Freedom in the World
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Consisting of a 500-mile-long string of 26 atolls in the Indian Ocean, the Maldives achieved independence in 1965 after 78 years as a British protectorate. A 1968 referendum set up a republican government, ending 815 years of rule by the ad-Din sultanate.
President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom has ruled since 1978, when he won his first of five 5-year terms under the country's tightly controlled presidential referendum process. Under the 1968 constitution, Maldivians cast straight yes-or-no votes in these referenda on a single candidate chosen by the Majlis (parliament). A 1998 constitutional amendment allowed citizens to declare their candidacies for the presidential nomination, although candidates cannot campaign for the nomination. At the most recent presidential referendum on October 16, 1998, Gayoom won the approval of a reported 90.9 percent of participating voters. He faced four minor challengers for the Majlis's nomination.
The most serious threat to Gayoom's survival came in 1988, when Indian commandos crushed a coup attempt by a disgruntled businessman reportedly backed by Sri Lankan mercenaries. In the aftermath, the autocratic Gayoom strengthened the National Security Service and named several relatives to top government posts.
Gayoom's administration uses arrests and other intimidation to prevent dissidents from winning seats in the Majlis. Authorities detained three politicians while they were campaigning for the most recent Majlis elections, held on November 19, 1999, and reportedly tortured at least two of them, the London-based Amnesty International said in January 2000.
Maldivians cannot change their government through elections and face restrictions on freedom of expression and many other basic rights. The 1998 presidential referendum took place "in an atmosphere of fear and intimidation," according to Amnesty International. In addition to making arrests prior to the 1999 parliamentary elections, authorities also banned public campaign events, permitting only small meetings on private premises.
Undergirding Gayoom's authority, the constitution grants the president broad executive powers and allows him to appoint 8 of the Majlis's 48 members. Nevertheless, in recent years the Majlis has rejected some government legislation and held lively policy debates.
The government has in recent years held several political prisoners. They include Umar Jamal, one of the three candidates arrested in advance of the 1999 Majlis elections. Authorities placed Jamal under house arrest in 2000 and reportedly have charged him with trying to discredit the government, Amnesty International said in its report on human rights in the Maldives in 2000.
In a positive move, the government amended the 1990 Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) in 1998 to place some limits on police detention of suspects under investigation. Judges, however, can still authorize suspects to be detained without trial, on a monthly basis, if authorities have not started legal proceedings within 22 days after the arrest.
Because Gayoom can review high court decisions and appoint and dismiss judges, "the judiciary is subject to executive influence," according to the U.S. State Department's February 2001 report on the Maldives's human rights record in 2000. The report noted, however, that Gayoom has removed only two judges since 1987. Both judges were removed on the recommendation of the justice ministry because their qualifications were allegedly inadequate. Civil law is generally used in civil and criminal cases although it is subordinate to Sharia (Islamic law). The latter is used in matters not covered by civil law as well as in certain cases such as divorce and adultery. Under Sharia, the testimony of two women is equal to that of one man and men are favored in divorce and inheritance matters.
The government has in recent years imprisoned several dissidents under broadly drawn laws. The penal code bans speech or actions that could "arouse people against the government." A 1968 law prohibits speech considered inimical to Islam, libelous, or a threat to national security. Under this law, the journalist Mohamed Nasheed spent nearly nine months in prison and under house arrest in 1996 and 1997 over a 1994 article criticizing election procedures. In addition, a court in 1994 imprisoned a Maldivian for six months under this law for making supposedly false statements about the government.
In this environment, journalists practice self-censorship, although less so than in the past, the U.S. State Department report said. Further restricting press freedom, the law allows authorities to shut newspapers and sanction journalists for articles containing allegedly unfounded criticism of the government. Moreover, regulations make editors responsible for the content of material they publish. Nevertheless, conditions for the media have improved somewhat since 1990, when authorities revoked the licenses of two outspoken publications and used the PTA to imprison several journalists, the last of whom authorities released in 1993. Today, newspapers such as the daily Aafathis criticize government policies and the state-run television station's news and public affairs programs discuss timely issues and criticize government performance. That station, and the state-run Voice of the Maldives radio station, are the only broadcast media.
Women are increasingly entering the civil service, receive equal pay to that of men for equal work, and enjoy a 98 percent literacy rate, compared with 96 percent for men. However, traditional norms that oppose letting women lead independent lives outside their homes continue to limit educational and career opportunities for many women. The government has in recent years sponsored programs to help make women aware of their rights. Freedom of religion is restricted by the government's requirement that all citizens be Muslims, a legal ban against the practice of other religions, and a constitutional provision making Islam the state religion.
The Maldives has no known nongovernmental human rights groups. Workers lack the legal rights to form trade unions, stage strikes, or bargain collectively. In practice, no unions exist although some workers have established informal associations that address labor issues. Employers often prevent foreign workers from leaving their work sites and meeting with Maldivians, according to the U.S. State Department report. The Maldives has about 27,000 foreign workers out of a total workforce of 70,000 to 75,000 persons. Most workers are in the informal sector, although some work in the country's high-end tourism industry, which provides 40 percent of foreign exchange revenues.
The economy grew by 7.6 percent in 2000, according to the World Bank, which at year's end had not yet estimated growth for 2001. With 80 percent of the country's area being one meter or less above sea level, the government is concerned that the low-lying islands will be vulnerable if global warming leads to a rise in sea levels.