Freedom in the World
After significant political openings in 2008 and 2009, the reform process faltered during 2010 as President Mohamed Nasheed struggled to implement his ambitious agenda. Rising tension between the executive and the legislative branch, which is dominated by the oppositionMaldivian People’s Party, led to the temporary resignation of the cabinet in June. Despite an improved environment for freedoms of expression and association, corruption, religious restrictions, and abysmal prison conditions remained issues of concern.
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 won and 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 the final set of constitutional amendments. 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, taking 41 percent of the vote, but MDP leader and former political prisoner Mohamed Nasheed won the runoff with 54 percent. Nearly 87 percent of registered voters turned out for the second round.
Nasheed’s immediate priorities were anticorruption measures, democratization, government decentralization, and press freedom. In line with the third objective, the government in 2009abolished the Atolls Ministry, appointed seven provincial state ministers, and published a draft decentralization bill. The president also abolished the Information Ministry, and introduced draft bills guaranteeing freedom of expression and press freedom that remained under consideration by the parliament at the end of 2010.
In the May 2009 parliamentary elections, Gayoom’s Maldivian People’s Party (DRP) won 28 of 77 seats, while the MDP won 26, the DRP-allied People’s Alliance (PA) took 7, and independents garnered 13. A Commonwealth observer team characterized the voting as largely transparent and competitive, with a turnout of 79 percent. The DRP’s strong showing—and the election of DRP member Abdulla Shahid and PA member Ahmed Nazim as speaker and deputy speaker, respectively, of the new Majlis—raised questions about Nasheed’s ability to push through his ambitious reform agenda.
The cabinet resigned in June 2010, citing frustration over continued efforts by the opposition-controlled legislature to block the president’s reform agenda. Nasheed reappointed the cabinet a week later, though the appointments still required ratification by the parliament. In October, disagreements emerged over whether a parliamentary committee had the right to individually interview cabinet appointees prior to approval. The case was brought to the Supreme Court, which in December decided that cabinet ministers rejected by the parliament must resign. Seven ministers were affected by this decision, but remained in their positions at year’s end while the president prepared to replace them.Meanwhile, a parliamentary delay in ratifying the legislation required to appoint a new Supreme Court led to the resignation of the attorney general in August.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties:
The Republic of Maldives is an electoral democracy. The first democratic presidential election in 2008 was deemed relatively free and fair, although observers reported flaws including some preelection violence, a compressed timeframe, and voter registration problems. The interim election commission was considered generally professional, transparent, and impartial. The 2009 parliamentary elections were also judged to be largely credible, despite minor problems related to the compilation of the voter list as well as some intimidation and other irregularities.
Under the new constitution, the president is directly elected for up to two five-year terms. The 2009 Parliamentary Constituencies Act increased the size of the unicameral People’s Majlis to 77 seats, with members elected from individual districts to serve five-year terms. The president, parliament members, and other key officials are required to be Sunni Muslims. Since political parties were legalized in 2005, a dozen have registered. The space for opposition parties to mobilize has expanded significantly in recent years, although interparty rivalries, which sometimes flare into violence, remain a concern.
Under former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, government accountability was limited by the executive branch’s almost complete control over the legislature and judiciary. However, a new, independent auditor general and the revised constitution have provided greater transparency, shedding light on pervasive corruption. An Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) established in 2008 opened dozens of cases in 2009, but none had been concluded by the end of 2010. A presidential commission formed in May 2009 to investigate corruption in Gayoom’s government was denounced by the DRP as politically motivated and of questionable legality. In July 2010, the PA’s Ahmed Nazim, deputy speaker of the Majlis, and MDP lawmaker Mohamed Musthafa were arrested for allegedly bribing fellow parliament members and a judge.The case was pending in the courts at year’s end. The Maldives was ranked 143out of 178 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index. Transparency International’s recently established Maldives branch was actively engaged in lobbying efforts in 2010.
The new constitution guarantees freedoms of expression and the press. While restrictions on speech deemed “contrary to the tenets of Islam” remain in place, defamation was decriminalized in 2009.Private print media have expanded and present a diversity of viewpoints, though some publications are still owned by Gayoom allies. The number of private radio stations has also increased, and the country’s first private television channels began operating in 2008, though their legal protections remain limited.In August 2010, the Broadcasting Act was passed, establishing a commission to oversee the licensing and regulatory process, but this body had not been appointed by year’s end. Reforms at state-run Television and Radio Maldives provided somewhat more balanced coverage of the 2009 elections. Legislation to transform the state broadcaster into the Maldives Broadcasting Corporation, an independent public-service entity, was passed in April 2010, but the government delayed implementing the handover. Journalists remained subject to some harassment in 2010. In August, the office of private television station VTV was attacked by unknown assailants, and police attacked journalists covering a political protest in October. Journalists and specific media outlets also came under verbal attacks by a number of party officials. Christian websites that were blocked by the Ministry of Islamic Affairs (MIA) in 2008 for allegedly threatening belief in Islam remained inaccessible in 2010, and several additional sites, most of which contained pornography or material perceived to be anti-Islam, were blocked by the Telecommunication Authority at the MIA’s request. Oppositionist websites were accessible.
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. The MIA has sole authority to grant licenses to preachers; a number of members of the Islamist Adhaalath Party hold senior positions in the ministry. In May 2010, the MIA introduced new regulations under the 1994 Religious Unity Act that allow the ministry to oversee the curriculum for religious education in schools, create new criteria for preaching licenses for imams, and deport those who openly preach a faith other than Islam. In July, a man hanged himself after reportedly feeling victimized for being an atheist. Non-Muslim foreigners, including approximately 70,000 guest workers on long-term visas, are allowed to observe their religions only in private, which is difficult in practice. There were no reported limitations on academic freedom, but many scholars self-censor. Maldivians are palpably freer to discuss politically sensitive issues in public under the current administration.
The new constitution guarantees freedom of assembly, and several demonstrations were held in 2010. While police sometimes disperse peaceful protesters with excessive force, no such instances were reported during the year. There were no reports of harassment of nongovernmental organizations, whose numbers grew in 2010.
The new constitution and the 2008 Employment Act provide for a minimum wage and allow workers to form trade unions and to strike, though these rights are not guaranteed. In response to a series of strikes, the country’s first labor tribunal was established in December 2008 to enforce the Employment Act. In 2009, the Maldives joined the International Labour Organization. Foreign workers occasionally have trouble collecting wages from their employers.
The new constitution provides for an independent judiciary, and judges were sworn into the first Supreme Court and final court of appeals in 2008. Courts have subsequently shown signs of increased independence from the executive. To further separate the two branches, the president established the Judicial Services Commission in 2009, although concerns remain about its composition. 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. Revisions to the penal code remained under debate in the Majlis in 2010.
The new constitution bans arbitrary arrest, torture, and prolonged detention without adequate judicial review. It also requires compensation for those detained without legal justification. The current administration has initiated police reform, and established a parole board to recommend sentence reductions for unjustly detained inmates. However, progress on improving prison conditions has been slow, and abuses continue. In April 2010, 15 prisoners were injured in a riot at Maafushi Jail. In July, 236 Maafushi inmates sent a petition to the president requesting better prison conditions.
Women, who enjoy a 98 percent literacy rate, are increasingly entering the civil service and receiving pay equal to that of men, though opportunity is sometimes limited by traditional norms. Women hold few senior government positions, but there are five female members of parliament, and the president appointed several women to high-ranking posts in the cabinet and other commissions in 2009 and 2010. Unlike the old charter, the new constitution allows a woman to become president. International human rights groups have urged reform of severe legal punishments that primarily affect women, including the sentence of flogging for extramarital sex. In October 2010, a draft domestic violence bill—which offers a broad definition of domestic violence and provides for the establishment of a Family Protection Agency—received bipartisan support from the parliament and was under consideration at year’s end.