Freedom in the World
The Maldives’ political rights rating improved from 6 to 4, its civil liberties rating improved from 5 to 4, and its status improved from Not Free to Partly Free due to the country’s first multiparty presidential election, which was generally considered to be free and fair, as well as the approval of a new constitution that protects a wide range of civil liberties.
Former political prisoner Mohamed Nasheed defeated incumbent Maumoon Abdul Gayoom in the October 2008 presidential election, leading to the country’s first peaceful, democratic transfer of power. The election followed the ratification of a new constitution that protected a range of civil liberties while maintaining restrictions on religious freedom. The transition was accompanied by a significantly improved media environment, but corruption and abysmal prison conditions remained serious problems.
The Maldives achieved independence in 1965 after 78 years as a British protectorate, and a 1968 referendum replaced the centuries-old sultanate with a republican system. The first president, Amir Ibrahim Nasir, held office for 10 years. He was succeeded by Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who went on to serve six five-year terms. He won and repeatedly renewed his mandate through a tightly controlled system of presidential referendums rather than competitive elections.
Gayoom initiated political reforms after the beating death of a prison inmate sparked riots in 2003. In May 2004, voters elected a People’s Special Majlis (PSM)—composed of the ordinary 50-seat People’s Majlis (parliament), another 50 members elected or appointed specifically to the PSM, and the cabinet—that was tasked with amending the constitution. The next several years brought incremental improvements to the legislative, judicial, and media frameworks, interspersed with bouts of unrest, crackdowns on the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), and restrictions on freedom of expression.
The parliament in June 2005 passed legislation allowing political parties to register and contest elections for the first time. Nevertheless, MDP leaders continued to face arrests, beatings, and prosecutions. When the MDP planned nationwide demonstrations in November 2006, the government arrested more than 100 people in a preemptive crackdown.
As the reform process dragged on, political tensions remained high, and Gayoom was attacked in a failed assassination attempt in January 2008. The PSM approved the final set of constitutional amendments in June 2008. Under pressure from opposition demonstrators, the president ratified the new charter in August. The country’s first multiparty presidential election was held in two rounds in October. Gayoom outpolled five challengers in the first round, taking 41 percent of the vote; his leading opponent was MDP leader and former political prisoner Mohamed Nasheed, who took 25 percent. Nasheed went on to victory in the runoff against Gayoom, securing 54 percent of the vote. Nearly 87 percent of registered voters turned out for the second round.
After taking office in November, the Nasheed administration initiated additional reforms to consolidate the country’s democracy, though many of the changes had not yet been implemented at year’s end.
The Republic of Maldives is not an electoral democracy. While the first democratic presidential elections in October 2008 were deemed relatively free and fair, fully democratic parliamentary elections had yet to be held. The Commonwealth Observer Group found the presidential vote to be “credible overall”—despite flaws including some preelection violence, a compressed timeframe, and voter registration problems—and noted that the runoff was an improvement over the first round. The performance of the interim election commission established in September 2008 was considered to have been generally professional, transparent, and impartial.
Under the new constitution, the president is directly elected for up to two five-year terms. The previous system had called for the People’s Majlis (parliament) to choose a single candidate, who was then approved by a national referendum for unlimited five-year terms. The current Majlis was elected in January 2005 under the old constitution; 42 members were directly elected, and the remaining eight—the speaker, deputy speaker, and six atoll chiefs responsible for local governance—were appointed by then president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. Although political parties had not yet been legalized, candidates affiliated with the MDP won 18 of the 42 elected seats, while government-backed candidates won 22 and independents took 2. The first parliamentary elections under the new constitution are set for May 2009. The president, parliament members, and other key officials are required to be Sunni Muslims.
Since political parties were legalized in June 2005, 12 have registered, including Gayoom’s Maldivian People’s Party (DRP), newly elected president Mohamed Nasheed’s MDP, the Republican Party, the Social Liberal Party, and the Islamic Democratic Party, all of which fielded presidential candidates in 2008 (the sixth candidate was an independent).Although MDP supporters have faced occasional arrests and beatings in recent years, fewer such incidents occurred in 2008, and the space for opposition parties to mobilize expanded significantly.
Under Gayoom, government accountability was limited by the executive branch’s almost complete control over the legislature and judiciary. However, a new, independent auditor general and the revised constitution provided greater transparency in 2008, shedding light on pervasive corruption. The auditor reported in July that the government faced a budget deficit of 4.4 billion rufiyaa ($342 million), and found in October that the president’s office had issued cash gifts to senior defense officials and subsidies to friendly media outlets. In November, a parliamentary committee reported political discrimination in the distribution of aid after a 2004 tsunami. A new Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) replaced a discredited anticorruption board in October; its members are appointed by the president and approved by a parliamentary majority. The Maldives was ranked 115 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index.
While modestly eased media restrictions have been offset by crackdowns on journalists in recent years, the media environment improved significantly in 2008. By year’s end, according to the U.S. State Department, most outlets were able to “report largely unfettered by government censorship or interference.”The new constitution guarantees freedoms of expression and the press, but it places restrictions on speech deemed “contrary to the tenets of Islam.” Though some print publications are still owned by Gayoom allies, the number of private radio stations increased during the year, and the country’s first private television channel began operating, while several others were preparing to open. However, these outlets were authorized through individual agreements with the government rather than new broadcasting legislation, limiting their legal protection. Reforms at state-run TV Maldives reportedly yielded unprecedented coverage of the opposition, but observers noted a progovernment bias in the run-up to the October election. The Dhivehi-language Minivan Daily, one of the few publications to report critically on the Gayoom government in recent years, unexpectedly announced its closure upon Nasheed’s inauguration.
Journalists were less subject to arrest and harassment in 2008 than in past years. A Minivan Daily photographer was arrested in March, after allegedly receiving threats from a police officer who demanded video footage of police beating a lawmaker in 2006; a court reportedly ordered the charges dropped in November. Also in November, a court struck down a dubious drug conviction against Minivan Daily writer Abdullah Saeed, who was subsequently released from life imprisonment after nearly three years behind bars. Pro-opposition websites were unblocked in 2008, but the Ministry of Islamic Affairs announced in late November that Christian websites would be blocked, arguing that they could negatively affect belief in Islam.
Freedom of religion remains severely restricted. Islam is the state religion, and all citizens are required to be Sunni Muslims. Non-Muslim foreigners are allowed to practice their religions only in private. Imams must use government-approved sermons. In June 2008, the Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs banned a book written by an opposition presidential candidate and his brother, arguing that it contained material contrary to the principles of Islam. Under Nasheed, the council was transformed into a ministry with the sole authority to grant licenses to preachers. There were no reported limitations on academic freedom, but many scholars self-censor. Maldivians were palpably freer to discuss politically sensitive issues in public places in 2008.
Freedom of assembly was limited under Gayoom. Police often used excessive force to break up demonstrations, and opposition figures were sentenced under vague charges of “disobedience to order.” Thirteen people were temporarily detained in July 2008 for demonstrating against Gayoom’s delay in signing the new constitution. The new constitution guarantees freedom of assembly, and a number of peaceful demonstrations were held during the year, but police continued to forcefully disperse peaceful protesters in a number of cases under the Nasheed administration. Nasheed apologized for an incident in which police reportedly used excessive force on resort workers who had gone on strike in late November.
The new constitution and the Employment Act, which took effect in August 2008, provide for a minimum wage and grant workers the rights to form trade unions and strike, all of which had been excluded from the 1998 constitution. In response to a series of strikes, the country’s first labor tribunal was established in December to enforce the Employment Act. There were no reports in 2008 of harassment of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), whose numbers grew during the year.
The new constitution provides for an independent judiciary. Judges were sworn into the first Supreme Court and final court of appeals in September 2008, though opposition politicians questioned some of their legal qualifications. Late in the year, courts showed signs of increasing independence from the executive. Civil law is used in most cases, but it is subordinate to Sharia (Islamic law), which is applied in matters not covered by civil law and in cases involving divorce or adultery. As a result, the testimony of two women is equal to that of one man, and punishments such as flogging and internal exile continue to be carried out.
Prison conditions remain abysmal. Following the first independent inspection, local NGOs reported in November 2008 that inmates were regularly tortured or beaten and that women were sexually abused by guards in the country’s largest jail. The Nasheed administration initiated efforts to reform and retrain police forces. While the Gayoom government was known to detain political prisoners, the new constitution bans arbitrary arrest, torture, and prolonged detention without adequate judicial review. It also requires compensation for those detained without legal justification. In November, Nasheed established an eight-member parole board to recommend sentence reductions for unjustly detained inmates. After prisoners launched a hunger strike to protest delays in the review, the government transferred 119 inmates to house arrest in December; 60 others were moved to a drug rehabilitation center. Nasheed announced shortly after his election that his government would not prosecute Gayoom and other former officials for rights violations they may have committed in office.
Women, who enjoy a 98 percent literacy rate, are increasingly entering the civil service and receiving pay equal to that of men, though traditional norms still limit opportunities for many women. Women hold few senior positions in the government, but there are six female members of parliament, and Nasheed appointed women to the posts of attorney general, minister of health and family, and deputy minister of education. Unlike the old charter, the new constitution authorizes a woman to become president.