found himself uncomfortable with the imposition of religious law in the country. Interested in democracy, human rights and, particularly, freedom of expression since he was a teenager, the vacant space created by the murders of senior Maldivian activists and atheists such as Ahmed Rilwan Abdulla and Yameen Rasheed prompted him to voice for justice and the political change.

Rusthum told Amnesty International, ““I was tweeting about women’s rights, freedom of conscience and errors in religion, why it is wrong and why it
must not be forced on anyone. They had all the tweets printed. It was nearly 6,000 tweets.”

Rusthum is unable to go to work, and he stays at home, for due to threats to his life exacerbated by the publication of his photograph by the government, which has made him an easily identifiable target by Islamists.


Country Background

Though most famous internationally as a popular tourist destination, the Maldives has been described as undergoing a battle between liberal and literal interpretations of Islam, with serious human rights violations linked to fundamentalists, and attacks on perceived atheists and homosexuals in recent years.

Constitution and government

There is no formal guarantee of the right to freedom of religion or belief in the Constitution of the Maldives. The Constitution designates Islam as the official state religion, and that Islam is the basis of all laws. Other articles in the Constitution appear to make the practice of Islam mandatory, for instance Article 19 that states that “[a] citizen is free to engage in any conduct or activity that is not expressly prohibited by Islamic Shari’ah or by law”. The Constitution also states that every citizen has the responsibility of preserving and protecting Islam.1 Article 9 (b) states that “a non-Muslim may not become citizen of the Maldives” which is interpreted as imposing a requirement that all citizens must be Muslims.

The Constitution does not prohibit discrimination based on religious preference; religion is excluded from a list of attributes for which people should not be discriminated against.3 According to the Constitution, citizens can engage in activities “not expressly prohibited by Shari’ah” but rights and freedoms can be limited to protect and maintain the “tenet of Islam”. While freedom of expression is guaranteed by the Constitution, it is not respected in practice.

The government follows civil law based on Islamic law, and this civil law is subordinate to Islamic law. In a situation not covered by civil law, nor addressed by the Constitution, judges must apply Shariah law.

International obligations

In June 2020, the office of President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih announced the decision to ratify the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights – a protocol establishing a complaints mechanism for individuals and organizations regarding violations of the human rights prescribed by the convention, and the International Convention for the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance.

The Maldives is a State Party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, with a reservation in relation to Article 18 on freedom of religion or belief. The government’s application of Article 18 of the Covenant “shall be without prejudice to the Constitution of the Republic of Maldives.”

Education and children’s rights

Article 36 of the Constitution states that it is imperative for parents and the state to provide children with primary and secondary education and subsection (c) requires state schools to “inculcate obedience to Islam” and “instil love for Islam.” Islam is incorporated into the curriculum in all subject areas and Islam is a compulsory subject in primary and secondary school. Foreign students who are not Muslims may be allowed to opt out of studying Islam.

The Ministry of Islamic Affairs mandates Islamic instruction in schools and the Ministry of Education funds the salaries of religious instructors. Foreigners who want to teach Islam can be authorized by the government to do so if they subscribe to Sunni Islam.

Family, community and society

The government certifies imams, who are responsible for presenting government-approved sermons and imams may not prepare sermons without government authorization. For an Imam to be certified, he must be a Sunni Muslim, have a degree in religious studies, and not have been convicted of a crime in a Shariah court. The sermons have to conform with government regulations which stipulate that statements during sermons that can be interpreted as racial or gender discriminatory, discourage access to health services in the name of Islam or demean the character of and/or hatred for people holding another faith than Islam, is prohibited. The punishment for such a violation is imprisonment or house arrest for two to four years and a fine of 5,000-20,000 rufiyaa (approximately $325 – $1,299 USD).

It is illegal to offer citizens alcohol, but the sale of alcohol to foreigners on resorts is legal. Importation of items contrary to Islam is also outlawed. Failing to fast during Ramadan without an acceptable medical or health-related reason and the consumption of pork or alcohol is also outlawed by Section 616 in the Penal Code.

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

The Constitution guarantees freedoms of expression and the press, but only in a manner “not contrary to the tenet of Islam.” The tenet of Islam is defined as “The Holy Qur’an and those principles of Shari’ah whose provenance is not in dispute from among those found in the Sunna of the Noble Prophet, and those principles derived from these two foundations”. Statements or actions believed to be contrary to this object are subject to criminal sanctions.

While it was expected that the Solih administration would respect freedom of expression to a larger extent than its predecessor, individuals vocal about the rights of minorities or basic freedoms are still at risk of attacks by non-state actors. Freedom House states that local human rights groups have had to relocate several social media users who have received death threats for exercising their right to freedom of expression.

Suspension of Maldivian Democracy Network 2019

In early October 2019, parliamentarians from the Adhaalath Party issued a statement calling for an investigation into the activities of the Maldivian Democracy Network (MDN) – a leading human rights organization – following a report published by the latter in 2016, titled ‘Preliminary Assessment of Radicalisation in Maldives’. The political party asserted that elements of the report contradicted the “tenet of Islam”. The MDN report criticized the Maldivian education system and claimed that the rhetoric used in certain textbooks encouraged extremism. The Adhaalath Party condemned the report accusing the MDN of deriding Islamic religion, with the support of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs the case was handed to the police and an investigation launched. Members of the public also condemned MDN’s report, with some demanding the organization’s closure. Islamist groups issued threats on social media against the staff of MDN and two men were detained for threatening the founder of MDN with death.

On 10 October 2019, the government issued a statement imposing MDN’s temporary cessation of activities “due to [the report’s] content slandering Islam and the Prophet Mohamed (PBUH)”. The statement assures that the government continues to be committed to “upholding the democratic rights of our citizens including those of expression and peaceful assembly” as recognised by the ICCPR, however emphasises that “these rights cannot be exercised maliciously, in the form of hate-speech, or in a manner that contributes to public discord and enmity”. The statement also reminds that the government condemns “those who foment hatred, send out threats, and call or violence against others in the name of defending religion”, but nonetheless reminds that “Islam is one of the fundamental sources of our country’s democratic framework as well as a source of unity and peace within our community.”

MDN apologized for their unintended offense to religion and removed the report from their website. However, following pressure by Islamist groups and the political opposition, the president ordered the dissolution of MDN on 5 November 2019. In April 2020, the Police Commissioner stated during a press conference that there is an ongoing criminal investigation into the alleged blasphemy.

Atheism and criticism of Islam

Criticising Islam is outlawed under Section 617 of the Penal Code. A person commits an offense if he or she “engages in religious oration and criticism of Islam in public or in a public medium with the intention to cause disregard for Islam”; or “produces, sells, distributes, or offers material criticizing Islam with the intention to cause disregard to Islam”. The “production, possession, sale, distribution, dissemination and importation of idols of worship in the Maldives”; and “attempting to disrupt the religious unity of the citizens of Maldives, and conversing and acting in a manner likely to cause religious segregation amongst people” is also outlawed. Individuals convicted of these offences face imprisonment for up to one year.
While many religious ‘crimes’ are not individually spelled out under the penal code, discretion is given for the prosecution of ‘hudud‘ crimes under Shariah law.

Muslims are prohibited by law to convert to another religion and conversion may result in the loss of citizenship. Judges can impose a harsher punishment in accordance with Shariah jurisprudence. Conversion from Islam may be viewed as apostasy, which is punishable by death according to Shariah as it is a hudud crime. Propagation of religions other than Islam is also a criminal offense, punishable by two to five years in prison. Proselytizing to change denomination within Islam carries the same penalty.

In November 2017, the government launched a new initiative, under which people making fun of Islam on social media will get house calls from government officials to “educate” them about Islam.

Human rights defenders

Human rights defenders have been targeted and subject to verbal attacks, hate speech and death threats. At least 15 human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers and NGO workers have reported that they have been subject to online threats and harassment repeatedly since November 2018. The targets included individuals who promotes freedom of expression and religion, published content viewed as offensive to Islam, or supported the rights of LGBTQ+ individuals.

In July 2020, it was reported that violent ultra-nationalist or islamic ideological groups had worked to shut down Uthema, a prominent women’s rights organization in the Maldives, by launching a social media campaign demanding that they be banned. The call came after Uthema published a report assessing the country’s adherence to its obligations under the United Nations’ Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. The organization has been accused of being anti-Islam.

Highlighted cases

Human rights defender and blogger Yameen Rasheed, who worked as an IT professional, was found stabbed to death in the stairwell of his apartment in April 2017. He had been an ardent campaigner for justice in the case of the apparent ‘enforced disappearance’ of his friend Ahmed Rilwan (see below). Rasheed had also made a series of satirical posts about the spread of radical Islam and the Maldivian government through his blog ‘The Daily Panic’. He was previously arrested along with others in 2015 after taking part in an anti-government rally in the capital. Rasheed had in the past reported receiving regular death threats to police, but had failed to get a response and often his complaints were dropped without investigation. The trial of the six men accused of the murder has been subject to multiple delays.

Journalist and well-known blogger, Ahmed Rilwan, was abducted at knife point in August 2014. Rilwan was outspoken about corruption, and the connections between politicians, criminal gangs and Islamist extremist groups in the Maldives. Minivan News, an independent online publication and Rilwan’s place of work, subsequently received a death threat in the form of a machete through their premises door and an SMS text reading: “You will be killed next”. In September 2019, a presidential commission investigating cold cases of unsolved murders and disappearances stated that Rilwan was abducted and killed by a local affiliate of Al-Qaeda. The investigation by the commission revealed that there were attempts by the then President Yameen to divert the investigation and his deputy had tried to obstruct justice in the case.


Humanists International’s Concerns & Calls

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 drop its case against Mohamed Rusthum Mujuthaba and cease its campaign of judicial harassment against him. To this end, the organization calls on the authorities to repeal its blasphemy laws.


Humanists International’s work to support Mohamed Rusthum Mujuthaba

Humanists International has been following Rusthum’s case since 2020. In March 2021, Humanists International raised its concerns for Rusthum’s case during its intervention before the Human Rights Council on the occasion of the Universal Periodic Review of the Maldives. More recently, the organization has published statements in support of his campaign to end his ongoing judicial harassment

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