Freedom in the World
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Freedom in the World Scores
Following decades of authoritarian rule under former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the Maldives held its first multiparty presidential election in 2008. However, democratic gains have been reversed in recent years amid severe restrictions on opposition activities, the imprisonment of opposition figures, restrictions on freedoms of expression and assembly, politicization of the judiciary and other independent institutions, and increasing Islamist militancy.
Key Developments in 2017:
- Yameen Rasheed, a prominent blogger, human rights defender, and critic of religious extremism, was murdered in April. The killing was followed by increased threats and state persecution aimed at other liberal writers and perceived opponents of Islam.
- To prevent a vote to replace the parliament speaker, military forces removed opposition lawmakers from the parliament in March and July and maintained a presence in or around the chamber itself during subsequent sessions.
- The Supreme Court ruled in July that lawmakers who switch or are expelled from their parties should lose their seats. A dozen members of the governing Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) who had defected to the opposition were consequently removed, though the action was still being disputed in the courts at year’s end.
POLITICAL RIGHTS: 14 / 40 (−3)
A. ELECTORAL PROCESS: 5 / 12 (−2)
A1. Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 2 / 4
The president is directly elected for up to two five-year terms. In the 2013 election, PPM leader Abdulla Yameen, a half-brother of former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, won a runoff vote against former president Mohamed Nasheed of the Madivian Democratic Party (MDP), 51 percent to 49 percent. The process, which included an annulment and rerun of the first round, was marred by repeated interference from the Supreme Court and the police.
A2. Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 2 / 4 (−1)
The unicameral People’s Majlis is composed of 85 seats, with members elected from individual districts to serve five-year terms. Elections held in 2014 were largely transparent and competitive, though they also featured some Supreme Court interference, vote buying, and other problems. The PPM won 33 seats, while the MDP captured 26. The Jumhooree Party won 15 seats, the Maldives Development Alliance won 5, and independents took an additional 5. The Adhaalath Party won the remaining seat. Subsequent party-switching gave the PPM a majority.
In July 2017, after a number of defections from the PPM threatened its control over the legislature, the Supreme Court ruled that members of parliament who switch or are expelled from their parties should lose their seats; the constitution contained no such provision. The decision did not apply retroactively, but the PPM and the Elections Commission argued that 12 members who defected to the opposition earlier in the year had not been officially removed from the party registry until after the ruling. While the seats were formally vacated, and the constitution required by-elections within 60 days, no such elections were held. The ousted lawmakers continued to contest their disqualification at year’s end.
Score Change: The score declined from 3 to 2 due to the politicized removal of a dozen ruling party lawmakers from their seats after they joined the opposition, as well as delays in the holding of by-elections to fill the vacancies.
A3. Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 1 / 4 (−1)
The independence of the Elections Commission has been seriously compromised in recent years. In addition to its handling of the party-switching dispute, which was widely seen as favoring the PPM, it repeatedly delayed the holding of local council elections in 2017. When the elections ultimately proceeded in May, leading to losses for the PPM, the commission delayed the announcement of results without a clear explanation.
Score Change: The score declined from 2 to 1 due to politicized and irregular actions taken by the Elections Commission in its management of local elections and its removal of parliament members who defected from the ruling party.
B. POLITICAL PLURALISM AND PARTICIPATION: 5 / 16
B1. Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings? 2 / 4
Political pluralism and participation have deteriorated in recent years as the authorities continue a pattern of persecuting and jailing opposition figures. Restrictions on and dispersals of political protests, raids on opposition offices, and arbitrary detentions of opposition politicians are common. Former president Nasheed, who had been sentenced to 13 years in prison in 2015 after a flawed trial on terrorism charges, remained in Britain in 2017, having obtained asylum there while on medical leave in 2016. Among other cases during 2017, Gasim Ibrahim, leader of the Jumhooree Party, was arrested on dubious bribery charges in April and sentenced to more than three years in prison after a politicized legal process in August. Gasim was allowed to seek medical treatment in Singapore in September, and he remained abroad at year’s end. Faris Maumoon, the son of former president Gayoom, was arrested on similar charges in July; both he and his father had split with the PPM and moved to the opposition.
B2. Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 1 / 4
Under President Yameen, the government and the PPM have used the politicized justice system and the security forces to cripple the opposition and maintain control of the legislature. In March 2017, during a failed opposition vote to remove the parliament speaker, Abdulla Maseeh Mohamed, military personnel physically removed protesting lawmakers. In July, the military blocked opposition members from entering the parliament, and several faced criminal charges for forcing their way in. A combination of military guards and the dubious expulsion of opposition members under that month’s Supreme Court decision prevented further attempts to remove the speaker for the rest of the year.
B3. Are the people’s political choices free from domination by the military, foreign powers, religious hierarchies, economic oligarchies, or any other powerful group that is not democratically accountable? 1 / 4
The incumbent leadership has exerted improper influence over a number of state institutions to restrict the political choices of voters and politicians. In addition to using security forces, the Elections Commission, and the justice system to suppress dissent, the president’s allies have reportedly threatened public and private-sector employees with dismissal for participating in opposition protests or other political activities. Such workers have also been forced to attend progovernment events. Vote buying remains a problem during elections, and allegations of bribery and corruption have surrounded instances of party switching in recent years.
B4. Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 1 / 4
The Maldivian constitution and legal framework require all citizens to be Muslims and all candidates for elected office to be followers of Sunni Islam. Societal discrimination against women has limited their political participation. Just 39 of 653 local council seats were won by women candidates in the May 2017 local elections, and five women won seats in the parliament in 2014. Foreign workers, who make up between a quarter and a third of the population, have no political rights.
C. FUNCTIONING OF GOVERNMENT: 4 / 12 (−1)
C1. Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 2 / 4 (−1)
Elected officials generally determine and implement government policies, but the functioning of the parliament was seriously impaired during 2017 by the leadership’s heavy-handed attempts to retain control in the face of defections to the opposition. After the military closed off the parliament in July, the speaker held a brief session in August with military personnel physically surrounding the rostrum. The military continued to provide security inside the parliament for the rest of the year, and when the body reconvened after a recess in October, a large wall had been constructed around a newly elevated speaker’s desk.
Score Change: The score declined from 3 to 2 due to the disruption of normal legislative business caused by the use of closures, physical barriers, and military personnel to suppress opposition lawmakers’ efforts to replace the speaker of parliament.
C2. Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 1 / 4
Corruption continues to be endemic at all levels of government. The Anti-Corruption Commission is only moderately effective, often launching investigations and taking other actions in response to public complaints, but rarely holding powerful figures to account for abuses.
C3. Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 1 / 4
Large state contracts for infrastructure and other projects are regularly awarded through opaque processes, in which bribery and kickbacks are widely believed to play a role. The president, cabinet ministers, and members of parliament are required by the constitution to submit annual asset declarations, but these are not made public, and the relevant agencies have even resisted disclosing how many officials comply with the rule.
CIVIL LIBERTIES: 21 / 60 (−2)
D. FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND BELIEF: 3 / 16 (−2)
D1. Are there free and independent media? 1 / 4
The constitution guarantees freedom of expression so long as it is exercised in a manner that is “not contrary to any tenet of Islam,” a vague condition that encourages self-censorship in the media. Regulatory bodies, especially the Maldives Broadcasting Commission (MBC), are conspicuously biased in favor of the government and restrict coverage of the opposition. A 2016 law imposed criminal penalties for defamation or any other expression that “threatens national security” or “contradicts social norms,” and it has been used to intimidate journalists and media outlets. Several journalists were arbitrarily detained during 2017, and others reported receiving death threats, including from PPM members.
In April 2017, prominent liberal blogger and political commentator Yameen Rasheed was fatally stabbed near his home. Seven alleged religious extremists were charged with the crime, but the subsequent court hearings were closed, and Rasheed’s family called for an independent investigation. Rasheed had complained that police failed to investigate multiple death threats against him. Among other activities, he had led a campaign to solve the 2014 disappearance of journalist Ahmed Rilwan.
D2. Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 0 / 4 (−1)
Freedom of religion is severely restricted. Islam is the state religion, and all citizens are required to be Muslims. Imams must use government-approved sermons. Non-Muslim foreigners are allowed to observe their religions only in private. In recent years, growing religious extremism has led to an increase in threatening rhetoric and physical attacks against those perceived to be insulting or rejecting Islam. Religious leaders and PPM members accused Rasheed of insulting Islam, and shortly after the blogger’s murder in April 2017, President Yameen gave speeches that appeared to justify the killing. The authorities intensified a crackdown on secularist writers in the wake of the murder, ordering four online activists who worked in exile to report for questioning or face prosecution. Other prominent Maldivians who defended freedom of conscience from abroad were labeled apostates or faced death threats. Also during the year, the Ministry of Islamic Affairs undertook a number of projects with religious leaders, media outlets, and others to promote religious conformity and combat “atheism.”
Score Change: The score declined from 1 to 0 due to an increase in threats and government harassment aimed at perceived opponents of Islam surrounding the April murder of liberal blogger Yameen Rasheed.
D3. Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 1 / 4
Academic freedom has narrowed in recent years as the government steps up monitoring and punishments for academics and teachers who espouse opposition political views or participate in protests. Islam is a compulsory subject in schools and is incorporated into all other subject areas. School and university curriculums are coming under increased influence from hard-line religious leaders, resulting in some content that denigrates democracy and promotes jihadist narratives.
D4. Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 1 / 4 (−1)
It has become increasingly dangerous for individuals to express political and religious opinions freely. The jailing of opposition leaders, the murder of Yameen Rasheed, police harassment of other social media activists, and death threats against anyone speaking out in favor of tolerance or religious pluralism—including Maldivian citizen Ahmed Shaheed, the UN special rapporteur for freedom of religion or belief—all served to inhibit free speech in 2017.
Score Change: The score declined from 2 to 1 due to growing violence, intimidation, and state persecution targeting outspoken liberals and opposition figures, which contributed to broader self-censorship.
E. ASSOCIATIONAL AND ORGANIZATIONAL RIGHTS: 5 / 12
E1. Is there freedom of assembly? 1 / 4
Freedom of assembly is severely constrained. A 2016 law requires protest organizers to obtain police permission for their events and restricts demonstrations to certain designated areas. In 2017 authorities allowed progovernment assemblies but consistently banned or dispersed other protests. In August, relatives of Rilwan and Rasheed were dismissed from their civil service jobs after participating in protests marking Rilwan’s disappearance.
E2. Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 2 / 4
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continue to operate in a restrictive environment. They are required to obtain government approval before seeking domestic or foreign funding, and regulators have broad discretion to investigate and dissolve NGOs. The Human Rights Commission of Maldives is not independent in practice.
E3. Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 2 / 4
The constitution and labor laws allow workers to form trade unions, and a number of unions are active. However, collective bargaining is not protected, and strikes are prohibited in many sectors, including the crucial tourism industry.
F. RULE OF LAW: 6 / 16
F1. Is there an independent judiciary? 1 / 4
Judicial independence is seriously compromised. Many judges are unqualified, and the courts are widely considered vulnerable to corruption or political influence. The Supreme Court has repeatedly intervened in political affairs and apparently exceeded its constitutional authority, typically acting in the ruling party’s interests. In May 2017, for example, it declared that it would be the final arbiter of the validity of parliamentary no-confidence or impeachment motions against executive, judicial, or independent officials. In September, after a group of 56 lawyers filed a petition calling for reforms to ensure judicial independence, the Supreme Court summarily and indefinitely suspended them from legal practice. Those affected made up nearly a third of all registered criminal lawyers in the country who do not represent the state, and many were defending opposition figures.
F2. Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 1 / 4
Police regularly engage in arbitrary arrests, often to disrupt opposition activities, protests, or the work of journalists. Due process rights are not well enforced in practice, and opposition figures have been subjected to deeply flawed trials on politically motivated charges, according to human rights groups and international monitors. In Gasim’s bribery case, two judges who initially dismissed charges against the Jumhoorree Party leader were quickly demoted; the new judge held an accelerated, closed trial and issued the August sentence while the defendant was hospitalized.
F3. Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 2 / 4
The constitution bans torture, but police brutality and the abuse of detainees remain problems. Flogging and other forms of corporal punishment are authorized for some crimes, and flogging sentences are issued in practice. Prisons are overcrowded, and inmates reportedly lack proper access to medical care.
F4. Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 2 / 4
Gender-based discrimination in employment is prohibited by law, but women continue to face discrimination in practice, and they are disproportionately affected by Sharia (Islamic law) penalties for crimes like fornication and adultery.
Migrant workers in the country encounter disparate treatment by state authorities and have difficulty accessing justice.
Same-sex sexual acts are prohibited by law and can draw prison sentences and corporal punishment. As a result, LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people rarely come forward to report societal discrimination or abuse.
G. PERSONAL AUTONOMY AND INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS: 7 / 16
G1. Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 2 / 4
Freedom of movement is provided for by law, but there are some restrictions in practice. Authorities have imposed travel bans on members of opposition parties and other perceived government opponents. Migrant workers are also subject to constraints on their movement, including through retention of their passports by employers.
G2. Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 2 / 4
Property rights are limited, with most land owned by the government and leased to private entities or commercial developers through what is often an opaque process.
G3. Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 1 / 4
Personal social freedoms are restricted by Sharia-based laws and growing religious extremism in society. Among other rules on marriage and divorce, citizen women are barred from marrying non-Muslim foreigners, while citizen men can marry non-Muslim foreigners only if they are Christian or Jewish. Extramarital sex is criminalized, and there is a high legal threshold to prove rape allegations. Women face increasing pressure to dress more conservatively, in keeping with hard-line interpretations of Islam.
G4. Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 2 / 4
The legal framework provides some protections against worker exploitation, including rules on working hours and bans on forced labor. However, migrant workers are especially vulnerable to abuses such as debt bondage and withholding of wages. Women and children working in domestic service may also be subject to exploitative conditions.