Maldives | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2003

2003 Scores


Not Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Early this year, the government entered into a partnership with the Asian Development Bank to help reduce poverty and economic vulnerability. In March, the Maldives was removed by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development from its list of uncooperative tax havens. With 80 percent of the country's area being one meter or less above sea level, the government remains concerned that the low-lying islands will be vulnerable if global warming leads to a rise in sea levels.

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 five-year terms under the country's tightly controlled presidential referendum process. Under the 1968 constitution, Maldivians cast straight yes-or-no votes in these referendums on a single candidate chosen by the Majlis (parliament). A 1998 constitutional amendment allowed citizens to declare their candidacies, but not campaign for the presidential 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 governmental posts.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Maldivians cannot change their head of government through elections, and they face restrictions on freedom of expression and many other basic rights. The constitution grants the president broad executive powers and allows him to appoint 8 of the Majlis's 48 members (the remainder are directly elected). Nevertheless, in recent years the Majlis has rejected some governmental legislation and has held lively policy debates.

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. Political parties are officially discouraged, and candidates for the Majlis run as individuals. Amnesty International reported that in February 2001, 42 people, including academics, intellectuals, businessmen, and 3 members of parliament, petitioned the Minister for Home Affairs for permission to set up the Maldivian Democratic Party. The president decided against the petition, and several of the signatories were detained throughout the year.

The government has in recent years held several political prisoners. They include Umar Jamaal, one of several candidates arrested in advance of the 1999 Majlis elections. Authorities detained Jamaal and three others in early 2001, presumably because they had supported a bill before parliament on the rights of detainees, Amnesty International said in its report on human rights in the Maldives in 2001.

The law allows authorities to shut newspapers and sanction journalists for articles containing unfounded criticism of the government. Moreover, regulations make editors responsible for the content of material they publish. Four Internet writers were arrested early in the year, and after being held in detention and charged with defamation in May, three were sentenced to life imprisonment. In this environment, journalists practice self-censorship, although less so than in the past, the U.S. State Department Human Rights report said. 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. All broadcast media are government owned and operated.

Freedom of religion is restricted by the government's requirement that all citizens be Sunni Muslims, a legal ban against the practice of other religions, and a constitutional provision making Islam the state religion. In early 2002, four individuals were arrested for distributing Islamist and antigovernment literature, according to the U.S. State Department report on International Religious Freedom. Non-Muslim foreigners are allowed to practice their religion privately. There were no reported restrictions on academic freedom.

The government limits freedom of assembly and association. 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.

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. 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 70 percent of foreign exchange revenues.

Because President 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 report on the Maldives's human rights record in 2001. 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 those involving divorce or adultery. Under Sharia, the testimony of two women is equal to that of one man and men are favored in divorce and inheritance matters.

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 of the arrest.

More women are entering the civil service, increasingly 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. It has also expressed concern about the divorce rate, which according to the United Nations is the highest in the world.

Children's rights are incorporated into law, and government policy provides for equal access to educational and health programs for both male and female children. In October 2002, parliament passed a law raising the age of consent for marriage from 16 to 18, in order to ensure greater protection for children.