The high-profile case of a 15 year-old girl sentenced to flogging in the Maldives after confessing to having had consensual sex is the “tip of the iceberg” in terms of the country’s treatment of victims of sexual offences, Amnesty International’s South Asia Director Polly Truscott has said.
Following a nine day visit to the country, Truscot told Minivan News that other sexual abuse victims were believed to have had suffered similar treatment under the law as a result of systematic institutional failures.
“Right now, all departments charged with the girl’s welfare are finger pointing and passing the blame,” she said. “But we have met others incarcerated in the country in similar circumstances to this girl.”
“Tip of the iceberg”
Truscott said she had identified serious concerns during her visit as to how young girls and other victims of sexual assault were being treated by authorities.
Truscott raised particular concern over the case of the 15 year-old charged with fornication, after she reportedly admitted to authorities of having “consensual sex” with an unidentified man during investigations into her alleged sexual abuse by her stepfather.
“When this alleged crime was committed, Amnesty was approached by many people asking us to look into the matter. We believes she should not be punished for sexual offences. It is questionable if the girl was also aware as to what she was consenting to,” she said.
Truscott claimed that officials involved in the girl’s care – from the law enforcement team who questioned her, to child protection authorities – had “all failed” in their duties to protect the 15 year-old.
The girl’s case has garnered international attention over the last few months, with over two million people signing a petition on the Avaaz website pledging to target the Maldives’ lucrative tourism industry in order to pressure authorities to drop the charges against the 15 year-old and pursue wider legal reforms to prevent similar cases.
Deputy Tourism Minister Mohamed Maleeh Jamal last month slammed what he called the“dubious” motivations behind the petition, alleging the campaign to be “politically motivated”. He also noted that the Waheed administration had already appealed the case and also pledged to oversee legal reforms.
Truscott said the NGO also remained “disappointed” over a lack of progress by Maldivian authorities in addressing a lack of accountability in punishing the perpetrators of high-profile attacks on media personnel, as well as allegations of excessive police force.
Despite welcoming progress in areas such as allowing for greater media freedoms “over the last 10 years”, she yesterday (April 24) told Minivan News that the NGO continued to hold concerns over the state’s commitment to addressing several human rights issues.
At the conclusion her visit, Truscott said the NGO also held significant concerns regarding judicial independence, as well as wider institutional failures to protect rape victims.
“Enormous progress”: government
Following a meeting between Truscott and President Dr Mohamed Waheed on Wednesday, the government issued a press release stating: “Regional Director Prescott noted the enormous progress made by the Maldives in the fields of human rights, and freedom of assembly and speech.”
Truscott told Minivan News she had raised concerns during her meeting with President Waheed that not enough progress had been made to investigate allegations of “excessive force” by police officers against members of the public following the controversial transfer of power on February 7, 2012.
“I understand that a few cases have been brought forward by prosecutors, but after a year, this [amount of cases] is disappointing. I had also pressed upon the president the need to bring perpetrators to justice. There is important progress to be made here,” she said.
Addressing the government’s official statement on Amnesty’s findings, Truscott said the NGO believed progress had been made in some areas such as media freedom over the last 10 years.
However, she noted serious attacks over the last 12 months on media such as blogger Hillath Rasheed and reporter Ibrahim ‘Aswad’ Waheed. Both men underwent life-saving surgery after being the victims of separate violent attacks in the capital over the last 12 months.
Amnesty International also pointed to concerns over the murder of MP Dr Afrasheem Ali. Truscott said the country was yet to see any meaningful investigations into ensuring justice for the victims of the attacks.
The courts are currently hearing the cases of several suspects charged in connection to Dr Afrasheem’s murder. Suspects have also been questioned over Aswad’s attack.
However, suspects have yet to have been charged over the attack on blogger Hilath Rasheed in July 2012, when a group of alleged Islamic radicals slashed the throat of the blogger who had been campaigning for religious tolerance.
Rasheed narrowly survived the attack and has since fled the country.
“From having walked the streets here in Male’ I have seen [security] cameras about. But action seems to have been limited,” Truscott said of the case.
Legal reforms were another area of concern raised by Amnesty International following its Maldives visit. Particular attention was drawn to reviews for an amended Penal Code within the country that would allow for the prosecution of offences not presently accounted for.
While at the same time addressing the government’s stated pledges to review the use of punishments such as flogging, Truscott warned against what she called a “move backwards” over the Maldives’ commitments against the use of the death penalty.
“Obviously, Amnesty International is completely against the death penalty,” she said.
Truscott claimed that the recent drafting of any new bills outlining implementation for executions, even in practice, was deemed as a human rights violation. She said there was no research concluding that executing criminals served as an effective deterrent for serious crimes.
Truscott added that with the draft Penal Code also including provisions that would leave applying the death sentence to the discretion of an individual judge, the whole purpose of codifying laws would be undermined should the bill be passed.
She noted this was a particular concern when considering the recent findings of various international experts such as UN Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Judiciary, Gabriela Knaul over the politicised nature of the country’s judicial system.
“To leave Sharia law to the discretion of individual judges is something we believe would be a bad idea,” she added.
Truscott said that Amnesty International’s main purpose during its visit had been to meet with key state officials as well as other stakeholders.
She noted that while having met with senior officials such as the president and Gender Minister, the NGO had not been able to arrange discussions with Police Commissioner Abdulla Riyaz or Home Minister Dr Mohamed Jameel Ahmed during the visit.
Dr Jameel told Minivan News today that he had been busy at the time of Amnesty International’s request to meet, but had since requested his office to follow up and try and set up talks.
Police Spokesperson Chef Inspector Hassan Haneef was seeking clarification as to whether Commissioner Riyaz had received a request to meet the NGO at time of press.
In September last year, Home Minister Jameel criticised Amnesty International in local media for failing to seek comment from the government when compiling a previous report on the country entitled: “The other side of Paradise: A Human Rights Crisis in the Maldives”.
“They had not sought any comments from the Maldives government. I’m extremely disappointed that a group advocating for fairness and equal treatment had released a report based on just one side of the story,” Jameel told newspaper Haveeru at the time.
Meanwhile, just last month, Human Rights Ambassador of the President’s Office “Sandhaanu” Ahmed Ibrahim Didi accused Amnesty International of “fabricating stories about the human rights situation in the Maldives” and of releasing reports about the Maldives without conducting any studies.
Truscott’s comments were made as preliminary observations following her research visit to the Maldives that commenced April 16. The NGO has said it will be releasing an official statement on its findings later today.