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, which lacks independence, remain nascent.
- High-level corruption among government officials from the administration of former president Abdulla Yameen remained a prominent issue during the year. In November, Yameen himself—who was convicted in 2019 on money laundering charges, fined $5 million, and sentenced to five years in prison—won a controversial appeal to his case at the Supreme Court and was released. Authorities also filed charges that month against Ahmed Mahloof, the minister of youth, sports and community empowerment, for accepting bribes as a part of Yameen’s corrupt activities.
- In May, Mohamed Nasheed, the former president and current speaker of Parliament, survived an assassination attempt in Malé. Authorities arrested 10 suspects and charged 4 with terrorism. One defendant, who pleaded guilty, was convicted in December; trials of the other suspects were to be conducted separately.
|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 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.
|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 and becoming the parliament speaker. The PPM suffered a sharp decline, winning only five seats. The Jumhooree Party (JP) also won five seats, the Maldives Development Alliance won two, and independents took an additional seven.
The government postponed local council elections set for April 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, extending the mandates of incumbent officials that May. The elections were held in April 2021: the MDP won 43.4 percent of seats and the PPM winning 38.2 percent, with voter turnout at 68 percent.
|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, was seriously compromised under the Yameen administration, with key decisions favoring the PPM. However, the Elections Commission’s administration of the 2019 parliamentary elections earned praise from Commonwealth observers as improved and more impartial.
|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.
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 that April’s parliamentary elections. Former authoritarian president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom aligned himself with the opposition under Yameen, and in November 2019, his party the Maldives Reform Movement (MRM) was able to officially register as a party. A new political party, the Maldives National Party, was registered in July 2021.
In May 2021, Mohamed Nasheed, the former president and current speaker of Parliament from the MDP, survived an assassination attempt in Malé. Authorities arrested 10 suspects and charged 4 with terrorism. One defendant, who pleaded guilty, was convicted in December; trials for the other suspects were to be conducted separately.
|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. Though the Yameen government and the PPM attempted use the justice system to subvert the 2018 presidential election, the opposition MDP secured the presidency with a reported voter turnout of nearly 90 percent. The MDP also won the 2019 parliamentary elections, fully transitioning from opposition to ruling party.
|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 several state institutions and the Elections Commission to restrict the political choices of voters and politicians, including through politicized arrests and threats to public and private sector employees. While such abuses have waned under President Solih, intimidation by hardline Islamist groups continues to sporadically disrupt the political system and the rule of law. 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, 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 have effectively no political representation. 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, though former president Yameen disrupted the parliament’s functioning in the face of lawmakers’ defections to the opposition and in his attempts to retain the presidency in the 2018 election. The parliament was able to operate without similar obstructions after President Solih’s 2018 inauguration and the 2019 parliamentary elections.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?||1.001 4.004|
Corruption remains endemic at all levels of government. The Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) 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 Solih government has taken steps to combat corruption, launching a whistleblower web portal, creating legal protections for whistleblowers, and pursuing corruption cases against high-level officials from the Yameen administration. Yameen himself was convicted of money laundering in 2019, sentenced to five years in prison, and ordered to pay a $5 million fine. He appealed, and in November 2021 the Supreme Court overturned his conviction. Multiple officials in Yameen’s government have either been arrested for or are suspected of having been a part of the former president’s corrupt activities. Authorities filed charges against Ahmed Mahloof, the youth, sports and community empowerment minister, in November 2021 for accepting bribes as a part of Yameen’s corrupt activities. Mahloof had been suspended in 2019 and was again in 2021 but remained a minister at year-end.
The ACC reported receiving 34 corruption complaints by December 2020 regarding the government’s COVID-19 response, including allegations of corruption in the purchase of ventilators by the Health Ministry, which had resulted in the resignation of the health minister that October. Though prosecutors declined to press charges, ACC inquiries continued, and the parliament voted to pursue charges in December. However, in March 2021, the Prosecutor General’s office again decided not to prosecute anyone but requested that the ACC investigate further that 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 the 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 Transparency International warned that many 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 have restricted coverage of the opposition.
Journalists continue to face the threat of violence in reprisal for their work, particularly from Islamist militants who often go unpunished. The Presidential Commission on Investigation of Murders and Enforced Disappearances reportedly found evidence that officials under the Yameen administration interfered with the police investigations in which journalists or activists were abducted or killed.
|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, and Islam is the state religion Muslims. Imams must use government-approved sermons. Non-Muslim foreigners are allowed to observe their religions only in private. 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 from violent groups.
|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 hardline religious leaders, resulting in some content that denounces democratic principles 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.
Lawmakers have experienced retribution for supporting free speech. A parliamentarian who introduced amendments to the penal code that would criminalize hate crimes and hate speech in May 2021 experienced a public smear campaign and death threats launched from extremists. The amendments passed into law in November.
|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 hardline Islamists were able to hold protests related to Yameen’s money-laundering case and demands that the government shut down the Maldivian Democracy Network (MDN), an advocacy organization, for supposedly insulting Islam. However, in 2021 security forces sought to intimidate, and in one case used unnecessary force against, peaceful demonstrators protesting gender-based discrimination.
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. Dozens of migrant workers protesting inhumane conditions and nonpayment of wages were detained.
|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 the 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 2019, Islamist groups denounced the MDN as “anti-Islamic” following a smear campaign against the organization. The government suspended the NGO’s activities, and the NGO Registrar under the Ministry of Youth, Sports and Community Empowerment decided to arbitrarily dissolve the MDN. A criminal blasphemy investigation against the authors of a 2015 MDN report on radicalization and violent extremism remained ongoing in 2021, and donor funds in MDN bank accounts were confiscated in January 2020.
In June 2020, Islamist extremist groups began targeting 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 several 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.
The Yameen administration arrested multiple Supreme Court judges and passed unconstitutional laws in order to prosecute opposition leaders, preventing them from competing in the 2018 presidential election. However, since the beginning of the Solih government, the jailed former justices and other wrongfully arrested officials have been released, though they were not reinstated.
The Solih government has also used its parliamentary majority to reshape the Supreme Court without the previous administration’s extraconstitutional tactics. In 2019, the parliament removed one justice for corruption and two others—including the chief justice—for a litany of violations. That year, the government appointed the first two women to the Supreme Court, despite Islamist objections. In September 2020, a woman 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. The Ombudsman’s Office for Transitional Justice opened in January 2021.
|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 for allegedly engaging in same-sex sexual activity.
|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 occasionally 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 hardline interpretations of Islam. Violence against women is rarely investigated and punished, although sexual assault charges were filed in November 2020 against Ali Waheed, who had served as minister of tourism until numerous assault allegations led to his firing in July 2020.
|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