The government has appointed Aishath Bisham as Attorney General (AG) to replace Azima Shukoor, who has taken the role of Minister of Gender, Family and Human Rights to oversee legal reforms previously proposed by the government.
President’s Office Media Secretary Masood Imad confirmed that the government had decided to transfer Shukoor as part of commitments to potentially end the use of flogging as a punishment for sexual offences – a practice it previously alleged serves to punish victims of rape and abuse in some cases.
Bisham’s appointment as AG comes as an Avaaz.org petition calling for a moratorium on flogging and better laws to protect women and girls in the Maldives reached more than two million signatures – more than twice the number of tourists who visit the country each year.
The campaign stems from concerns over the Juvenile Court’s sentencing of a 15 year-old girl to be flogged after she confessed to authorities of having consensual sex with an unknown man during investigations into a separate case of abuse. The abuse was allegedly carried out by her stepfather.
Sources on Feydhoo in Shaviyani Atoll, where the 15 year-old girl originates from, last month told Minivan News that concerns had been raised by islanders since 2009 that the minor had allegedly been the victim of sexual abuse not just by her stepfather, but by a number of other unidentified men on the island.
During her time in the Attorney General (AG’s) Office, Azima Shukoor appealed the court’s decision regarding the minor’s sentence. Meanwhile, international pressure has continued to mount on the government to review the charges against the girl and push for reforms of how sexual offences are dealt with by the local court system.
President Dr Mohamed Waheed’s government has previously criticised the sentence, but warned this week that any form of boycott such as those proposed by Azaaz would serve to setback to the economic opportunities and rights we are all striving to uphold for women, girls and the hardworking Maldivian people in general.”
In a letter published on Minivan News on Saturday (April 6), Avaaz.org Executive Director Ricken Patel insisted that the organisation had not called for a outright tourism boycott.
“What we do stand ready to do, however, is to inform tourists about what action is and isn’t being taken by the Maldives government to resolve this issue and change the law, and to identify those MPs and resort owners who are using their influence to push for positive change – and those who are not,” Patel said.
“Around the world people are interested (and have a right to know) what kind of systems they’re supporting with their tourism dollars, and to make their holiday decisions accordingly,” he added.
The President’s Office has previously expressed hope that punishments such as flogging would be debated by relevant authorities to try and find an amicable solution to the problem.
The Maldives Constitution does not allow any law that contradicts the tenets of Islam, with the criminal charge of fornication outlined under Islamic Sharia.
However, President’s Office Spokesperson Masood previously noted that the Maldives had a tradition of turning away from practices such as the death sentence and various forms corporal punishment that form part of Sharia law.
He said that punishments such as removing the hand of a suspect in the case of theft had not been used since back in the 1960′s. Masood maintained that there was a history of reviewing the country’s relationship with Sharia law in the past and that a similar process could be had with the debate about flogging.
He concluded that all authorities involved in proposed legal reforms would have to tread “a very fine line” in order to tackle long standing “traditions” and beliefs in the country.
A senior legal expert with experience of working under both the present and former governments has told Minivan News that that while the Maldives Constitution requires that laws in the country do not contradict Islamic Sharia, there were ways of avoiding prosecuting suspects on charges of fornication.
“There are many Islamic legal interpretations that place several conditions to fulfill before a prosecution on fornication be brought forward. Some scholars even go further and argue that hudood offences cannot be practiced in the legal justice systems at the current time,” claimed the legal source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“Their argument is that Islamic Sharia is a way of life and you cannot pick and choose which areas you need to implement. Basically, you cannot implement Islamic criminal justice system in its original form when Islamic commercial system or Islamic governance is not observed.”
Despite his government’s stance on flogging, President Waheed’s Gaumee Ithihaad Party (GIP) has recently declared itself part of a coalition with the religious conservative Adhaalath Party (AP), which has publicly endorsed the 15 year-old’s flogging sentence, stating that she“deserves the punishment” as outlined under Islamic Sharia.
The Adhaalath party, members of which largely dominate the Maldives’ Ministry of Islamic Affairs, stated that the sentence of flogging had not been passed against the minor for being sexually abused by her stepfather, but rather for the consensual sex which she had confessed to having to authorities.