Freedom in the World
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Maldives received an upward trend arrow due to increased space for political parties to operate legally, as well as to legislation that reduced the influence of the executive over the judiciary.
Despite positive changes to the Maldives’ legislative, judicial, and media frameworks, the country in 2006 experienced continuing political tension and occasional bouts of unrest as the government, headed by President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, faced sustained pressure from the reformist Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) and its supporters. Although Gayoom has promised to undertake extensive political reforms, his government has continued to restrict freedom of speech and assembly, detain political prisoners, and commit various human rights violations. Several rounds of talks between the government and the opposition led to a July agreement under which the MDP promised not to engage in violence while authorities agreed to release political detainees and speed up the reform process. However, a tense November standoff led to further detentions and backtracking on key promises, such as the opening of the broadcast media sector to private ownership, by year’s end.
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 centuries 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. Gayoom escaped the most serious threat to his political survival 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.
The current cycle of unrest was sparked in September 2003, following an altercation at Maafushi prison in which prison guards beat an inmate to death. Security forces opened fire on other prisoners, killing three and wounding more than a dozen. Meanwhile, protesters attacked government buildings in the capital, setting several on fire. In response, Gayoom ordered an inquiry, which led to five NSS officials being sentenced to life imprisonment in 2005, as well as a reorganization of the prison system and the establishment of a prison oversight committee.
Gayoom’s reelection to a sixth presidential term was approved in a 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 members of Parliament, 50 members elected or appointed specifically to the PSM, and the cabinet—that was tasked with amending the 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.
Nevertheless, in August 2004, several thousand people demonstrated in support of demands by the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) that the reform process be expedited. In the violent unrest that followed, four policemen were stabbed and hundreds of protesters, including several reformist former lawmakers and government officials, were arrested 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 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.
Legislative elections originally scheduled for December 2004 were postponed until January 2005 as a result of the Indian Ocean tsunami, which had devastated many low-lying atolls. In total, 149 candidates stood for the 42 available seats. In an indication of the MDP’s growing popularity, candidates affiliated with the party won 18 seats, while government-backed candidates won 22 and independents took 2. In addition, three top government officials—the ministers of fisheries, labor, and tourism—were defeated in their races.
In June 2005, the Maldivian Parliament unanimously passed a law allowing political parties to register and contest elections. Then, in a promising July 2005 reshuffle, several reform-minded ministers were brought into the cabinet. However, around the anniversary of the August 2004 disturbances, hundreds of peaceful protesters, including journalists and MDP politicians and supporters, were again arrested, and more than 150 activists were detained for longer periods of time. Mohammed Nasheed, the chairman of the MDP, was detained and charged with terrorism and sedition; he spent most of 2006 under house arrest. In October 2005, Jennifer Latheef, councilor and human rights coordinator of the MDP, was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment on terrorism charges for her alleged involvement in the September 2003 civil unrest; four others were also given lengthy sentences.
As in 2005, the Maldives in 2006 experienced several steps toward greater openness interspersed with crackdowns on the opposition and infringements on freedom of expression. Many Maldivians remain skeptical that the government is committed to enacting meaningful and far-reaching reform, and the government and opposition continue to trade accusations of obstructionism and insincerity. The main points of contention are the timing and implementation of the proposed reform “road map.” Three rounds of talks between the MDP and government, facilitated by the British High Commission, were held in the summer of 2006. In the resulting “Westminster Agreement,” reached in July, the MDP pledged not to engage in violent street protests, and the government said it would release political prisoners and speed up the reform process, with the goal of completing a draft of the new constitution by November 2007. The government did release a number of detainees in July and dropped criminal charges against 19 more. Dozens of detainees remained incarcerated or under house arrest, but thanks to concerted international pressure, Latheef was pardoned in August after serving 10 months of her sentence, and Nasheed was released from house arrest in September.
In August 2006, the Majlis voted unanimously in favor of amendments to the Human Rights Commission Act that would empower the Maldives Human Rights Commission (MHRC) to visit prisons and detention facilities without prior permission from authorities; Gayoom ratified the measure later in the month. However, government allies won an October Majlis vote over who would oversee an upcoming referendum to determine the Maldives’ new form of government. (The MDP favors a parliamentary republic, while the pro-Gayoom faction unsurprisingly favors a presidential system.) The MDP expressed concern that the referendum would not be conducted fairly if overseen by the commissioner of elections, as he is a pro-Gayoom political appointee. After the MDP planned nationwide demonstrations for November 10, the government began a preemptive crackdown in which more than 100 people were arrested, travel restrictions prevented free movement into the capital, and the media’s freedom to report on unfolding developments was curtailed. Relations between the government and opposition remained strained at year’s end.
The Republic of Maldives is not an electoral democracy. 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 for a five-year term. A 1998 constitutional amendment allowed citizens to declare their candidacies but not campaign for the presidential nomination. Forty-two members of the 50-seat Majlis are directly elected for five-year terms; of these, two are elected from Male and two from each atoll. The constitution allows the president to appoint the other eight Majlis members, the Speaker and Deputy Speaker of the Majlis, and the atoll chiefs, who are responsible for local government matters. While the president controls most government decisions, the Majlis has in recent years held livelier policy debates and passed reform legislation.
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 Male polling booth after the close of voting. 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 post-tsunami 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.
Until June 2005, when the Majlis voted unanimously to allow multiparty politics, political parties were officially discouraged and candidates for the Majlis were required to run as individuals. The opposition MDP, formed in 2001, was initially denied permission to register and operated from exile in Sri Lanka until it was officially registered under the new legislation. Three other main parties were also registered in the months following the Majlis vote: President Gayoom’s Maldivian People’s Party (DRP), the Islamic Democratic Party (IDP), and the Islam-oriented Adaalath (Justice) Party (AP). Winning the legal right to register, operate within the country, and field candidates in elections was an important step; however, it remained difficult for opposition parties to carry out some basic political activities in 2006. MDP leader Mohamed Nasheed, who had returned to the Maldives in June 2005, was arrested in August and remained under house arrest until September 2006. MDP activists and supporters have been able to organize more regular rallies and other forms of political activity; nevertheless, activists are frequently subject to arrest and temporary detention prior to planned protests. Parties were prevented from fielding their own candidates in the December 2005 by-elections for three constituencies, according to the New Delhi–based Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR).
Government accountability is limited by the fact that the executive exercises almost complete control over both the legislative and judicial branches. Nepotism and corruption are reportedly rampant, with many prominent positions held by Gayoom’s relatives and friends. However, an anticorruption board investigates allegations of official corruption and refers cases to the attorney general’s office. The Maldives was not ranked by Transparency International in its 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Over the past several years, a modest easing of restrictions on the media has been offset by official crackdowns and harassment of journalists. The legal environment remains harsh, although a July 2005 law liberalized the registration process for newspapers. Since then, six daily newspapers and 11 other publications, some with an opposition slant, have been registered. The Information Ministry, which is spearheading reform efforts, submitted four media-related bills to Parliament in February 2006, including measures on freedom of information, press freedom, a proposed media council, and registration of print media. However, the government announced in November that it was retracting previously announced plans to allow private broadcasting.
Many journalists practice self-censorship and do not scrutinize official policies. All broadcast media are government owned and operated, and while they have recently provided more diverse coverage, they generally continue to reflect progovernment views. Most major print outlets are also owned by those connected to the government, but some publications, such as the weekly Adduvas and the newly registered Jazeera and Hamma , have adopted a critical, balanced tone. Minivan News, which started as an online publication, began publishing a print version in the Maldives in July 2005, but after the August protests, the printing house refused to continue publishing it under pressure from the authorities. Groups of Maldivian exiles run independent news outlets in Britain 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 authorities and are inaccessible from internet cafés in Male. Internet connectivity has occasionally been suspended altogether in the wake of political disturbances.
Journalists, particularly those who cover political events or write critical stories, remain subject to arrest or other forms of harassment. On May 3, 2006, riot police and NSS personnel assaulted international monitors and arrested local journalists during celebrations to mark World Press Freedom Day. In November, foreign journalists covering the arrests of MDP activists were forced to leave the country. Due to Minivan ’s overtly antigovernment stance, its management and employees have faced the brunt of official intimidation. A number of staff have been detained or placed under house arrest for extended periods, and others face criminal charges; journalist Abdullah Saeed was convicted of drug possession and trafficking in May, while his colleague Mohamed Yushau was held on terrorism charges from May to July.
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 religions only privately, according to the U.S. State Department’s 2006 International Religious Freedom Report. Ostensibly to prevent fundamentalist beliefs from spreading, imams must use government-approved sermons, and no one is allowed to publicly discuss Islam without official permission. There were no reported restrictions on academic freedom, but general restrictions on freedom of speech limit scholars’ ability to express themselves freely without fear of reprisal.
The government limits freedoms 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 ACHR, local nongovernmental organizations that focus on rights issues 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, but 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, though some work in the country’s high-end tourism industry, which provides 70 percent of foreign exchange revenues.
Because the president can review high court decisions, the judiciary remains “subject to executive influence,” according to the U.S. State Department’s 2005 human rights report. However, Gayoom’s power to appoint and dismiss judges was curbed in November 2005 by the establishment of a judicial services commission, which assumed these responsibilities. Civil law is generally used in civil and criminal cases, but it is subordinate to Sharia (Islamic law), which is used in matters not covered by civil law and in cases involving divorce or adultery. Punishments such as flogging and banishment to a remote island, which are provided under the country’s interpretation of Sharia, are sometimes carried out.
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 agency in September 2004. Incidents of torture or other forms of ill-treatment at police stations or prison facilities continue to be reported.
Arbitrary arrest and prolonged detention, particularly of opposition supporters, remain a concern. However, 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, August 2004, and August 2005 street protests, authorities arrested hundreds of people. The government has in recent years detained or confined 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 MHRC, whose members are appointed by the president and report directly to him. The government attempted to remove the security forces from the purview of the MHRC and otherwise limit its investigative powers through legislation passed in July 2005, which led to the resignation of three commissioners. However, in August 2006, the Majlis voted unanimously in favor of amendments to the Human Rights Commission Act, which would empower the MHRC to visit prisons and detention facilities without prior permission from the authorities. Although it was reconstituted in November, it was not yet operational by year’s end.
The government exercises pervasive influence over access to health care, employment, and educational opportunities for most Maldivians, and it dominates both the public sector and many civil society groups, particularly in the outer atolls. As noted in a December 2004 report by the National Democratic Institute, these widespread networks of patronage have also been used to influence voting behavior and control political activity.
More women are entering the civil service, increasingly receiving pay equal to that of men. 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.