Comment: MP Privileges Bill about building status, not state

On December 28, 2010, the Peoples’ Majlis passed Bill No 29/2010, the ‘Imthiyaz Bill’ or parliamentary privileges bill, among a host of others as members prepared to take their two month annual holiday from the Majlis floor.

The bill, which was submitted by Vilufushi MP Riyaz Rasheed, was passed with 44 ‘yes’ votes, 21 ‘no’ votes and 10 abstentions.

This is a substantial level of agreement in a parliament fiercely divided by party lines and plagued by frequent public displays of discord and disagreement on the floor which ends in cancellation of proceedings.

On December 15, 2010, prior to the passage of the privileges bill, the parliamentary Financial Committee submitted a report to the floor proposing to award themselves a “committee allowance” of Rf 20,000 (US$1550), increasing the already inflated MP salary of Rf 62,500 (US$4860) to Rf 82,500 (US$6420) per month.

Understandably, this caused public outrage which strangely appears to have taken some MPs by surprise.

The two different instances of personal privileges and remunerations are being sought by MPs at a time when the government is struggling to cope with an all-time high budget deficit, and being heavily criticised for making controversial cut-backs in civil service wages. These developments have lead to a considerable build up of public frustration, dissatisfaction and loss of confidence in the parliament.

On December 30, 2010, protesters gathered outside the parliament building demanding the resignation of MPs and the whole parliament, and ridiculed MPs for asking payment to “get out of bed”!

A few young people went so far as to call for a “Majlis Fund” and joined the protest with a cardboard donation box, raising funds for the allegedly destitute MPs.

Two days later on January 2, 2011, another public demonstration took place at Raalhugandu where protesters demanded MPs show accountability to the people and called for the reinstatement of civil servants’ wages and the scrapping of the proposed MP salary increment.

Citizen opinion

An open Facebook group entitled “Majlis membarunge musaara bodukurumaa dhekolhah” (“against MP salary increment”, sprang up virtually overnight and has attracted nearly 2000 members in just over a week.

As the momentum of the public protest gathered speed, a group of concerned citizens met at the social centre (MCSE) in Malé on the evening of January 8, 2011 to discuss and analyse the privileges bill.

Several lawyers and an economic analyst gave presentations on the issues arising from the bill. Two MPs, Mr Ahmed Nihan and Mr Ahmed Mahloof attended the meeting. They explained to the audience some of the difficulties conducting their work, including their obligation to follow the party line as well as the issue of getting insufficient time to read bills before voting.

Both MPs – who incidentally had voted in favour of the bill – said that they now supported those speaking out against the bill.

Nihan informed a member of the audience that he would not support the bill any more. This brings little comfort for citizens who find the contents of the privileges bill a parliamentary disgrace. The fact that an MP tried to justify voting for a bill he did not have time to read, further undermined any efforts for redemption.

On the evening of January 9, 2011, MNBC One aired a live panel discussion organised by three NGOs: Strength of Society, Madulu and the Maldivian Democracy Network.

The four panellists were practising lawyers Ali Hussain, Ahmed Abdulla Afeef and Shafaz Wajeeh, as well as economic expert Mr Ahmed Adheeb. The panel was moderated by prominent social advocate Salma Fikry.

Opening the discussion, Shafaz explained that the main purpose of the 400 year old principle of parliamentary privileges was to facilitate the unobstructed and independent freedom for MPs to perform their duties and functions as MPs.

However, nearly 75 percent of the “privileges” in the Maldivian MPs privileges bill, the panel argued, went beyond the remit of the principle of parliamentary privilege. In fact, it appears that the elected MPs of the new Maldivian democracy have attempted to redefine the whole concept of parliamentary privilege, as practiced in established democracies around the world. Privilege in the context of parliamentary practice had become distorted to personal status building.

Issues and concerns

Critics of the bill raised several concerns. They argued that it contravened citizens’ basic rights as provided in the constitution, contravened the constitution and existing laws and completely disregarded the serious economic situation of the country.

If ratified, they argued that this bill could not be implemented because it falls foul of many existing laws of the country.

The MP privileges bill gives powers to the Speaker of the Majlis to impose jurisdiction over independent statutory bodies, the judiciary as well as individual citizens.

According to Article 5 of the privileges bill, outlining “actions which impede privileges”, the penalties for non-compliance by any individual or institution range from fines between Rf1,000 to Rf100,000 as well as removal from employment or a jail term of 1-2 years. Several other articles of the bill set out similar punishments for non-compliance or “criminal misconduct” as perceived within the bill.

Of the 39 articles in the bill, 30 percent include non-compliance penalties directed outside the realm of the Majlis.

Legal experts say that the harshest punishment for non-compliance with parliamentary privilege in a developed democracy is up to six months in jail. In the fledgling democracy of the Maldives, this has reached a new height.

Moreover, they point out that the current bill gives the Speaker of the Majlis powers to remove from office senior officials of the Police, members of the Judiciary, the Prosecutor General and other such heads of statutory institutions. This undermines the concept of “separation of powers”.

Supported by Article 102 of the Constitution, Article 7(a) of the MP privileges bill stipulates that all financial remuneration including MPs own salaries will be decided by the parliament, meaning by themselves.

A vocal critic of the privileges bill,lawyer Ali Hussain, argued that MP salaries should be decided through a public referendum, even if this requires a constitutional amendment. This is perhaps a valid argument given the situation where the constitution is facilitating the highest degree of conflict of interest by requiring MPs to set their own wages. One could argue that the constitution is setting a precedent for MPs to abuse their powers. And they appear to have done just that in the privileges bill.

Some “privileges”:

  • Article 7 (b) of the privileges bill requires the provision of medical insurance for MPs, their spouses, any children under 18 and parents to receive an insurance package which includes services available in the Maldives as well as any SAARC or ASEAN country.
  • Article 7 (c) states that every MP and spouse must be issued a diplomatic passport.
  • Article 7 (f) states that each MP should be entitled to import one duty free car during each term in office although should such a car be sold or passed on to another person, duty should be paid.
  • Article 7 (g) explains that if a “natural incident or any other incident” prevents the use of such a vehicle, the importation of a replacement would be permitted.
  • Article 8 (a-c) provides pension entitlements of 30 percent of the salary for serving one term in office, 45 percent for 2 terms and 60 percent for 3 terms.
  • Article 8 (e) states that any person who has served as an MP should receive medical insurance (presumably for life)
  • Article 8 (f) requires an official passport to be issued to any person who has served as an MP and article 8 (g) states that such person(s) must receive “honourable status” and should be addressed as the “honourable member for” whatever constituency seat held at the time of departure from the parliament.
  • Article 9 requires MNDF to provide bodyguards if any MP requests for protection at any time.
  • Under article 16 (c-d), MPs cannot be searched (by law enforcement authorities) in a public place unless “absolutely certain without suspicion” of an offence.

Critics argue that this is a non-sequitur highly illogical and outside of legal reasoning which would be impossible to implement.

What next?

As more and more citizens come to understand the distorted, pervasive and impossible remit of Bill No 29/2010, the MP Privileges Bill, they are also beginning to understand just how unfit for public office their MPs really are.

While most citizens neither have the time nor the inclination to speak out against what they see as meaningless political shenanigans, MP accountability can only come with active citizen participation and protest. As the country struggles to get to grips with its new democratic constitution, its MPs are busily seeking to ensure their collective and personal interests at the expense of the ordinary citizen and the financial health of the nation.

While the job of MPs is state building, their preoccupation is personal status building. The MP privileges bill has the capacity to undermine democracy, respect for citizens’ rights and the rule of law in the Maldives, unless its citizens act to make the parliament accountable.

On January 3, 2011, the parliament sent the MP privileges bill to the President for ratification. As they await the President’s decision, concerned citizens are putting their faith in their elected leader’s capacity and willingness to listen to the people and return this bill to parliament, as wholly unfit for ratification given its current ludicrous content.

Read the Imthiyaz bill (Dhivehi)

How the MPs voted (English)

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Comment: ‘geveshi aniyaa ge’ bill lifts social taboo on domestic violence

In Mauritania in North Africa, force-feeding young girls is a cultural practice under the socially-held belief that fat women are beautiful, desirable and a valuable asset, increasing the social status of the whole family.

Girls as young as five are forced to eat to gain weight, by means that can only be described as torture. Some die in the process.

In Mauritania, this cultural ‘norm’ is practiced openly and is accepted as the way they do things. In the Maldives too, we have cultural ‘norms’ which are accepted as the way we do things.

Ignoring and hiding physical and sexual abuse of women and children within the family has been the way we had handled this social problem in the past. The issue of violence within the home or domestic violence, has been a taboo subject so hidden that it did not even have a name, until now.

Today, we can actually call it something : geveshi aniyaa.

The Domestic Violence Bill submitted to the Peoples’ Majlis today by MP Rozaina Adam has a Dhivehi name, the Geveshi Aniyaa ge Bill, which formally lifts the final taboo against domestic violence, complete with a reference for everyone to use.

Now we know what it is, in name and deed. Now we can talk about it freely and be heard.

At least we think so.

Addressing social taboos can be difficult in any society, regardless of the human cost. Resistance to addressing domestic violence has been observed for many years in the Maldives.

On March 8 2002, the Minister of Women’s Affairs and Social Security addressed the occasion of the International Women’s Day, where she said :

“If we want to make our environment safe, free and conducive for all individuals, we have to start openly talking about the actions of perpetrators of violence… Issues of violence must be viewed as societal concerns rather than a private issue, and it must be seen as the responsibility of all to work towards eliminating violence from our society.”

Then, of course, we did not have a word for the issue. Nor were we ‘all’ prepared to take responsibility for it.
It was the way we did things.

But much has happened since then.

Supported by various UN agencies in the Maldives, the issue of domestic violence kept being looked into by those who were concerned about the issue.

Several studies were conducted and some of the findings were so disturbing that these were never made public. How can people ill-prepared to talk about something, face up to the reality of it?

However, several dedicated people kept chipping at the thick wall of the social taboo of domestic violence and we can say that today, the wall has finally fallen, thanks to all those who persevered.

In 2007, a major piece of research was conducted by the then Ministry of Gender and Family, entitled The Maldives Study on Women’s Health and Life Experiences.

This study revealed that one in three women between the age of 15-49 had experienced physical and/or sexual violence, including childhood sexual abuse at some point in their lives. The study also revealed that one in five women in the same age group, had reported experiencing violence from an intimate partner. These findings showed the extent of the problem of violence within Maldivian homes.

The representatives of the Maldivian people in the People’s Majlis today referred to the Geveshi Aniyaa ge Bill, and repeatedly reminded those listening that geveshi aniyaa exists in the Maldives, that it must not stay hidden, that it is a problem that has to be addressed through the law.

This historic bill is the first of its kind in the country. It brings a ray of hope of justice to the many women and families affected by domestic violence in this country.

When it comes to domestic violence, the way we do things has to change. It is no longer acceptable to hide this social ill.

Today’s bill promises to be the first step to protecting and providing justice for a large number of Maldivian women and children.

Today the representatives of the Maldivian people will vote to accept this bill to the Majlis and send it for approval by a special committee. As we watch the process unfold, we must not forget that the people who will most benefit from this bill are those least able to fight for the protection and justice this bill can potentially provide them.

For this reason, every voting member of the Majlis has a responsibility to support this important piece of legislation to secure justice that a large number of women and children of this country have long awaited.

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to [email protected]


Comment: A national emergency

Minivan News on Sunday: a 13 year old girl is being abused by her own father.

Another child abuse story. Another day. Did I notice anyone raise an eyebrow?

The children of this country are being sexually assaulted and abused by people they know and trust. This is the only conclusion that can be drawn from the regular appearance of news articles and stories about the abuse of children in our communities.

This happens all the time. It is becoming quite ‘normal’ now. In fact, there is evidence to support this.

The Maldives Study on Women’s Health and Life Experiences published in 2007 by the then Ministry of Gender and Family found that “girl child sexual abuse was most often a repeated form of abuse rather than a once off occurrence”.

The study also found that “male family members (other than fathers and step-fathers) and… male acquaintances were identified as the most common perpetrators of girl child sexual abuse”.

Most damningly, the study found that “overall, one in three women aged 15-49 reported experiencing physical and/or sexual violence at some point in their lives, including childhood sexual abuse”.

Another story, a different day.

Hundreds of liquor licenses allow the expatriate community to indulge themselves in the supposed pleasures of alcohol. A steadily increasing community of foreign workers have been indulging in such pleasures in our homes and communities for decades, quite legally.

The People’s Majlis passes a bill which attempts to control the distribution and consumption of alcohol. It would also stop the consumption of alcohol in our homes, which are rented by expatriates who have these liquor licenses.

Uproar ensues following the passage of the bill. Our airwaves are filled with news of protests and the constant reportage makes the whole issue akin to a national emergency. The horror of such a move by the government!

A group of allegedly devout men and women threaten to destabilise the country by toppling the government if the bill were to come into force. Communities are outraged and will not allow this to happen because alcohol is ‘haraam’.

Meanwhile, the lives of unknown numbers of vulnerable children continue being quietly destroyed behind closed doors, often by the very people who are responsible for their welfare and protection.

The community does not protest. It seems to be a non-issue for them. They do not condemn such behaviour or threaten to overthrow the government in fits of outrage. In fact, the community is silent.

The brutal treatment of children is clearly not a concern in this society. But the sale of alcohol to non-muslims sends our communities and media into uncontrollable convulsions.

What does this say about our society? What does this say about our priorities?

When the controlled sale of alcohol to non-muslims becomes a bigger issue than the destruction of our childrens’ futures due to sexual abuse and violence, is it not time to reflect on the madness and incoherence of the value system of this society?

Let us not look around for someone to blame. Let us consider and reflect upon our own failure to address this silent national emergency.

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to [email protected]