Maldives | Page 23 | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2006

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While the Maldives made some progress toward constitutional and judicial reform in 2005, it also continued to be plagued by political unrest as the government, headed by President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, faced sustained pressure from the proreform Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) and its supporters. Although Gayoom has promised to undertake extensive political reforms, his government continued to restrict freedom of speech and assembly and to commit various human rights violations. Elections held in January produced a parliament in which candidates affiliated with the MDP won a record number of seats, and in June, the right to form political parties was officially legalized. However, MDP officers and supporters continued to face harassment throughout the year, including mass arrests and the conviction of several officeholders on terrorism charges.

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.

President Maumoon Abdul 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.

Unrest erupted in September 2003 at Maafushi prison following an altercation in which prison guards beat an inmate to death. 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 an inquiry into the circumstances of the initial killing, which led to charges being brought against a number of NSS staff, as well as a reorganization of the jail system and the establishment of a prison oversight committee.

Gayoom's reelection to a sixth presidential term was approved in an October 2003 referendum by just over 90 percent of participating voters. In May 2004, elections were held for a People's Special Majlis (PSM)-composed of the 50 parliamentary members, 50 members elected or appointed specifically to the PSM, and the cabinet-that was tasked with amending the current constitution. The following month, Gayoom presented wide-ranging proposals for constitutional and judicial reform to the parliament, including instituting a directly elected presidency subject to term limits, abolishing appointed members of parliament, allowing political parties, establishing a Supreme Court and human rights commission, and separating the judiciary from the executive.

However, in August 2004, several thousand people demonstrated in support of demands by the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) that the process of democratic reform be expedited. In the violent unrest that followed, four police officers were stabbed and hundreds of protestors, including several reformist former members of parliament and government officials, were arrested, detained, and mistreated while in custody. Gayoom declared a state of emergency, during which a number of civil liberties were suspended, and imposed a curfew on the capital city of Male. Some of these rights were restored in October, and the majority of the detainees were released by year's end. Criminal charges, including treason, were filed against at least 17 people who took part in the August demonstrations but these were also "suspended" at the end of 2004.

On December 26, the Indian Ocean tsunami killed at least 82 Maldivians, as well as devastating many low-lying island atolls. As a result, legislative elections originally scheduled for December 31, 2004, were postponed until January 2005. In total, 149 candidates stood for the 42 available seats. In an indication of the opposition MDP's growing popularity, candidates affiliated with the MDP won 18 seats, while government-backed candidates won 22 and independents won 2. In addition, three top-level government officials-the ministers of fisheries, labor, and tourism-were defeated.

In June 2005, the Maldivian parliament unanimously voted to back plans to give the nation its first multiparty democracy, passing a law allowing political parties to register and stand in elections. However, around the anniversary of the August 2004 disturbances, hundreds of people, including journalists and MDP politicians and supporters, were again arrested, and more than 150 activists remain incarcerated. Mohammed Nasheed, the chairman of the MDP, was detained in jail and charged with terrorism and sedition. In October, Jennifer Latheef, councilor and human rights coordinator of the MDP, was sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment on terrorism charges under the Prevention of Terrorism Act for her alleged involvement in the September 2003 civil unrest. Four others were also given lengthy sentences.

The year was characterized by several positive steps toward greater openness interspersed with crackdowns on opposition politics as well as freedom of expression. In such a tense political atmosphere, many Maldivians remain skeptical that the government is committed to enacting meaningful and far-reaching reform.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Citizens of the Maldives cannot change their government democratically. Under the 1968 constitution, the People's 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. Forty-two members of the Majlis are directly elected for five-year terms; of these, two are elected from Male and two from each atoll. The constitution grants the president broad executive powers and allows him to appoint the atoll chiefs, responsible for local government matters; 8 of the Majlis's 50 members; and the Speaker and Deputy Speaker of the Majlis. Nevertheless, in recent years, the Majlis has rejected some governmental legislation and has held livelier policy debates.

The January 2005 elections to the Majlis were relatively free of violence, with the exception of one clash between police and angry voters outside a polling booth in Male after the close of voting (no serious injuries were reported). However, a number of MDP activists were arrested prior to and on election day. Reformist candidates alleged that the government intimidated voters by threatening to withhold reconstruction aid to islands that did not vote for progovernment candidates. In addition, there were some reports of corruption and irregularities, including bribery, intimidation, and the stuffing of ballot boxes, mostly from the more remote islands. The report of the Commonwealth Expert Team that observed the elections noted that the state-controlled media did not provide equal coverage to reformist candidates.

Political parties have traditionally been officially discouraged; candidates for the Majlis run as individuals, and the proreform MDP, formed in 2001, had until 2005 operated in exile from Sri Lanka after it was denied permission to register. In June 2005, the Majlis voted to legalize political parties as part of the reform process. However, MDP leader Mohamed Nasheed, who returned to the Maldives in June, was arrested in August under allegations of "terrorism and antigovernment actions" after he made an antigovernment speech, and he remained under house arrest throughout 2005. In addition, MDP activists and supporters have regularly been subjected to arrest prior to planned protest rallies.

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 many prominent official positions being filled by President Maumoon Abdul 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 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index.

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. The law also 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. Of the four employees of the internet magazine Sandhaanu who were arrested in 2002 and sentenced to lengthy prison terms, one escaped from prison and remains in exile, two were released into house arrest, and one was pardoned and released in May 2005. A number of journalists were arrested and imprisoned during and after the August protests.

In this environment, many journalists practice self-censorship and do not scrutinize official policies. All broadcast media are government owned and operated, while relatives or close associates of the president control the main daily newspapers; these media outlets provide progovernment views. An online opposition publication, Minivan News, was allowed to begin publishing a print version in the Maldives in July, but after the August protests, the printing house refused to continue publishing it under pressure from the authorities, and its employees have faced repeated harassment. Groups of Maldivian exiles run independent news outlets in the United Kingdom and Sri Lanka and attempt to transmit news into the Maldives via shortwave radio stations and websites. However, the websites of the MDP and other antigovernment groups have been blocked by the government and are inaccessible from internet cafés in Male; internet connectivity has occasionally been suspended.

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 2005 International Religious Freedom Report. There were no reported restrictions on academic freedom, but general restrictions on freedom of speech limit academics' ability to express themselves freely without fear of reprisal.

The government limits freedom of assembly and association. In recent years, authorities have imprisoned political dissidents under broadly drawn laws, and police occasionally use excessive force to break up demonstrations. According to the Asian Centre for Human Rights, local nongovernmental organizations have thus far not been allowed to register. Some international human rights groups have been barred from entering the Maldives, but Amnesty International conducted a visit to the country at the government's request in November 2004.

Workers lack the legal right 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 32,000 foreign workers out of a total workforce of 88,000. 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 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 2004 human rights report. 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. 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 has been drafted and was submitted to the attorney general's office in January 2005.

Human rights groups allege that the NSS, which encompasses both the security and intelligence services, acts with virtual impunity. However, the police service, which had previously functioned under NSS direction, was formally separated from the NSS in September 2004. Incidents of torture or other forms of ill-treatment of detainees held at police stations or prison facilities continue to be reported.

Arbitrary arrest and prolonged detention, particularly of opposition supporters, remain a concern, although judges must authorize the continued detention of suspects on a monthly basis, and detainees are now allowed access to a lawyer at all stages of their detention and trial. After the September 2003 and August 2004 civil protests, authorities arrested hundreds of people. The government has in recent years detained or kept a number of political prisoners under house arrest for months at a time, and some have been sentenced to long prison terms. Authorities have also carried out preventive arrests prior to planned MDP-sponsored rallies.

In response to the September 2003 disturbances, the government established, in December of that year, the Maldives Human Rights Commission (MHRC), whose members are appointed by the president and report directly to him. According to Amnesty International, the MHRC was able to investigate and publicly raise concerns about the condition of detainees arrested in August 2004. However, in July 2005, the passage of a government-sponsored bill removed the security forces from the purview of the MHRC and otherwise limited its investigative powers.

The government exercises pervasive influence over access to health care and to employment and educational opportunities for most Maldivians, and it dominates both the public sector, as well as many civil society groups, particularly in the outer atolls. As noted in a December 2004 report by the National Democratic Institute, government dominance over these widespread networks of patronage has also been used to influence voting behavior and control political activity.

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. Moreover, the testimony of two women in a Sharia court is equal to that of one man, and men are favored in divorce and inheritance matters. Nevertheless, 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.