Additional reporting by Neil Merrett
Petition website Avaaz.org has launched a campaign targeting the reputation of the tourism industry in protest over the sentencing of a 15 year-old rape victim to 100 lashes for the offence of fornication.
“It’s hard to believe, but a 15-year-old rape survivor has been sentenced to be whipped 100 times by a court in the Maldives! Let’s put an end to this lunacy by hitting the government where it hurts: their tourism industry,” declared the site.
The Avaaz community, consisting of over 20 million members in 194 countries, was notified of the petition yesterday (March 20). By Thursday morning, the petition had been shared more than 23,000 times just across Facebook. By midday Friday, more than half a million people had signed the petition.
“Tourism is the big earner for the Maldives elite, including government ministers. With a million-strong petition to President Waheed, we’ll threaten the islands’ reputation through hard-hitting ads in travel magazines and online until he abolishes this outrageous law,” the site declares.
“The girl’s stepfather raped her for years and then murdered the baby she bore. Now the court is punishing her for “sex outside marriage”. President Waheed of the Maldives is already feeling global pressure on this, but we can force him to help save this girl and change the law to spare other victims this fate. This is how we’re winning the War on Women – by standing up every time an outrage like this happens,” it stated.
Former Secretary General of the Maldives Association of Tourism Industry (MATI), Mohamed Ibrahim ‘Sim’, told Minivan News that he doubted a tourism boycott would “change the government’s position on religious issues.”
“The religious faction [in the government] is stronger than ever before. It will not affect government policy in any way – it will just attract negative publicity,” he said.
“I don’t think [President] Waheed has categorically stated he is against religious sentencing. He has maintained a position of non-interference.”
Sim observed that while the case of the 15 year-old had led to a collision of the country’s two very separate worlds – that of the hedonistic Western resort and the far more conservative reality of the country as experienced by Maldivians – “exclusive resorts will still be exclusive”.
“[Tourists] have no idea what is going on in the real Maldives and they probably don’t want to know,” he said. “They come here for a relaxing, stress-free holiday.”
He noted that while public sentiment tended to focus on reconciling tourism with the haraam (prohibited under Islam) supply of alcohol, “in Islam it is also a sin to engage in sexual activity outside of marriage”.
Resorts, he noted, were not yet asking guests to provide marriage certificates.
One argument raised by the more “entrenched” elements of the tourism industry against the development of mid-market tourism on local islands, he added, was a fear that tourists were vulnerable to a backlash against foreigners.
“That has been a case made against homestays and guest houses,” he noted.
Tourism Minister Ahmed Adheeb was not responding to calls at time of press.
However President’s Office Spokesperson Masood Imad expressed hope that punishments such as flogging would be debated.
“I’m sure when we debate [punishing suspects for fornication with lashes], we will find an acceptable solution for all parties,” he said.
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, Masood noted that the Maldives had a tradition of turning away from practices such as the death sentence and forms of corporal punishment.
According to Masood, punishments such as removing the hand of a suspect in the case of theft had not been used since back in the 1960’s.
He 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.
However, Masood said 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.
“Reforms must be undertaken, but this must be done gradually considering we are dealing with a process embedded in society,” he said. “A certain amount of compromise may be needed.”
Masood said the state was committed to preventing the minor from facing her sentence, while also looking at the potential for reversing the use of flogging as a traditional punishment.
“The little girl will not be flogged for another two years, so we must look at what can be done [in the meantime],” he said.
Chinese boycott call
The Avaaz call for pressure on the tourism industry follows calls for a Chinese tourism boycott of the Maldives that exploded across Chinese social media networks earlier in March.
Dismissed Chinese employees of the Beach House Iruveli resort – formerly Waldorf Astoria – posted allegations on the Chinese forum Tianya that guests from the country were receiving inferior treatment to Europeans, despite paying the same prices.
The staff alleged that this discrimination extended to removing kettles from the rooms of Chinese guests, to prevent them making instant noodles in their rooms and thereby forcing them into the resort’s restaurants.
The resort denied the claims, stating that it had “removed damaged kettles from rooms as part of routine maintenance due to the fact that these kettles were damaged by guests by cooking food.”
The 15 year-old from the island of Feydhoo in Shaviyani Atoll appeared in the Juvenile Court on February 26 and was convicted for premarital sex, and sentenced to 100 lashes and eight months of house arrest.
The charges were forwarded by the Prosecutor General’s Office during a separate investigation following the discovery of a dead baby buried in the outdoor shower area of her home.
Her stepfather was later charged with child sexual abuse, possession of pornographic materials and committing premeditated murder. Her mother was charged with concealing a crime and failing to report child sexual abuse to the authorities.
However during the investigation, the girl confessed to a separate incident of premarital sex, which was separately investigated by police.
In the wake of international censure and the launch of its bid for re-election to the Vice Presidency of the UN Human Rights Council – on a platform of women, child and disabled rights – the government expressed its concern over the sentencing and pledged to support the victim’s legal appeal, and announced the formation of a committee to review existing child protection mechanisms.
“As concerned global citizens, we welcome your government’s intervention in the case of the 15-year-old rape victim, but we call on you to do more to protect vulnerable women and children,” read the Avaaz petition to President Waheed.
“Real justice will only be delivered when you end the practice of flogging in the Maldives, and change the law so that it better protects the victims of rape and sexual abuse,” it added.
Sources on Feydhoo meanwhile told Minivan News that the islanders had been raising concerns about the girl’s alleged abuse since 2009, claiming that she had been victimised not only by her stepfather but reportedly by an unknown number of unidentified men on the island.
The island council said that the victim’s unwillingness to tell the authorities of her alleged abuse had meant she was kept with her mother and stepfather even after her pregnancy was first discovered.
Island Councillor Ibrahim Naushaad told Minivan News that upon discovering the child was pregnant, police and the Gender Ministry had failed to remove the girl to a shelter.
“The police and Gender Ministry didn’t take responsibility or provide counselling to the girl,” he said. “The police and ministry have investigated, but we don’t know what she had said to them.”
“The Gender Minister had asked if they can send her back to the island, but I have explained that her father is severely disabled and is unable to look after her,” Naushaad said.
“If they send her back here, the same thing could happen again.”