Freedom in the World
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The Maldives received a downward trend arrow due to the imposition of a state of emergency and a continuing crackdown on opposition activists
Political unrest continued to plague the Maldives in 2004, as President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom faced sustained pressure from pro-reform Maldivians who desire greater political freedom. Although Gayoom has promised to undertake reform of both the constitution and of existing political institutions, his government continues to severely restrict basic rights to freedom of speech and assembly and to commit various human rights violations, including arbitrary arrest, detention, and torture. Following a large antigovernment protest in August, authorities imposed a state of emergency and the halting reform process was put on hold indefinitely.
Consisting of a 500-mile-long string of nearly 1,200 islands 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. The Maldives's first president, Amir Ibrahim Nasir, introduced a number of changes to the political system, abolishing the post of prime minister in 1975.
Gayoom has held power since 1978, when he won his first five-year term under the country's tightly controlled presidential referendum process. 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 (NSS) and named several relatives to top governmental posts.
Following an altercation at Maafushi prison in which prison guards beat an inmate to death, unrest erupted in September 2003. Security forces opened fire on other prisoners, killing three more and wounding over a dozen. Meanwhile, protestors attacked government buildings in the capital, setting several on fire. In response, Gayoom ordered the arrest of a number of NSS personnel and an inquiry into the circumstances of the initial killing was conducted, although an uncensored version of the report was not made public.
Gayoom's reelection was approved in an October 2003 referendum by just over 90 percent of participating voters. After being sworn in for a sixth presidential term he promised to reform national institutions. In May 2004, elections were held to a People's Special Majlis that was tasked with amending the current constitution, and in June Gayoom presented proposals for constitutional reform to the parliament.
However, in August, several thousand people demonstrated against the slow pace of democratic reforms and the continued detention of four political activists. In the violent unrest that followed, four policemen were stabbed and hundreds of protestors, including several reformist former members of parliament and government officials, were arrested and detained. On August 13, Gayoom declared a state of emergency, during which a number of civil liberties were suspended, and imposed an indefinite curfew on the capital city of Male. Although some of these rights were restored in October, the ban on public meetings and criticism of the government remains in place and at least 78 of the arrested protesters remain in jail, according to the BBC.
Maldivians cannot change their head of government through elections. Under the 1968 constitution, the Majlis (parliament) chooses a single presidential nominee from among a list of candidates. The nominee is then approved or rejected by a national referendum held every five years. A 1998 constitutional amendment allowed citizens to declare their candidacies, but not campaign for the presidential nomination. The constitution grants the president - currently Maumoon Abdul Gayoom - broad executive powers and allows him to appoint 8 of the Majlis's 50 members (the remainder are directly elected) as well as the Speaker and Deputy Speaker. Nevertheless, in recent years, the Majlis has rejected some governmental legislation and has held livelier policy debates.
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. After making an unsuccessful application for permission to register in 2001, the pro-reform Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) operates in exile from Sri Lanka. Activists and supporters who took part in MDP internal elections were arrested ahead of a planned protest rally in February 2004.
Governmental accountability is limited by the fact that the executive exercises almost complete control over both the legislative and judicial branches. In such an atmosphere, nepotism and corruption are reportedly rampant, with other prominent official positions being filled by Gayoom's relatives and friends, according to a report by the New Delhi - based South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre. The Maldives was not ranked by Transparency International in its 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index.
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. In 2002, four writers for Sandhaanu, an Internet magazine, were arrested; after they were held in detention and charged with defamation, three were sentenced to life imprisonment, although the sentences were later reduced. In this environment, many journalists practice self-censorship and do not scrutinize official policies. All broadcast media are government owned and operated, while close associates of the president control the main daily newspapers. The Web sites of the MDP and other antigovernment groups have been blocked by the government and are inaccessible from Internet cafes in Male, and Internet connectivity was suspended entirely during the August disturbances.
Freedom of religion is severely 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. Non-Muslim foreigners are allowed to practice their religion privately, according to the U.S. State Department's 2004 Report on International Religious Freedom. There were no reported restrictions on academic freedom.
The government limits freedom of assembly and association. The penal code bans speech or actions that could "arouse people against the government," while a 1968 law prohibits speech considered libelous, inimical to Islam, or a threat to national security. In recent years, authorities have imprisoned political dissidents under broadly drawn laws, and police occasionally use excessive force against demonstrators. 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. Most workers are in the informal (unorganized) sector, although some work in the country's high-end tourism industry, which provides 70 percent of foreign exchange revenues.
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 human rights report for 2003. Civil law is generally used in civil and criminal cases, although it is subordinate to Sharia (Islamic law), which is used in matters not covered by civil law as well as in cases 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. Punishments such as flogging and banishment to a remote island, which are provided for under the country's interpretation of Sharia, are occasionally carried out. With international donor assistance, a new criminal code is currently being drafted.
The NSS functions as the police, army, and intelligence services, and human rights groups allege that it acts with virtual impunity. Incidents of torture or other forms of ill-treatment of detainees held at police stations or prison facilities continue to be reported, according to Amnesty International. Arbitrary arrest and prolonged detention remain a concern, although judges must authorize the continued detention of suspects on a monthly basis. In response to the September 2003 disturbances, the government did establish a Human Rights Commission in December. However, as its members are appointed by the president and are to report directly to him, observers fear that its investigations of cases of abuse may not be impartial.
The government has in recent years detained or kept several political prisoners under house arrest, and some have been sentenced to long prison terms after being convicted in trials in which they have been denied legal representation. After the September 2003 civil protests, authorities arrested more than 100 people; although most were eventually released, Amnesty International alleged that over a dozen remained in detention at year's end. Authorities carried out a wave of preventive arrests prior to a planned MDP-sponsored rally in February and arrested several hundred protestors during the August 2004 demonstrations.
More women are entering the civil service, increasingly receiving equal pay to that of men for equal work. Women 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. 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.