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Progress toward multiparty elections remained slow in 2007, with the Special Majlis failing to meet a November deadline for completing constitutional amendments. Although the year featured the launch of the country’s first private radio stations, a more assertive stance by the Maldives Human Rights Commission, and freer private discussion, the government continued to restrict freedom of speech and assembly, detain opposition politicians, and commit various human rights violations.
The Maldives achieved independence in 1965 after 78 years as a British protectorate, and a 1968 referendum replaced the centuries-old ad-Din sultanate with a republican system. The Maldives’ first president, Amir Ibrahim Nasir, held office for 10 years. He was succeeded by current president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who in 1978 won his first five-year term under the country’s tightly controlled presidential referendum process.
In September 2003, riots broke out after prison guards beat an inmate to death. In response, Gayoom initiated a series of political reforms. Elections were held in May 2004 for a People’s Special Majlis (PSM)—composed of the 50 members of the ordinary People’s Majlis (parliament), 50 members elected or appointed specifically to the PSM, and the cabinet—that was tasked with amending the constitution. Over the subsequent years, positive changes to the legislative, judicial, and media frameworks occurred slowly, interspersed with bouts of unrest, crackdowns on the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), and restrictions on freedom of expression.
In January 2005 parliamentary elections, candidates affiliated with the MDP won 18 of the 42 contested seats, while government-backed candidates won 22 and independents took 2. The balloting was relatively free of violence, but several MDP activists were arrested prior to and on election day.
The parliament in June 2005 passed legislation allowing political parties to register and contest elections for the first time. Nevertheless, MDP leaders continued to face arrests, beatings, and prosecutions. When the MDP planned nationwide demonstrations in November 2006, the government arrested more than 100 people in a preemptive crackdown, restricting media freedom and movement into the capital. Though most detainees were released, the attorney general announced in May 2007 that 17 men, including senior MDP members, would face trial for traveling by boat to join the protests.
The government and lawmakers in 2007 focused on completing constitutional amendments by a November deadline. Though the changes remained incomplete at year’s end, the Special Majlis approved several chapters that appeared to improve on existing rights guarantees. Politics remained polarized, though members of the president’s Maldivian People’s Party (DRP) voted sporadically with the opposition in the Special Majlis. In a major shake-up over the summer, the justice minister, attorney general, and foreign minister resigned over what they said were government obstructions to reform.
The Maldives experienced its first terrorist attack in September 2007, when a bomb exploded in the capital, injuring 12 tourists. In the aftermath, three men were convicted for the attack, and security forces arrested 63 people in a showdown at an unofficial mosque on Himandhoo island.
The Republic of Maldives is not an electoral democracy. The People’s Majlis (parliament) chooses a single presidential nominee, who is then approved by a national referendum for a five-year term. Forty-two members of the 50-seat Majlis are directly elected for five-year terms. The president appoints the other eight members, the Majlis speaker and deputy speaker, and the atoll chiefs, who are responsible for local governance. While the president controls most government decisions, the Majlis has in recent years held livelier debates and passed reform legislation.
As part of the ongoing reform process, voters in an August 2007 referendum chose a presidential system over a parliamentary one. Despite some irregularities and opposition accusations of vote rigging, observers deemed the poll to have been the country’s fairest to date. In October, elections were held for local Island Development Committees (IDCs) for the first time, but their significance was mitigated by the administering committee’s lack of independence and the IDCs’ limited authority compared with the appointed atoll chiefs.
Until June 2005, political parties were discouraged, and Majlis candidates were required to run as individuals. Since then, five parties have registered: the ruling DRP, the opposition MDP, two Islamic-oriented parties, and the newer Maldives National Council (MNC). MDP supporters have been able to organize more rallies and discussions, but continue to face occasional arrest, detention, and beatings. MDP leader Mohamed Nasheed, who spent much of 2006 under house arrest on charges of terrorism and sedition, was temporarily detained and beaten by police several times in 2007.
Government accountability is limited by the executive branch’s almost complete control over the legislature and judiciary. However, an anticorruption board investigates graft allegations and refers cases to the attorney general. The Maldives was ranked 84 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index.
In recent years, a modest easing of restrictions on the media has been offset by crackdowns and harassment of journalists. Though regulatory changes in January 2007 dramatically reduced damages for defamation, the legal environment remains harsh, and two significant media reform bills were withdrawn during the year. Many journalists practice self-censorship and do not scrutinize official policies. Since a 2005 law liberalized the registration process, 6 daily newspapers, 15 magazines, and 70 other publications have been registered. Most are owned by government allies, but some have adopted a critical, balanced tone, and the independent Dhivehi-language Minivan Daily, which started as an online publication, now circulates in print. In 2007, the country’s first private broadcasters—Capital FM radio, DhiFM radio, and Atoll TV—were launched through individual agreements with the government as opposed to new broadcasting legislation, limiting their independence. The more overtly antigovernment Minivan Radio was unable to obtain a frequency due to prohibitive registration costs. Internet access was less restricted than in past years, but the pro-opposition Dhivehi Observer website remained blocked.
Journalists remain subject to arrest or harassment. In 2007, reporters and photographers from both pro-opposition and state-owned outlets were arrested while covering protests, illegal prayer meetings, and a taxi-driver strike. Minivan has been particularly targeted for official intimidation. In January 2007, a foreign reporter for the English-language online publication Minivan News was expelled and banned for two years. At year’s end, Minivan Daily editor Aminath Najeeb faced potential jail time, and journalist Abdullah Saeed continued to serve a long prison sentence after being convicted in 2006 of apparently fabricated drug charges.
Freedom of religion is severely restricted. Islam is the state religion, and all citizens are required to be Sunni Muslims. Non-Muslim foreigners are allowed to practice their religions only privately. Ostensibly to prevent fundamentalist beliefs from spreading, imams must use government-approved sermons. Following a bombing in September 2007, President Gayoom issued decrees prohibiting speeches by foreign clerics, criminalizing “words or actions likely to encourage extremism,” banning the full veil, and limiting any form of veil on television. There were no reported limitations on academic freedom, but many scholars self-censor. Maldivians were palpably freer in 2007 than in the past to discuss politically sensitive issues in public places.
The government limits freedoms of assembly and association. In recent years, police have used excessive force to break up demonstrations. According to the Maldives Human Rights Commission (MHRC), in a March 2007 incident in Kibidhoo, police suppressed protests against local officials using iron finger rings, including on children and the elderly. However, there were no reports in 2007 of harassment of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). The NGO Maldivian Detainee Network has been allowed to register and receive funding from the Australian government, and the MHRC, which was reconstituted in 2006, was increasingly assertive in 2007. Though the president appoints its members, the body issued several highly critical reports on police violence against protesters and detainees.
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 to address labor issues. In June 2007, police arrested at least eight organizers of a three-day strike by taxi drivers to protest rising fuel prices.
Because the president can review high-court decisions and the judicial service commission’s authority is very limited, the judiciary “lacks independence,” according to a 2007 report by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers. Civil law is used in most cases, but it is subordinate to Sharia (Islamic law), which is applied in matters not covered by civil law and in cases involving divorce or adultery. As a result, the testimony of two women is equal to that of one man, and punishments such as flogging and banishment to a remote island continue to be carried out.
Human rights groups allege that the National Security Service acts with virtual impunity. Incidents of torture or other forms of ill-treatment at police stations and prisons continue to be reported and, as in the case of the apparent death from police abuse of drug addict Hussein Salah in April 2007, to spark protests. Arbitrary arrest and prolonged detention without adequate judicial review remain a concern. The government has in recent years detained political prisoners for months at a time, and some have been sentenced to long prison terms.
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.
More women are entering the civil service and increasingly receiving pay equal to that of men, though traditional norms still limit opportunities for many women. Women enjoy a 98 percent literacy rate. In July 2007, the country’s first two female judges were appointed, despite opposition from some Islamic groups.