An opposition victory in the 2018 presidential election resulted in initial efforts to revise antidemocratic laws and establish transitional justice mechanisms. Despite improvements since the election, many basic freedoms remain restricted, and government-led efforts to reform the justice system remain nascent.
- Maldives suffered major economic damage from the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as a significant public health toll; according to researchers at the University of Oxford, the country registered over 13,000 cases and 48 deaths during the year.
- Migrant workers were especially affected by restrictions and other policies enacted in light of the pandemic. Dozens of were arrested after violating a ban on protests when they turned out to decry inhumane conditions and nonpayment of wages. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), thousands were deported during the year, sometimes without being paid wages.
- Corruption remained a major issue. Former vice president Ahmed Adeeb was convicted of corruption in October 2020 and sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment, while procurement processes related to COVID-19 were the subject of graft investigations throughout much of the year.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?||2.002 4.004|
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 Abdulla 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. The current government coalition includes the MDP, the Jumhooree Party (JP) led by Qasim Ibrahim, the Maldives Reform Movement (MRM) led by former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, and the religiously conservative Adhaalath Party.
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?||3.003 4.004|
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 JP also won five seats, the Maldives Development Alliance won two, and independents took an additional seven. Nasheed was elected speaker. In 2020, the chamber continued its sessions online during the national lockdown prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?||2.002 4.004|
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.
The local council elections initially set for April 2020 were delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with the terms of current local government officials extended via a constitutional amendment, and legal complications addressed in a bill passed in May.
|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?||3.003 4.004|
Political pluralism and participation deteriorated during Yameen’s presidency, as 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 was released from detention the following month, and the PPM and its allies were able to compete in the April parliamentary elections. Former authoritarian president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom aligned himself with the opposition under Yameen, and in November 2019, the MRM was able to officially register as a party.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?||2.002 4.004|
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 undermine the competitiveness of 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?||2.002 4.004|
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.
Score Change: The score improved from 1 to 2 due to a reduction in the use of security forces to exert political and electoral control since the end of the Yameen administration.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?||1.001 4.004|
The constitution and laws require all citizens to be Muslims and all candidates for elected office to be followers of Sunni Islam, explicitly excluding adherents of minority religions. High-level positions in state institutions or independent bodies, including the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives, also require individuals to be a Sunni Muslim Maldivian. 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 intimacy and the prevalence of societal bias. Foreign workers, who make up between a quarter and a third of the population, have no political rights.
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?||2.002 4.004|
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 and 2020.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?||1.001 4.004|
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. Whistleblowers 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. An anonymous whistleblower web portal was launched in February 2019, and President Solih signed a bill providing legal protections for whistleblowers into law that October. In November 2019, 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. Yameen appealed, and in October 2020, the Supreme Court ruled that his accounts were frozen unlawfully; the appeal of his criminal conviction remained ongoing at year’s end. Former vice president Ahmed Adeeb pleaded guilty to corruption charges in September 2020 and was sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment in October, though he was transferred to house arrest due to health concerns.
According to the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC), the state response to the COVID-19 pandemic had prompted 34 corruption complaints as of December 2020. The most prominent case involved allegations of corruption in the purchase of ventilators by the Health Ministry, which resulted in the resignation of the minister of health in October. The case was exposed by the Auditor General in August 2020; prosecutors declined to press charges in October, but ACC inquiries continued and parliament voted to pursue charges in December.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?||1.001 4.004|
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 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?||1.001 4.004|
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 has experienced repeated delays, and made little progress in 2020. The presidential commission reportedly found evidence that officials under the previous administration had interfered with the police investigations in both cases. In August 2020, the commission stated it was seeking international expertise in the Rilwan case, and a foreign expert reportedly arrived in November.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?||0.000 4.004|
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. Mohamed Rusthum Mujuthaba, who was arrested on blasphemy allegations in September 2019 over social media comments, remained imprisoned throughout 2020.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?||1.001 4.004|
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. Academics and teachers who express views deemed objectionable by state and nonstate actors risk punishment or reprisals. In 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?||1.001 4.004|
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. In June 2020 a public sector employee was reportedly fired for social media posts that allegedly defamed President Solih and Majlis Speaker Nasheed.
|Is there freedom of assembly?||2.002 4.004|
Respect for freedom of assembly is uneven. 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, but allowed in the run-up to the September 2018 presidential election after authorities faced growing international pressure. In 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.
In July 2020, the Solih government, citing the need to address the COVID-19 pandemic, violated a campaign pledge by applying the 2016 law to limit protests. Migrant workers decrying inhumane conditions and nonpayment of wages were especially affected by the tightened restrictions; dozens of protesting migrants were detained.
Score Change: The score declined from 3 to 2 because the government resumed enforcement of a restrictive law on demonstrations, and responded to protests by migrant workers with arrests and detentions.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?||1.001 4.004|
Nongovernmental organizations (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, threats of violence, and blasphemy allegations, 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. That November, the NGO Registrar under the Ministry of Youth, Sports, and Community Empowerment decided to dissolve the MDN, and the dissolution took effect in December. A criminal blasphemy investigation against the authors of the 2015 report remained ongoing in 2020, and donor funds in MDN bank accounts were arbitrarily frozen in December 2019 and January 2020.
Starting in June 2020, Islamist extremist groups targeted women’s rights NGO Uthema with a campaign of social media harassment for producing an allegedly anti-Islamic report on Maldives’ compliance with the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.
|Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations?||2.002 4.004|
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?||1.001 4.004|
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, in response to court decisions favoring jailed opposition leaders and lawmakers who had been arbitrarily expelled. The three justices remaining on the Supreme Court after the raid subsequently reversed those decisions. That March, parliament passed legislation—in conflict with the constitution—specifying the removal of judges upon Supreme Court confirmation of criminal convictions. In May and June 2018, the detained Supreme Court justices received prison terms for “obstruction of justice” and other offenses; after their appeals were denied, they were formally removed. Following the change in government, the jailed former justices and other wrongfully arrested officials were released to house arrest. 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 2019 and two more—including the chief justice—for a litany of violations that 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. In September 2020, a female judge was appointed to the Criminal Court bench for the first time in the country’s history.
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?||1.001 4.004|
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?||2.002 4.004|
The constitution and the Anti-Torture Act ban torture, but police brutality and the abuse of detainees and prison inmates remain problems, and impunity remains the norm. 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. Prisons are overcrowded, inmates reportedly lack proper access to medical care, and human rights groups have reported numerous unexplained deaths in custody.
In December 2020, President Solih signed into law a bill establishing a transitional justice mechanism to investigate and redress human rights abuses from 1953–2018. The bill had been revised in response to concerns by the United Nations and local human rights groups that the draft version proposed in 2019 was overly narrow in scope.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?||2.002 4.004|
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—who account for approximately one-third of the population—encounter disparate treatment by state authorities and have difficulty accessing justice. In 2020, thousands of migrant workers with unclear immigration status were arbitrarily deported during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Same-sex sexual acts and marriage are prohibited by law and can draw prison sentences, corporal punishment, and even threats of citizenship revocation. As a result, LGBT+ people rarely report societal discrimination or abuse. In June 2020, a man from Makunudhoo island was arrested following allegations of same-sex relations.
|Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?||2.002 4.004|
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?||2.002 4.004|
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?||1.001 4.004|
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. Violence against women is rarely investigated and punished, although sexual assault charges were filed in November against Ali Waheed, who had served as minister of tourism until numerous assault allegations led to his firing in July.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?||2.002 4.004|
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, a problem that was exacerbated during the economic contraction caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting collapse of tourism. Women and children working in domestic service may also be subject to exploitative conditions.
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Global Freedom Score41 100 partly free