The Foreign Ministry does not support open debates on issues raised by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, namely the provision for flogging as a punishment for extra-marital intercourse and the requirement that all Maldivians be Muslims.
“What’s there to discuss about flogging?” Minister of Foreign Affairs Ahmed Naseem was reported as saying in newspaper Haveeru. “There is nothing to debate about in a matter clearly stated in the religion of Islam. No one can argue with God.”
Speaking to Minivan News, Naseem confirmed his statement but did not wish to comment further.
Pillay said flogging was “a form of punishment that is cruel and demeaning to women” and observed that in her travels in Islamic countries “apart from the Maldives and one other country that practices stoning, flogging is not a practice that is condoned.”
She further claimed that the Maldives is signatory to international treaties that are legally-binding obligations, “and such a practice conflicts with these obligations undertaken by the Maldives.” She said human rights conforms with Islam.
Naseem today advised Minivan News that the Maldives had submitted certain reservations to said conventions, including articles on gender equality and freedom of religion, and on these points the country could not be held legally accountable by an international body.
Pillay also called for amendments to the constitutional provision mandating subscription to Islam.
Since her press conference on Thursday, November 24, protestors bearing slogans “Ban UN,” “Flog Pillay” and “Defend Islam” have demanded apologies from Pillay and Parliament, and called for Pillay to be prosecuted in the Maldives for her comments about the national constitution.
Islamic Minister Dr Abdul Majeed Abdul Bari opposed Pillay’s critiques. Haveeru reports he also backed political parties including the opposition Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) and Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), and several MPs and religious groups who also condemned the UN human rights chief’s comments.
In discussions with President Mohamed Nasheed, ministers and the judiciary, Pillay advised “permanent changes in the law [to] engineer a practical moratorium on flogging.”
NGO network Civil Society Coalition later announced a nation-wide mass protest on December 23 against the government’s alleged efforts to securalise the country.
Speaking with Minivan News today, President’s Press Secretary Mohamed Zuhair said he believed Pillay’s message focused more on the degrading implications of flogging women than on its portrayal of Islam. “Pillay called for a debate on punishment and how it is administered – these are two separate debates,” he said, distinguishing between Islam and the State.
Zuhair also suggested that the court procedure used to sentence individuals accused of extra-marital fornication to flogging was incomplete.
In response to Pillay’s urging for a debate “to open up the benefits of the constitution to all and to remove that discriminatory provision [requiring every citizen be a Muslim],” Zuhair said “The government’s religious policy is based upon the insights of religious scholars. The government has not made available the means for anyone to defy or ridicule our religion, and it will not do so.”
According to Zuhair, the involvement of religious scholars in the nation’s religious policies is a distinguishing feature of ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP).
“These are the free times for religious scholars to speak their minds and not be subscribed into one state-sponsored brand of Islam,” he said.
When asked to relate his statement to the Islamic Ministry’s recent censorship of Ismail Hilath Rasheed’s blog, Zuhair said the matter belonged to the Majlis.
“The government cannot be held accountable for the contents of a constitution drawn up by the peoples’ Majlis. Any issues with the constitution will be addressed there.”
Zuhair emphasised that the government supports freedom of expression and assembly to the widest extent provided by the constitution, but he reiterated that the government would adhere to policies advocated by religious scholars as necessary.
Local media in the Maldives widely took Pillay’s remarks on the constitution out of context by reporting only half her sentence.
Miadhu Editor Gabbe Latheef had asked Pillay during Thursday’s press conference, “If you believe we have a Constitution, why are you speaking against our Constitution?” Her reply, “I don’t believe you have a Constitution, you have a constitution. The constitution conforms in many respects to universally respected human rights. Let me assure you that these human rights conform with Islam,” was partially reported by local media as, “I don’t believe you have a Constitution.”
When asked about the impact of the flawed reports on the protests, Zuhair said it suggested the mistake was intentional and demonstrated “a strong political bias”.
“Most media is tied to the opposition parties which were defeated in first round of the election. They are tied by a common rope in that they all include leaders of the formerly-ruling Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP). MDP doesn’t have a supportive media outlet, even in the state media. Any establishment or institution here with 50 or more staff will have some defeated and bitter people who don’t believe in the government,” he surmised.