Democratic gains that followed the country’s first multiparty presidential election in 2008 were reversed beginning in 2012 amid severe restrictions on opposition activities, the imprisonment of opposition figures, constraints on freedoms of expression and assembly, politicization of the judiciary and other independent institutions, and increasing Islamist militancy. However, an opposition victory in the 2018 presidential election resulted in initial efforts to revise antidemocratic laws and establish transitional justice mechanisms.
- In January, a magistrate on Naifaru Island sentenced a woman to death by stoning for extramarital sex, but the Supreme Court overturned the sentence a day later. Social media users and human rights advocates who criticized the death sentence faced threats from extremist groups.
- In September, a presidential commission investigating past deaths and disappearances reported its findings on the disappearance of journalist Ahmed Rilwan, stating that a local terrorist organization with transnational links abducted Rilwan in August 2014 and murdered him the next day. The commission found evidence that officials under the previous administration had interfered with the police investigation of the case.
- Also in September, female judges were appointed to the Supreme Court for the first time in the country’s history, despite objections from hard-line Islamists.
- In November, former president Abdulla Yameen was sentenced to five years in prison on money-laundering charges.
- The government’s registrar for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) arbitrarily dissolved a leading human rights group, the Maldivian Democracy Network (MDN), in December after Islamists denounced the group’s 2015 report on radicalization in the country.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?
The president is directly elected for up to two five-year terms. The run-up to the September 2018 election was marred by the misuse of state resources on behalf of incumbent president Yameen of the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), police interference with opposition campaign efforts, and various forms of manipulation by electoral officials. The Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) and other opposition groups endorsed Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, an MDP lawmaker, after former president Mohamed Nasheed was disqualified over a dubious 2015 terrorism conviction. Despite the impediments to his campaign, Solih won the election with over 58 percent of the vote amid high turnout, leaving Yameen with less than 42 percent.
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?
The unicameral People’s Majlis is composed of 85 seats, with members elected from individual districts to serve five-year terms. Elections held in April 2019 were largely transparent and competitive, with Commonwealth observers reporting that vote buying—while still a problem—appeared less prevalent than in previous elections. The MDP captured 65 seats, with Nasheed winning a seat representing a district in Malé. The PPM suffered a sharp decline, winning only five seats. The Jumhooree Party also won five seats, the Maldives Development Alliance won two, and independents took an additional seven. Nasheed was elected speaker in May.
Score Change: The score improved from 2 to 3 because the parliamentary elections reportedly proceeded in a more open and competitive environment than previous balloting, earning a generally positive assessment from international observers.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?
The independence of the Elections Commission, whose members are appointed by the president with approval from the parliament, has been seriously compromised in recent years, with key decisions favoring the PPM. In the run-up to the 2018 presidential election, its officials were accused of tampering with the voter reregistration process and arbitrarily changing vote-counting procedures, among other controversial actions.
The Elections Commission was credited with an improved and more impartial performance in its administration of the 2019 parliamentary elections—earning praise from Commonwealth observers—and in its preparations for 2020 local council elections.
Score Change: The score improved from 1 to 2 because the Elections Commission was considered to have performed its functions in a more impartial and professional manner than it had in the preceding years.
|Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings?
Political pluralism and participation deteriorated during Yameen’s presidency as the authorities subjected opposition leaders and their supporters to judicial harassment. Restrictions on and dispersals of political rallies, raids on opposition offices, and arbitrary detentions and convictions of opposition politicians were common for most of 2018, but virtually no such abuses have been reported since that year’s presidential election. Yameen was arrested on money-laundering charges in February 2019, but he was released from detention the following month, and the PPM and its allies were able to compete in the April parliamentary elections.
In November, the Elections Commission announced that it would officially register the Maldives Reform Movement (MRM) as a political party. The group was founded by former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who had aligned himself with the opposition under Yameen, as a breakaway faction of the PPM. Gayoom and his son, former lawmaker Faris Maumoon, had faced a number of politically fraught criminal prosecutions during the previous administration, but the remaining charges were dropped in January 2019.
Score Change: The score improved from 2 to 3 because government restrictions on party activities have eased considerably since the 2018 presidential election.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?
The country has rarely experienced transfers of power between rival parties through elections. Under Yameen, the government and the PPM used the politicized justice system and the security forces to cripple the opposition and maintain control of the legislature. The opposition secured victory in the 2018 presidential election only due to deep public dissatisfaction with Yameen’s rule and a reported turnout of nearly 90 percent, overcoming wide-ranging efforts by Yameen and his allies to subvert the election and rig the outcome. The MDP’s victory in the 2019 parliamentary elections completed its latest progression from opposition to ruling party, though its coalition had secured a de facto legislative majority by late 2018.
|Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means?
The Yameen government exerted improper influence over a number of state institutions to restrict the political choices of voters and politicians. In addition to using security forces, the Elections Commission, and the justice system to suppress dissent, Yameen’s allies reportedly threatened public and private-sector employees with dismissal for participating in opposition protests or other political activities. Such workers were also forced to attend progovernment events. While such abuses have waned under Solih, intimidation by hard-line Islamist groups continues to affect the political system. Vote buying remains a problem during elections, and allegations of bribery and corruption have surrounded instances of party switching in recent years.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?
The constitution and laws require all citizens to be Muslims and all candidates for elected office to be followers of Sunni Islam, explicitly excluding religious minorities. Societal discrimination against women has limited their political participation; four women won seats in the parliament in 2019, down from five in 2014. LGBT+ people are unable to openly take part in political affairs given the criminalization of same-sex sexual activity and the prevalence of societal bias. Foreign workers, who make up between a quarter and a third of the population, have no political rights.
C. FUNCTIONING OF GOVERNMENT: 4 / 12 (+1)
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?
Elected officials generally determine and implement government policies, but the functioning of the parliament was seriously impaired from mid-2017 to late 2018 by then president Yameen’s heavy-handed attempts to retain control in the face of defections to the opposition, including detentions of lawmakers and deployments of security forces in and around the chamber. The situation improved dramatically after the change in administration, and the parliament was able to operate without similar obstructions during 2019.
Score Change: The score improved from 1 to 2 because there was no repetition of the previous years’ disturbances in and around the parliament, allowing normal legislative business to proceed.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?
Corruption remains endemic at all levels of government. The Anti-Corruption Commission has been only moderately effective, often launching investigations and taking other actions in response to public complaints, but rarely holding powerful figures to account for abuses. Whistle-blowers and journalists reporting on corruption have been jailed or forced into exile in the face of political persecution.
The new government took a number of initial steps intended to combat corruption. It introduced a bill providing legal protections for whistle-blowers in December 2018, and President Solih signed it into law in October 2019. An anonymous whistle-blower web portal was launched in February. In November, former president Yameen was convicted of money laundering, sentenced to five years in prison, and ordered to pay a $5 million fine; the case centered on $1 million in government fees that had been diverted to a personal bank account.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?
Large state contracts for infrastructure and other projects have regularly been awarded through opaque processes, in which bribery and kickbacks are widely believed to play a role. The Solih administration did not immediately revise antidemocratic changes made to public finance rules by the previous government.
The president, cabinet ministers, and members of parliament are required by the constitution to submit annual asset declarations, but it is not required that these be made public, and the relevant agencies have resisted disclosing how many officials comply with the rule. In January 2019, Solih and members of his cabinet publicly disclosed their personal finances, but the Maldives branch of Transparency International called the disclosures “incomplete”; seven of the ministers declared that they had no assets, and some of the other disclosures appeared dubious or contradictory.
|Are there free and independent media?
The constitution guarantees freedom of expression so long as it is exercised in a manner that is “not contrary to any tenet of Islam,” a vague condition that encourages self-censorship in the media. State-run media and regulatory bodies, especially the Maldives Broadcasting Commission (MBC), have typically displayed bias in favor of the government and restricted coverage of the opposition.
Journalists continue to face the threat of violence in reprisal for their work, particularly by Islamist militants. The Presidential Commission on Investigation of Murders and Enforced Disappearances, established in November 2018 by President Solih, confirmed in September 2019 that journalist Ahmed Rilwan, who disappeared in 2014, had been abducted and murdered by a local affiliate of the terrorist group Al-Qaeda. A trial of suspects in the 2017 murder of liberal blogger Yameen Rasheed was ongoing at year’s end after experiencing repeated delays. The presidential commission reportedly found evidence that officials under the previous administration had interfered with the police investigations in both cases.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?
Freedom of religion is severely restricted. Islam is the state religion, and all citizens are required to be Muslims. Imams must use government-approved sermons. Non-Muslim foreigners are allowed to observe their religions only in private. In recent years, growing religious extremism, stoked in part by the Yameen administration, has led to an increase in threatening rhetoric and physical attacks against those perceived to be insulting or rejecting Islam. Secularist writers and defenders of freedom of conscience have faced pressure from the authorities as well as death threats.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?
Academic freedom narrowed in recent years as the Yameen administration stepped up monitoring and punishments for academics and teachers who espoused opposition political views or participated in protests. Islam is a compulsory subject in schools and is incorporated into all other subject areas. School and university curriculums have come under increased influence from hard-line religious leaders, resulting in some content that denigrates democracy and promotes jihadist narratives. In January 2019, a college was vandalized and its chairman was threatened after he criticized supporters of a death sentence against a woman accused of extramarital sex.
|Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution?
Although the Solih administration was expected to be more tolerant of public criticism than its predecessor, individuals who speak out on behalf of minority groups or basic freedoms are still at significant risk of attack from violent nonstate actors. Local human rights groups have had to relocate several social media users who received death threats for exercising their freedom of expression.
|Is there freedom of assembly?
Respect for freedom of assembly has improved somewhat after years of severe constraints. A 2016 law requires protest organizers to obtain police permission for their events and restricts demonstrations to certain designated areas. Assemblies were banned during a 2018 state of emergency. However, in the run-up to the September 2018 presidential election, the authorities—under international pressure—granted the opposition greater leeway to campaign and hold rallies after consistently refusing permits in the past. During 2019, opposition supporters and hard-line Islamists were able to hold protests related to Yameen’s money-laundering case and demands that the government shut down the MDN for supposedly insulting Islam.
Score Change: The score improved from 2 to 3 due to further expansion of freedom of assembly since the change in government in late 2018, with authorities allowing protests by groups that are critical of the current ruling party.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?
NGOs operate in a restrictive environment. They are required to obtain government approval before seeking domestic or foreign funding, and regulators have broad discretion to investigate and dissolve NGOs. The Human Rights Commission of Maldives is not independent in practice. In recent years, Maldivian human rights groups have increasingly become targets of surveillance, harassment, and threats of violence, including from extremist nonstate actors.
In October 2019, Islamist groups denounced the MDN as “anti-Islamic” after content from its 2015 report on radicalization and violent extremism circulated on social media, and the government suspended the NGO’s activities that month. In November, the NGO Registrar under the Ministry of Youth, Sports, and Community Empowerment decided to dissolve the MDN, giving it 45 days to settle its finances and dispose of its property; the dissolution took effect in December. A criminal blasphemy investigation against the authors of the 2015 report was ongoing at year’s end.
Score Change: The score declined from 2 to 1 due to the government’s decisions to suspend and then dissolve the country’s leading human rights organization following a campaign against it by hard-line Islamist groups.
|Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations?
The constitution and labor laws allow workers to form trade unions, and a number of unions are active. However, collective bargaining is not protected, and strikes are prohibited in many sectors, including the crucial tourism industry.
|Is there an independent judiciary?
Judicial independence is seriously compromised. Many judges are unqualified, and the courts are widely considered vulnerable to corruption or political influence. The Supreme Court has repeatedly intervened in political affairs and apparently exceeded its constitutional authority, typically acting according to political interests.
In February 2018, acting under Yameen’s state of emergency, the military raided the Supreme Court and arrested two of its justices, including the chief justice. This came days after the court unexpectedly ordered the release and retrial of nine opposition leaders who had been jailed on various charges, as well as the reinstatement of 12 lawmakers who had been expelled after abandoning the governing majority. The three justices remaining on the Supreme Court after the raid subsequently reversed those decisions.
In March 2018, the parliament passed legislation—without a quorum—that allowed judges to be removed once their conviction is upheld by the Supreme Court, despite the constitution’s requirement that judges be removed through a two-thirds vote in the parliament after a finding of gross misconduct or incompetence by the Judicial Service Commission. In May and June 2018, both of the detained Supreme Court justices received prison terms for “obstruction of justice” and other offenses, and their appeals were denied, leading to their formal removal. Yameen appointed replacements that June.
After the change in government, the jailed former justices were released to house arrest, as were a former prosecutor general and a magistrate who had been arrested in 2016. By October 2019, both former justices were free after completing their sentences or having them overturned, though they were not reinstated.
The new government used its parliamentary majority to reshape the Supreme Court, but without the extreme and extraconstitutional tactics used by the previous administration. The parliament, acting on the recommendations of the Judicial Service Commission, voted to remove one justice for corruption in August and two more—including the chief justice—for a litany of violations in November. Separately, the government followed through on the appointment of the first two female justices to the Supreme Court in September despite Islamist objections to the nominations.
Score Change: The score improved from 0 to 1 because there was no repetition of the 2018 military raid on the Supreme Court and the unconstitutional removal of arrested judges, and because the Judicial Service Commission stepped up efforts to combat judicial corruption and abuse of office, though the role of politics in judicial appointments and dismissals remained a serious concern.
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?
Police have regularly engaged in arbitrary arrests in recent years, often to disrupt opposition activities, protests, or the work of journalists. Due process rights are not well enforced in practice, and under Yameen, opposition figures were subjected to deeply flawed trials on politically motivated charges, according to human rights groups and international monitors. The new government has yet to undertake comprehensive reforms of the criminal justice system.
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?
The constitution and the Anti-Torture Act ban torture, but police brutality and the abuse of detainees and prison inmates remain problems. Flogging and other forms of corporal punishment are authorized for some crimes, and flogging sentences are issued in practice for offenses such as extramarital sex. In January 2019, a magistrate on Naifaru Island sentenced a woman to death by stoning for extramarital sex, but the Supreme Court overturned the sentence a day later. Prisons are overcrowded, inmates reportedly lack proper access to medical care, and human rights groups have reported numerous unexplained deaths in custody.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?
Gender-based discrimination in employment is prohibited by law, but women continue to face discrimination in practice. Girls and women from underprivileged backgrounds are disproportionately affected by Sharia (Islamic law) penalties for crimes like fornication and adultery.
Migrant workers in the country encounter disparate treatment by state authorities and have difficulty accessing justice.
Same-sex sexual acts are prohibited by law and can draw prison sentences and corporal punishment. As a result, LGBT+ people rarely report societal discrimination or abuse.
|Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?
Freedom of movement is provided for by law, but there are some restrictions in practice. Authorities have at times imposed travel bans on members of opposition parties and other perceived government opponents. Migrant workers are also subject to constraints on their movement, including through retention of their passports by employers.
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?
Property rights are limited, with most land owned by the government and leased to private entities or commercial developers through what is often an opaque process. Residents sometimes face displacement by development projects without adequate consultation or compensation.
|Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance?
Personal social freedoms are restricted by Sharia-based laws and growing religious extremism in society. Among other rules on marriage and divorce, citizen women are barred from marrying non-Muslim foreigners, while citizen men can marry non-Muslim foreigners only if they are Christian or Jewish. Extramarital sex is criminalized, and there is a high legal threshold to prove rape allegations. Women face increasing pressure to dress more conservatively, in keeping with hard-line interpretations of Islam.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?
The legal framework provides some protections against worker exploitation, including rules on working hours and bans on forced labor. However, migrant workers are especially vulnerable to abuses such as debt bondage and withholding of wages. Women and children working in domestic service may also be subject to exploitative conditions.
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Global Freedom Score41 100 partly free