“A Human Rights Crisis in the Maldives”: Amnesty International

Amnesty International has today released a report titled “The Other side of Paradise: A Human Rights Crisis in the Maldives”, chronicling human rights abuses in the country since the transfer of presidential power on February 7.

“Without an end to – and accountability for – these human rights violations, any attempt at political reconciliation in the Maldives will be meaningless,” said Amnesty’s researcher in the Maldives, Abbas Faiz.

Amnesty said that several of its human rights recommendations are reflected in the Commission of National Inquiry’s (CNI) report which was released on August 30.

The report details a number of incidents of police brutality on February 8, including attacks on Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) MPs Eva Abdulla and Mariya Didi.

“The overall objective of these violent attacks has been to silence peaceful government critics and stifle public debate about the current political situation,” said the report.

“Based on Amnesty International’s interviews with survivors of these violent attacks, it appears that many were targeted by security forces because they were MDP ministers, parliamentarians or supporters,” it read.

The report recommended that the Maldivian government “ensure prompt, independent, impartial and effective investigations into allegations of violence by officials.”

“Those suspected of offences involving such violations, irrespective of rank or status, must be prosecuted in proceedings which meet international standards of fairness.”

It also urged the government to “remove any bias in the police force, so they act as officers of law without prejudice, and do not take sides politically.”

Tension between the police has continued unabated since the release of the CNI report, with continued MDP demonstrations being met with large numbers of arrests.

The police service last week confirmed that they would be arresting people for using the term ‘baghee’ (a Dhivehi word meaning a traitor who brought about or participated in a coup).

The report is based largely on the testimony of individuals interviews conducted during a three week Amnesty visit in February and early March this year.

Commissioner of Police  Abdulla Riyaz, who was unavailable for comment at the time of press, told Minivan News in April that he had been disappointed by Amnesty’s failure to ask the police for its comments before releasing a report based on its findings.

“I don’t see that there has been any investigations done, none of our officers was questioned, interviewed – neither by them nor by the Police Integrity Commission (PIC), nor by the Human Rights Commission (HRCM). I don’t think that’s fair,” said Riyaz.

Strong pressure on weak institutions

As well as concluding that President Mohamed Nasheed was not removed from office unconstitutionally, the CNI report acknowledged that his resignation was accompanied by acts of police brutality which it said must be investigated.

“With respect to the administration of justice, in particular concerning allegations of police brutality and acts of intimidation, there is an urgent need for investigations to proceed and to be brought to public knowledge with perpetrators held to account and appropriately sanctioned,” read the report.

Shortly after the report’s release, the Home Minister Dr Mohamed Jameel Ahmed told a press conference that the government did not intend to take action against anyone other than the former President in relation to the CNI’s conclusions.

Jameel stated the responsibility for the investigation of police misconduct would fall upon the Police Integrity Commission (PIC).

This has prompted renewed focus on the apparent weakness of such independent institutions in the Maldives.

“One of the reasons for the 7 February and the associated crisis is weak institutions, and the democratic institutions in Maldives must shoulder at least some of the blame for not being pro-active enough in working to address urgent issues,” said Aiman Rasheed of local NGO Transparency Maldives.

“Providing room for institutions to grow organically, and address institutional issues in an environment free from fear and intimidation from the political overlords is more important for Maldives at the moment,” Aiman continued.

“The independent institutions need to step up their game by standing for and protecting the values for which they were constituted,” he said.

Following Jameels announcement, Chair of the PIC Shahinda Ismail said that she was “very sceptical of the burden we will have to carry”, citing concerns over the lack of clarity in the CNI report and loopholes which prevent the implementation of its recommendations.

Shahinda alleged that certain clauses in the Police Act had already resulted in the Home Minister ignoring recommendations forwarded to him concerning incidents from February 8.

Similarly, a Supreme Court ruling concerning the activities of the Anti Corruption Commission (ACC) earlier this week appeared to the leave this institution in a state of limbo.

“In other countries, Anti Corruption Commissions have the powers of investigation, prevention and creating awareness. If an institution responsible for fighting corruption does not have these powers then it is useless,” said ACC President Hassan Luthfee.

Weak institutions have often been described by prominent members of the current government as rendering the country unready for early elections despite months of political stultification.

“Tighter legislation that addresses ambiguities and close legal loopholes will help. However, the political will to truly reform key institutions is lacking, especially the judiciary and the parliament,” said Aiman.

The final recommendation of Amnesty’s report was directed at the international community, requesting that it provide human rights training to the Maldives’judges, prosecutors and law enforcement officials.

In April, the United States pledged US$500,000 (Rf7.7 million) to assist Maldivian institutions in ensuring a free and fair presidential election.

The American Embassy in Colombo also conducted an information session on democratic rule of law for senior officers and management of the police service in May.


Electronic voting depends on public awareness in Maldives

The Maldives has expressed support for electronic voting systems in India and Pakistan, and is taking steps to introduce Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) to its own electoral process.

At an informal meeting of Electoral Commissioners from SAARC member countries in India, the Maldives joined Bhutan, Afghanistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka in praising India’s use of EVMs and indicated that “legal amendments would be thought of to see that EVMs were made popular to ensure free and fair polls in their countries,” Indian news outlet The Hindu reported yesterday.

Commissioners met to discuss Afghanistan’s voting procedures in light of waning financial and other aid from NATO allies.

Maldives Elections Commission President Fuad Thaufeeq said the commission, which is developing a proposal for Parliament regarding EVMs, has met with the Committee on Independent Commissions to discuss their implementation.

“So far, we have been getting information from many countries in Europe, South America and Asia which have used these. Regionally, India, Nepal, and Bhutan have used the machines and we are also getting advice from them. Hopefully the system will work, but some laws will have to be changed and the public must support the decision,” said Thaufeeq.

Prior to the 2008 Presidential election, India had offered to donate several hundred EVMs to the Maldives. “But it was the wrong time,” said Thaufeeq. “The machines India was using could not do print-outs. This year, they upgraded and added a verification process. I think it’s necessary for the Maldives to have a verification system,” he said.

Thaufeeq indicated that the commission may approach India’s High Commission to renew their offer of donations. Otherwise, he said machines will be chosen through a negotiation process with various companies, and bids may be solicited.

Electronic and internet voting systems have been used worldwide for decades, and have triggered much debate.

India first used electronic voting machines in 1982; in 2002, they became an election standard nation-wide. However, India’s 2009 elections were discredited when Omesh Saigal, an IIT alumnus and IAS officer publicly proved that the electronic voting system may have been rigged.

In 2006, the Netherlands’ General Intelligence and Security Service proved that electronic voting machines could be eavesdropped from up to 40 metres. EVMs were subsequently eliminated.

Since the 2000 presidential election, the United States has reported problems with electronic voting machines in a number of local and national elections. Mis-punched cards, security flaws, and touch screen malfunctions were some factors that have tipped votes over the past decade.

Internet voting was proposed for the Maldives’ Parliamentary elections as a means of cutting costs and confusion for Maldivians living abroad. Project Coordinator at NGO Transparency Maldives Aiman Rasheed said the motion was swiftly rejected by Parliament, and although Transparency has not been officially informed of the discussion, doubts that EVMs will be treated differently.

Observing that EVMs are acceptable under the right conditions, Rasheed explained that the advantages of using EVMs in the Maldives did not justify the disadvantages.

“In a large country with dense population centers, they can be useful,” he said. “But the Maldives is so small, and population areas are so widely spread out, with only 400 polling stations I don’t think that they would be a major improvement.”

Rasheed said the disadvantages of EVMs could have a significant political impact, and believed the public should be involved in the decision.

“I think Parliament and the Elections Commission should carefully consider the cost-benefit. Is the quick count worth the room that the new system with EVMs would leave for accusations of fraud or lack of transparency?” he said, noting that Maldivians tend to have a high “trust deficit”, and pointing out that Maldivian law does not allow for exit polls.

Building public trust is driving the dialogue over EVMs in the Maldives. Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) Deputy Leader Ibrahim ‘Mavota’ Shareef  agreed with Rasheed’s assessment.

“There is a lot of suspicion about new innovations that people are not familiar with. If done correctly, and people are informed, then EVMs shouldn’t be a problem for democracy in the Maldives,” he said.

However, Shareef observed that “any electronic machine with passwords can be corrupted,” adding that corruption is a higher risk for small communities. He recommended the Elections Commission “prove it cannot be manipulated” by issuing public education programs through the media.

“There is no public participation in the Election Commission’s discussion right now. Many islanders are unaware of how these things work. Without building trust, there will always be suspicion,” he said.

Rasheed explained that the “trust deficit” was a symptom of a young democracy.

“The Maldives’ biggest issue is that it has only had three free elections, and those were very recent. The latest Parliamentary and Presidential elections did very well under the circumstances, but the local elections have definitely declined in terms of transparency.”

Rasheed said that during these elections, political parties and NGOs sent volunteers to observe the electoral process, promoting transparency. Although new legal framework was implemented a mere one-and-a-half months prior to the Presidential election, and three months prior to the Parliamentary elections, “they did quite well,” said Rasheed.

Local elections, which had 18 months to prepare, performed well administratively “but they did not do so well in terms of transparency,” said Rasheed.

MDP MP Eva Abdulla also believes that free, transparent elections must be routinised before electronic modifications are made to the electoral process.

“I’m not sure if we are willing to move away from the physical voting system. It’s only been three years since we began trusting independent voting procedures,” she said.

Abdulla believes that Maldivians are quick to absorb new technology, but doubts that the advantages of EVMs are relevant to the Maldives.

Previously, island geography meant that counting and recording votes could take several days. “Now, officials count the ballots in front of the people on the same day, and we have our results immediately,” said Abdullah.

The Elections Commission has a different impression of the situation.

According to Thaufeeq, the average five to six hours that manual voting procedures involve is too long, and the costs of employing workers to manage the polls is too high. He said that while the transparency of open counting is important, there are significant advantages to electronic voting.

“Responses from MPs and the general public has indicated that people are more ready today than they were three years back. People are more familiar with technology right now, an EVM is similar to an ATM, which everyone can use,” said Thaufeeq. “But above all, we want the approval of Parliament and the public, to be sure that everyone is aware and comfortable with the system.”

Public examinability of voting procedures has been identified as an essential factor of free elections by government and independent groups worldwide.

In 2007, California Secretary of State Debra Bowen commission a statewide “Top to Bottom review” of electronic voting systems. According the report, every mechanism contained at least one security flaw that would allow a single non-expert to compromise an entire election.

In 2009, the Federal Constitutional Court of Germany found that when using voting machines the “verification of the result must be possible by the citizen reliably and without any specialist knowledge of the subject.”

Although the Maldives’ plans for implementing EVMs are far from concrete, the sentiments behind the suggestion are strong.

“Historically, the Maldives has had close elections with little information, which has generated suspicion of fraud,” Rasheed said. “If people can’t see what is happening, it will feed the country’s rising trust deficit.”


MPs tried to release MDP protester, claims DRP

The Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) has accused Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) MPs of interfering in police handling of MDP activists during a protest outside parliament on 30 December.

DRP and MDP protesters squared off outside parliament in response to the contentious decentralisation bill, debate over which had stalled four times.

The DRP claims MDP MPs Eva Abdullah, Mariya Didi and Mohamed Mustafa approached riot police and asked them to release an MDP activist who was being manhandled.

DRP MP Ahmed Mahlouf said he was close to the gate when Mariya and Mustafa allegedly asked police to release the activist.

Police restrain protesters outside parliament
Police restrain protesters outside parliament

“I’m not somebody who spouts rubbish. I saw this with my own eyes along with my colleagues,” he said.

“Police said [the activist] had attacked them and that is why he was handcuffed. The police are an independent body and should only be given orders by the police commissioner, not the president or the chairperson of the MDP,” Mahlouf said, adding that he would be filing a case with the police integrity commission.

Asked for her version of events, Eva replied that the MDP MPs “were just trying to find out what was going on.”

“A group of MDP activists outside brought a megaphone with them,” she said. “Police tried to disperse them and there was some kind of skirmish. I was looking on when police tried to get a bit physically tough on them and one of my constituents was hit and fell.”

The police did not respond to her, she said.

“If you look at the police records he was detained for several hours, so reports he was released are not true.

“We were not involved, we were just standing there during the Majlis break. We know what police brutality is like and went to see what was happening before it could get out of hand.”

The Maldives Police Service (MPS) released a statement claiming that rumours of police releasing protesters on the request of MDP MPs were incorrect, adding that such claims “undermine the trust people have in the police” and “should not be made for political gain”.

Videos aired on DhiTV appeared to show the three MDP MPs communicating with the police officers.


Independent MP Mohamed Nasheed claimed that MDP had astroturfed the protest and that furthermore, MP interference with police work was nothing new.

“This is the third time the MDP have engineered a protest outside parliament,” he said. “The first was the bill over benefits to previous presidents, the second was the no confidence vote against the foreign minister and the third was this decentralisation bill. They are very organised and bring loudspeakers and umbrellas. The modus operadi is for MDP MPs to meet the protesters and brief them on what to say and how to do it. It’s a very normal thing for MDP; I’ve seen senior MDP members making calls to the police at the station asking for the removal of barriers. On occasions when the barriers have been removed, [MPs] haven’t even been enable to leave to go to lunch – it’s not a good idea to walk through a mob.”

MPs watch the protests from behind the gates of the Majlis
MPs watch the protests from behind the gates of the Majlis

Eva claimed there was no need for MDP MPs to engineer protests “as protesting is grassroots MDP and the activism in the party is still quite strong.”

“The MDP created space for peaceful protests in this country – we put the concept in the Maldivian vocabulary,” she said.

Nasheed said he did not personally witness the MDP MPs interaction with police during the latest protest, “all the MPs were talking about how Mariya had intervened with a protester being taken away. I don’t think it is becoming of MDP to interefere with police discharging their duties.”

The DRP had exploited the situation very effectively, he noted.

“I think they already had the video. Mahlouf spoke about it to the media and the following day, probably on instructions from higher ups under intense pressure, the police issued a statement denying [they had released the activist on MP request). The video was not released initially because [the intention] was to trap police. They fell into it and now it’s obvious to everyone – I think it’s sad it happened.”


Parliament vows to tackle domestic violence

MPs today signed a declaration supporting the elimination of violence against women, recognising the problem of domestic violence facing the Maldives and undertaking to bear it in mind when legislating.

The signing marked the 10th anniversary of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, a UN-led initiative to encourage countries to create and enforce laws punishing violence against women and girls, increase public awareness and strengthen collection of data on the issue.

“We must demand accountability for the violations, and take concrete steps to end impunity. We must listen to and support the survivors,” said UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon.

Kendhoo MP Ahmed Thasmeen Ali, parliamentary group leader of the opposition Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP), read the declaration on behalf of parliament this morning, promising that MPs will “take all steps to secure women’s rights, and will not accept sexual, physical and other forms of violence against women. We resolve to ensure that the state implements these measures and condemn all forms of violence against women and girls.”

During the debate, Maduvari MP Visam Ali of the DRP said a survey by the former gender ministry showed that one in five Maldivian women aged 15 to 49 had been sexually or physically abused by their partners.

One in nine suffered physical violence, she said, while one in eight had been sexually abused as a child. “We are stunned when we hear these statistics,” she said. “But the offenders have not been punished to anywhere near these numbers.”

The Maldivian culture of trust was partly to blame, she said, after the signing.

“Maldivian women place a lot of trust in their husbands and relatives, and most often the abuse comes from these people. There is an aspect of Maldivian culture that means because of this trust, women don’t speak about [domestic violence]. I think this is the part that has got to change,” she said.

MP's signing the declaration
MPs signing the declaration

A lack of sensitivity towards the issue among the police force added to women’s reluctance to come forward, she continued, “because police are an institution mostly made up of men, and they don’t feel the pain of this.
It’s only recently that women have become involved in police work.”

Even when domestic violence was reported there was a lack of protection and support for the victims afterwards, with no physical infrastructure and few institutional processes to support the victims.

“Maldivians also lack confidence and trust in social workers and counsellors; many are new and half-baked, so if I go to one and they talk about my problems to other people afterwards, then that’s my life lost,” she said.
Male’s congested living conditions were contributing to the problem of domestic violence, said MDP MP for Galholhu North Eva Abdullah, with cramped living conditions forcing large families to live together in small spaces “with a lack of breathing space.”

“Families and distant relatives are cramped together in small rooms,” she said. “A set up that makes it difficult for women to report [domestic violence].”

Thulusdhoo MP Rozaina Adam emphasised the importance of raising awareness of women’s rights, arguing that many Maldivian men used religion to justify discrimination against women.

“Girls need to be taught about equal opportunity,” she said, as many are told they are inferior to men.