The Maldives’ government will on Thursday defend its human rights record to the UN Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) in Geneva.
The delegation will be headed by Home Minister Dr Mohamed Jameel, former Justice Minister under the 30 year rule of President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and co-author of a pamphlet entitled ‘President Nasheed’s devious plot to destroy the Islamic faith of Maldivians’, published in January 2012 while in opposition.
Dr Jameel will be accompanied by State Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dunya Maumoon – Gayoom’s daughter – as well as the Maldives’ Permanent Representative in Geneva, Iruthisham Adam, Counsellor Marc Limon (formerly of PR firm Hill & Knowlton), Third Secretary Muruthala Moosa, and four interns: Marie Gabrielle Glock, Katherine Hamilton, Jessi Challis and Rinaldo Foncesca.
The UNHRC has already identified key issues to be taken up with the Maldives, concerning its International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) commitments. A document outlining these issues – drawn from the country’s Universal Periodic Review (with submissions from government, HRCM and civil society), was published in August 2011 – prior to the controversial change of government and fresh allegations of police brutality and attacks on journalists.
Issues identified in the 2011 document include counterterrorism measures, commitment to reducing discrimination (including on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, and religion), and prohibition of torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment.
One specific issue identified was the move in parliament to make the enforcement of the death penalty mandatory where such a verdict is upheld by the Supreme Court, which would place the Maldives in breach of its ICCPR commitments.
Dr Jameel last week stated he was willing to implement death penalty in his capacity as Home Minister. Supreme Court Chief Justice Ahmed Faiz also said he was willing to enforce such verdicts, as the Maldives struggles to come to terms with a sudden wave of violent crime and murder this year.
The ICCPR document asks whether prison personnel responsible for the death of Evan Naseem – a watershed moment in Maldivian political history that sparked democratic reform – had been investigated, and faced justice.
The document challenges the Maldives’ commitment to combating domestic violence and sexual assault in general: “According to information before the Committee, in the absence of a confession, a man can only be convicted of rape if there are two male or four female witnesses to the act. How does this comply with the Covenant?”
It also asks the Maldives to clarify its position on corporal punishment, whereby flogging sentences are routinely given for offences under Islamic sharia. The topic is sensitive in the Maldives, with UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay widely condemned in the Maldives following her call in parliament for a moratorium on the flogging of women as punishment for extramarital sex.
The UN document – produced in August 2011 – also calls on the government to clarify matters surrounding the nine-day detention without charge of MP Abdulla Yameen, then “leader of the opposition”, and challenges the government on issues relating to prison conditions, overcrowding, and lack of a legal aid scheme.
The document calls for the government to explain the country’s treatment of migrant workers, and in particular, “explain the measures being taken to deal with the trafficking of individuals from Bangladesh and India, who are mainly trafficked into the State party for labour and commercial sex exploitation.”
The document also requests the Maldives justify its reservation to article 18 of the ICCPR concerning freedom of religion, specifically the practice of religions other than Sunni Islam by the country’s largest population of foreign nationals.
It also calls on the Maldivian government to respond to allegations of “widespread harassment and intimidation” of journalists.
On June 4, well-known blogger and journalist Ismail ‘Hilath’ Rasheed had his throat cut in what appeared to be the first targeted assassination attempt of a media figure in the Maldives. Rasheed, who had been attacked multiple times prior to the attempt on his life, survived, and has since fled the country. Rasheed claimed he was attacked by radicalised gang members who were operating with the consent of “senior political and religious figures.”
The government of the Maldives responded to the list of issues earlier this month, ahead of its session with the committee later in July.
It acknowledged “efficiency and effectiveness” challenges with the local Human Rights Commission (HRCM).
“Notwithstanding, the government believes that HRCM already possesses necessary human and financial resources. It is worth noting that at a time of severe
economic difficulties in the Maldives, the HRCM has a budget of 22 million rufiyaa ($1.4 million – an extremely large sum considering the small economy and small population of the Maldives) and a staff of over 50 officials,” the response noted.
The Maldives had made considerable progress on issues of gender discrimination, the government stated, and towards addressing domestic violence with the introduction of a relevant bill.
On the subject of discrimination based on sexual preference, the Maldives had no specific law banning homosexuality, the government noted, however “article 10 of the Constitution of the Maldives states that the religion of the State of Maldives is Islam and Islam shall be the one of the basis of all the laws of the Maldives. Therefore, no law contrary to any tenet of Islam shall be enacted in the Maldives.”
“This excludes the possibility of enacting any law protecting the rights of persons based on their sexual orientation,” the government stated, adding that 23 people had been formally charged for homosexuality between 2007-2011.
With regard to article 18 on the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, “the reservation states that the application of the principles set out in article 18 will be without prejudice to the Constitution of the Maldives,” the government stated.
“Chapter II of the Constitution on fundamental rights and freedoms does not include, among the rights guaranteed, freedom of thought, conscience and religion.”
Regarding concerns over the introduction of the death penalty, the government noted that the referred bill was a proposed amendment to the Clemency Act “which will make performing the death penalty mandatory in the event it was upheld by the Supreme Court.
“The amendment is proposed in an effort to stop crimes of murder and violence. The death toll in the Maldives has increased recently to a level of great concern and it is in the view that if death penalty or capital punishment is enforced it would reduce crime rate,” the government stated.
While corporal punishment was not explicitly prescribed in the penal code, it was administered for “certain offences prescribed in Sharia.”
“The government is, however, looking at ways to ensure that the punishment is not applied in a discriminatory manner. At present, women are far more likely to be publicly flogged than men – mostly because of outdated court procedures such as reliance on confessions rather than forensic evidence – though as noted above this is changing,” the government stated.
Yameen’s detention on the Presidential retreat at Aarah by the government of President Mohamed Nasheed “acted in contravention of the prescribed 24 hour rule and did not follow due process in dealing with political opponents on a number of occasions,” the government stated.
“Mr Yameen Abdul Gayoom‟s arrest and detention – by the police on an isolated island [Aarah] without access to a lawyer or to his family, were arbitrary and unlawful,” the government said.
On human trafficking, the government outlined measures it was taking to address international concerns and provide support for victims, including “a 24/7 toll-free help line to be announced shortly.”
“Language training is to be provided for the staff of Department of Immigration and Emigration and Labour Relations Authority (LRA) or translators are to be placed at borders to assist in identification of victims and providing necessary assistance to the victims,” the government stated. The country recently appeared on the US State Department’s Tier 2 Watch List for Human Trafficking for the third year running.
The government denied harassment and intimidation of journalists. Instead, “media freedom has remained steady with the constitution protecting freedom of expression but also restricting freedom of speech contrary to the tenets of Islam.”
While the government blocked websites controversial to Islam, ”the government is working to ensure the media is free to tackle any subject. It was by the current administration of President Dr Waheed Hassan who took office in February 2012 that Maldives National Broadcasting Corporation was handed over to the Parliament-created Maldives Broadcasting Corporation that had ended executive control of the media.”
A number of NGOs, including Redress, the Helios Life Association, the International Disability Alliance (IDA) and social services veteran and former State Health Minister Mariya Ali have submitted reports and evidence to the panel, which is to be webcast live.
Minivan News will review these submissions this week ahead of the Maldives’ appearance in Geneva.