Freedom in the World
Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
The Maldives’ political rights rating declined from 3 to 5 due to the forcible removal of democratically elected president Mohamed Nasheed, violence perpetrated against him and his party, the suspension of the parliament’s summer session, and the role of the military in facilitating these events.
Rising political polarization and tension during 2011 came to a head in early 2012, culminating in the removal of the sitting president, Mohamed Nasheed, in February. While the new government insisted that its installation was legitimate and internationally recognized, Nasheed alleged that he had been deposed by force. Hundreds of protestors were attacked and detained by police and security forces throughout 2012 during pro-Nasheed demonstrations. Physical harassment of the media and freedom of expression activists also increased in 2012.
The Maldives achieved independence in 1965 after 78 years as a British protectorate, and a 1968 referendum replaced the centuries-old sultanate with a republican system. The first president, Amir Ibrahim Nasir, held office for 10 years. He was succeeded by Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who served six five-year terms. Gayoom repeatedly renewed his mandate through a tightly controlled system of presidential referendums rather than competitive elections.
Gayoom initiated political reforms after the beating death of a prison inmate sparked riots in 2003. A People’s Special Majlis (PSM), composed of lawmakers and other elected and appointed delegates, was tasked with amending the constitution in 2004. The next several years brought incremental improvements to the legislative, judicial, and media frameworks, interspersed with bouts of unrest, crackdowns on the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), and restrictions on freedom of expression.
In June 2008, the PSM approved a new constitution. Under pressure from opposition demonstrators, the president in August ratified the new charter, which included protection for a range of civil liberties while maintaining restrictions on religious freedom. The country’s first multiparty presidential election was held in October. Gayoom outpolled five challengers in the first round, but MDP leader and former political prisoner Mohamed Nasheed won the runoff. The poll was deemed relatively free and fair, though observers reported flaws, including some preelection violence and voter registration problems. Nasheed’s immediate priorities included anticorruption measures, government decentralization, and measures to increase freedoms of expression and the press, though these reform plans were hindered by the opposition over the next few years.
Parliamentary elections held in May 2009 were largely transparent and competitive. Gayoom’s Maldivian People’s Party (DRP) won 28 of 77 seats, while the MDP captured 26, leading to protracted deadlock, as the DRP-controlled legislature repeatedly blocked the president’s reforms.
In December 2011, an opposition alliance was formed against Nasheed, culminating in a December 23 mass rally attended by tens of thousands of demonstrators who alleged that Nasheed’s government had failed to protect Islamic values.
In January 2012, Nasheed’s government arrested Abdullah Mohamed, chief judge of the Maldivian criminal court, on charges of misconduct. Waves of antigovernment protests erupted. Following a police mutiny, Nasheed resigned on February 7, with power transferred to Vice President Mohammed Waheed Hassan, head of the Gaumee Ittihad Party, a small party that had no parliamentary representation when he took office. Nasheed alleged that he had been forced to resign at gunpoint in what amounted to a military-backed coup. Sitting ministers were immediately replaced, and a number of Gayoom allies were appointed to prominent positions in the new administration, raising suspicion that different factions and individuals had colluded to oust Nasheed. Thousands of MDP supporters took to the streets in support of Nasheed, and human rights groups claimed that security forces used excessive force during the clashes that followed. Meanwhile, government officials blamed the MDP for the violence and threatened demonstrators with charges of terrorism. Pro-Nasheed demonstrations continued in February, but without reports of violence.
In late February, President Waheed formed a Commission of National Inquiry (CNI) to investigate the events that led to the change in government. After complaints that the initial makeup of the commission was biased, a new CNI with the addition of a Singaporean ex-judge and an MDP representative was formed. In August, the CNI released a report stating that the transfer of power was legal and that Nasheed’s resignation was voluntary. The MDP contested the report’s findings, claiming that it had ignored testimony from a number of witnesses, and that the MDP representative on the commission resigned shortly before its findings were made public. The international community, including the United States and the Commonwealth states, generally accepted the transfer of power.
In July, the parliament’s session was suspended indefinitely by the speaker. Following a series of talks among the political factions, the final session of the year proceeded on schedule in October. Nasheed was arrested that month on charges of abuse of power, and although he was released shortly after his first hearing, a travel ban remained in place though year’s end in which he was forbidden to leave Male.
Several violent attacks and the killing of Afrasheem Ali, a member of the ruling coalition, targeted moderate politicians and activists during the year, raising concerns regarding the growing power of conservative Islamist extremists in the country.
The Maldives is not an electoral democracy. The country’s democratically-elected president, Mohamed Nasheed, was removed from office in 2012, allegedly at gunpoint. Charges of abuse of power leveled against former president Nasheed after the change in government were seen as politically motivated, as he would be ineligible to stand for office if convicted. Under the 2008 constitution, the president is directly elected for up to two five-year terms. The unicameral People’s Majlis is composed of 77 seats, with members elected from individual districts to serve five-year terms. Political violence and harassment increased in 2012 amid the February change in government. MDP members and supporters allege that they were explicitly targeted by police during a number of demonstrations that occurred during the year. Parliament functioned sporadically during the year, with the summer session of the body suspended by the speaker, limiting the ability of key legislation to be passed.
In recent years, a new, independent auditor general and the revised constitution have provided greater transparency, shedding light on pervasive corruption. An Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) was established in 2008 and opened dozens of cases, though the vast majority do not result in convictions.
The constitution guarantees freedoms of expression and the press. However, journalists and media outlets faced attacks and harassment throughout 2012 as they attempted to cover the political turmoil. The state-run Maldives National Broadcasting Commission, as well as several private stations, were attacked during the February change in government, while attacks on journalists, as well as on Raajje TV, occurred in July and August. The blocking of Christian websites by the Ministry of Islamic Affairs (MIA) remains an issue. Freelance journalist, blogger, and gay rights activist Ismail “Hilath” Rasheed—whose blog was blocked in November 2011 on the grounds that it contained “anti-Islamic” material and who was detained for several months after he took part in a protest advocating for greater religious tolerance—was stabbed in the throat in June and fled the country in July.
Freedom of religion remains severely restricted. Islam is the state religion, and all citizens are required to be Sunni Muslims. Imams must use government-approved sermons. Non-Muslim foreigners are allowed to observe their religions only in private. In September 2012, two men were arrested for possession of Christian books. In recent years, the rise of conservative strands of Islam has led to more rigid interpretations of behavior and dress, particularly for women. Extremists also opposed several initiatives of the Nasheed government, and during the February unrest, suspected Islamist extremists broke into the national museum and destroyed Buddhist statues, claiming they were idolatrous. There are no reported limitations on academic freedom, but many scholars self-censor.
The constitution guarantees freedom of assembly. However, during the ongoing demonstrations following Nasheed’s ouster in February, police used excessive force, including tear gas and pepper spray, against peaceful protestors, and also beat unarmed civilians. Nongovernmental organizations struggle with funding and issues of long-term viability in a weak civil society environment. The constitution and the 2008 Employment Act allow workers to form trade unions and to strike. The country’s first labor tribunal was established in December 2008 to enforce the Employment Act. Exploitation of migrant workers is widespread.
The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, and a Judicial Services Commission (JSC) was established in 2009 to separate the judicial branch from the executive. Politicization of the judiciary increased in March 2012 following a number of appointments made to the JSC by new president Mohammed Waheed Hassan. 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 internal exile continue to be carried out.
The constitution bans arbitrary arrest, torture, and prolonged detention without adequate judicial review. The Nasheed administration had initiated police reform and established a parole board to recommend sentence reductions for unjustly detained inmates. Amid the political turmoil of 2012, protestors and political activists were arrested, detained, and tortured in custody. MDP supporters in particular were targeted for harsh treatment.
The past several years have seen an increase in gang activity and violence, often linked to drugs and organized crime. More recently, political parties have used gangs to engage in political violence and attacks against opponents.
Women are increasingly entering the civil service and receiving pay equal to that of men, though opportunities are sometimes limited by traditional norms, and women hold few senior government positions. Domestic violence against women is widespread. International human rights groups have urged reform of severe legal punishments that primarily affect women, including the sentence of flogging for extramarital sex; a number of such sentences were handed down in 2012. In April, however, a new domestic violence law was passed that criminalized several types of violence and provided protection for victims. Efforts to address trafficking have been largely ineffective. Homosexual activity is against the law.