Freedom in the World
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In January 2005, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) issued a sharp criticism of Malta's treatment of asylum seekers. In July, the parliament ratified the proposed European Union (EU) constitution.
Malta is a small island nation with ties to both the European and Arab worlds. After gaining independence from the British in 1964, the country joined the Commonwealth and became a republic in 1974. From 1964 to 1971, Malta was ruled by the Nationalist Party (PN), which pursued a pro-Western alliance. In 1971, the European alliance broke down when the Labor Party (MLP) took power and moved the country toward nonalignment and a special friendship with leftist governments in Libya and Algeria. The PN returned to power in 1987, and in 1990, the country submitted its application for full membership in the EU (then the European Community).
After a brief interlude with the return to power of the MLP from 1996 to 1998, Malta continued in a pro-European direction that culminated on March 8, 2003, in a national referendum on EU accession. Malta was the first among the 10 current candidate countries to hold a referendum on the issue of EU membership, which was approved by a vote of 54 percent. The country formally joined the EU in May 2004, in the organization's largest expansion since its founding in the early years after World War II. In July 2005, the parliament ratified the proposed EU constitution.
National elections in 2003 returned the incumbent PN into power with around 52 percent of the vote and 35 seats. The MLP came in second with around 48 percent of the vote and 30 seats. The smaller Alternativa Demokratika (AD) lost support compared with the elections in 1998.
On March 29, 2004, the House of Representatives elected a new president of the republic, Edward Fenech Adami, the former prime minister and veteran leader of the ruling PN. Lawrence Gonzi, the former deputy prime minister, took over the post of prime minister.
In January 2005, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) issued a sharp criticism of Malta's treatment of asylum seekers. The UN agency was critical of the use of excessive force by Maltese soldiers during a peaceful demonstration by asylum seekers, as well as the government's policies and actions towards asylum seekers; Malta detains asylum seekers for 18 months in often appalling conditions. The BBC reported that local newspapers published photos clearly depicting soldiers kicking asylum seekers at the protest and hitting them with batons while the victims were being held to the ground.
Citizens of Malta can change their government democratically. The country has a unicameral legislature-the House of Representatives-of 65 seats that are decided by a national system of proportional representation with an additional single-transferable-vote (STV) arrangement. STV is different from the traditional "list" proportional representation systems because it allows the voter not only to choose a party but also to rank-order the candidates running for office. Parliament is elected for a five-year term, and members of parliament, in turn, elect the president to serve five years. The prime minister is selected by a vote of party delegates.
The EU, in its 2003 monitoring report, which seeks to determine whether candidate countries are adopting its body of law, criticized Malta for lacking a specific anticorruption program. The issue of corruption emerged in the country after a chief justice in 2003 was forced to resign because of a bribery scandal over a prison sentence appeal. Malta was ranked 25 out of 159 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The constitution guarantees freedom of speech and of the press. There are several newspapers and weeklies in Maltese and English, as well as radio and television stations. The island also has access to Italian television, which many Maltese watch. The government does not block internet access.
The constitution establishes Roman Catholicism as the state religion, and the state grants subsidies only to Catholic schools. However, although the population is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, other religious groups are tolerated and respected. There are small communities of Muslims, Jews, and Protestants, the latter being mostly British retirees. There is one Muslim private school in the country. Construction on a government-approved Muslim cemetery is expected to begin soon.
Academic freedom is respected, and there is generally free and open discussion in the country. However, an amendment to the criminal code makes incitement to racial hatred a crime punishable by a prison term of six to eight months.
The constitution provides for freedom of assembly and association, and the government generally respects these rights. International and domestic nongovernmental organizations investigating human rights issues were able to operate without government interference. The law recognizes the right to form and join trade unions, and limits on the right to strike were eased in 2002. However, the country's compulsory arbitration clause in its Employment and Industrial Relations Act allows the government to force a settlement on striking workers. This clause, which permits compulsory arbitration to be held even if it is requested by only one of the parties involved, contravenes the International Labor Organization's Convention 87. According to the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, the government insists that it rarely invokes this clause, which is used only when all other channels for arbitration have been exhausted.
The judiciary is independent, and the rule of law prevails in civil and criminal matters. The Police Ordinance Act, which took effect in 2003, provides a number of reform measures related to policing and criminal justice, including the establishment of a witness protection program and a mechanism for handling both internal and external complaints directed toward the police. Prison conditions generally meet international standards. A magisterial inquiry commenced in May 2004 to investigate the deportation of 220 Eritrean citizens in 2002, who subsequently disappeared and are believed to have been killed. According to the U.S. State Department's 2004 human rights report, the inquiry concluded that officials did not use irregular or illegal practices and had "exercised due discretion and diligence throughout the entire deportation process and had provided the Eritrean nationals full information about their rights."
The government respects personal autonomy and freedom. However, divorce is illegal and violence against women continues to be a problem on the island. Malta prohibits all abortions, even if the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest; in November 2004, a UN committee urged Malta to reconsider this strict policy. Women occupy only 6 of the 65 seats in parliament. Progress, though, has been made. Women now occupy two government posts: minister of Gozo (the second island in the archipelago) and minister for Family and Solidarity. These women are the first to occupy government positions of such high standing.