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Freedom in the World 2004 - Maldives

Publisher Freedom House
Publication Date 18 December 2003
Cite as Freedom House, Freedom in the World 2004 - Maldives, 18 December 2003, available at: [accessed 26 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Political Rights: 6
Civil Liberties: 5
Status: Not Free
Population: 300,000
GNI/Capita: $2,090
Life Expectancy: 67
Religious Groups: Sunni Muslim
Ethnic Groups: South Indian, Sinhalese, Arab
Capital: Male


The Maldives's reputation as a tranquil island paradise was shaken in 2003, when unprecedented antigovernment civil unrest erupted in September following a violent altercation at a prison. Analysts believe that President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom is facing increased pressure both from a pro-reform opposition party and from young Maldivians, who desire greater political freedom. Nevertheless, Gayoom was chosen for a sixth term in an October presidential referendum in which 77 percent of the electorate participated.

Consisting of a 500-mile-long string of 26 atolls 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 815 years of rule by the ad-Din sultanate. The Maldives' first president, Amir Ibrahim Nasir, introduced a number of changes to the political system, abolishing the post of prime minister in 1975.

President Gayoom has held power since 1978, when he won his first term under the country's tightly controlled presidential referendum process. The most serious threat to Gayoom's survival came 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.

In September 2003, after an inmate was killed during a fight in the Maafushi prison, unrest broke out at the prison and riots engulfed the capital. Security forces reportedly opened fire on other prisoners, killing three more and wounding over a dozen. Meanwhile, protestors in the capital, Male, attacked government buildings, including the parliament, the election office, the high court, and two police stations, setting several on fire. In response, Gayoom ordered the arrest of a number of NSS personnel and promised to conduct an inquiry into the circumstances of the initial killing.

The most recent presidential referendum, held in October to confirm Gayoom as president, was approved by just over 90 percent of participating voters. After being sworn in for a record sixth presidential term in November, he promised to reform national institutions and to establish a human rights commission. However, a day later he sacked his attorney general and a cabinet minister, both of whom had supported reformers in their efforts to register an opposition political party.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Maldivians cannot change their head of government through elections. Under the 1968 constitution, the Majlis (parliament) chooses a single presidential nominee from among a list of candidates. The nominee is then approved or rejected by a national referendum held every five years. A 1998 constitutional amendment allowed citizens to declare their candidacies, but not campaign for the presidential nomination. The constitution grants the president broad executive powers and allows him to appoint 8 of the Majlis' 50 members (the remainder are directly elected) as well as the speaker and deputy speaker. Nevertheless, in recent years, the Majlis has rejected some governmental legislation and has held lively policy debates.

In addition to making arrests prior to the 1999 parliamentary elections, authorities also banned public campaign events, permitting only small meetings on private premises. Political parties are officially discouraged, and candidates for the Majlis run as individuals. Amnesty International reported that 42 people, including academics, intellectuals, businessmen, and three members of parliament, petitioned the Minister for Home Affairs in 2001 for permission to set up the Maldivian Democratic Party. The president decided against the petition, and several of the signatories have been subjected to harassment and periodic arrest.

The law allows authorities to shut newspapers and sanction journalists for articles containing unfounded criticism of the government. Moreover, regulations make editors responsible for the content of material they publish. Four writers for Sandhaanu, an Internet magazine, were arrested in early 2002, and after being held in detention and charged with defamation, three were sentenced to life imprisonment. In this environment, some journalists practice self-censorship, although less so than in the past. Today, newspapers are critical of government policies, and the state-run television station's news and public affairs programs discuss timely issues and criticize government performance. All broadcast media are government owned and operated.

Freedom of religion is 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. In 2002, four individuals were arrested for distributing Islamist and antigovernment literature, and three were sentenced to life imprisonment, according to the U.S. State Department Report on International Religious Freedom. Non-Muslim foreigners are allowed to practice their religion privately.There were no reported restrictions on academic freedom.

The government limits freedom of assembly and association, and it has in recent years imprisoned several dissidents under broadly drawn laws. The penal code bans speech or actions that could "arouse people against the government." A 1968 law prohibits speech considered inimical to Islam, libelous, or a threat to national security. The Maldives has no known nongovernmental human rights groups.

Workers lack the legal rights to form trade unions, stage strikes, or bargain collectively. In practice, no unions exist, although some workers have established informal associations that address labor issues. The Maldives has about 27,000 foreign workers out of a total workforce of 70,000 to 75,000. Most workers are in the informal (unorganized) sector, although some work in the country's high-end tourism industry, which provides 70 percent of foreign exchange revenues.

Because President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom can review High Court decisions and appoint and dismiss judges, "the judiciary is subject to executive influence," according to the U.S. State Department's 2002 human rights report. Civil law is generally used in civil and criminal cases, although it is subordinate to Sharia (Islamic law). The latter is used in matters not covered by civil law as well as in certain cases such as those involving divorce or adultery. Under Sharia, the testimony of two women is equal to that of one man, and men are favored in divorce and inheritance matters. Punishments such as flogging and banishment to a remote island, which are provided for under the country's interpretation of Sharia, are occasionally carried out.

In a positive move, the government amended the 1990 Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) in 1998 to place some limits on police detention of suspects under investigation. Judges, however, can still authorize suspects to be detained without trial, on a monthly basis, if authorities have not started legal proceedings within 22 days of the arrest. The NSS functions as the police, army, and intelligence services, and human rights groups allege that it acts with virtual impunity. Incidents of torture or other forms of ill-treatment of detainees held at police stations or prison facilities continue to be reported, according to Amnesty International.

The government has in recent years detained or kept several political prisoners under house arrest, and some have been sentenced to long prison terms after being convicted in trials in which they have been denied legal representation. After the September 2003 civil protests, authorities arbitrarily arrested more than 100 people, and Amnesty International alleged that over a dozen remained in detention at the end of the year. Most are held after expressing views critical of the government.

More women are entering the civil service, increasingly receiving equal pay to that of men for equal work. 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. 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.

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