Week in review: March 9 – 14

This week’s headlines were largely dedicated to the Supreme Court’s decision to dismiss the senior leadership of the Elections Commission (EC) on charges of contempt of court and disobedience to order.

The decision – which also included a six month sentence for EC Chair Fuwad Thowfeek – brought international condemnation as well as universal praise for the work of the commission.

The EU observer mission, currently in the country for the scheduled March 22 poll, quickly pointed out the considerable “time pressure” on a timely and credible election.

Domestically, both the Maldivian Democratic Party’s Mohamed Nasheed and the People’s Majlis declared the decision unconstitutional.

The Majlis Secretariat relayed this message in writing to Chief Justice Ahmed Faiz and senior government figures, while a Majlis committee stated that it still considered the dismissed members to be elections commissioners.

Alternatively, government supporters quickly backed the decision, with President Yameen saying that the government would abide by the ruling. Yameen also criticised the opposition’s discussion – conducted without a resolution – of boycotting the polls.

The President’s Office rounded on the court’s international naysayers while the chief justice said that the international statements included “falsified claims, and undermine the respect and authority of the Maldivian judiciary”.

Fears that the EC would not be able to conduct the election without its quorum were soon assuaged, however, as Ismail Habeeb – nominated to the commission after the resignation of the fifth EC member last October – was approved by the Majlis.

The PPM has called for the final two places on the commission to be filled before the elections, though Speaker Shahid has prorogued parliament until after the vote.

Other news…

Elsewhere this week, police seized 24kg of what was suspected to be heroin in their biggest haul to date, while repeated confiscation of unusual pets during drugs raids – as well as a python on the streets of Malé – prompted customs to tighten security in order to prevent the import of illegal animals.

The export of legal animals – in the form of Halal certified fish – is a policy the Islamic Ministry this week claimed was generating great enthusiasm.

Leaders at the Chamber of Commerce rounded on the EU’s trade policies with regards to Maldivian fish, suggesting a fisherman’s protest could be on its way.

One protest did arrive this week, at the international airport, as staff demonstrated against bad bonuses and worse food.

The Human Rights Commission was summoned to the Juvenile Court after repeated attempts to discuss a report the court claimed misled the public about the handling of the infamous 15 year old flogging trial.

Maldivian Development Alliance leader Ahmed ‘Sun’ Shiyam was presented to the Criminal Court this after failing to attend previous hearings regarding his alleged attempts to smuggle alcohol into the country in 2012.

Already in custody, Maldivian Democratic Party MP Abdulla Jabir learned this week that he would remain during his appeal case for his recent conviction.

Finally, local NGO Advocating for the Rights of Children (ARC) launched an anti-bullying campaign in Malé as well as a new network to support the rights of disabled children.

Meanwhile, the Maafushi jail inmate – left in a coma with critical head injuries after being attacked by cellmates last month – was flown to Sri Lanka for further treatment.


Human Rights Commission receives Juvenile Court summons

The Human Rights Commission of Maldives (HRCM) has been summoned to the Juvenile Court for a report that gave a “negative impression” of the court’s conduct during the sentencing of a 15 year old rape-victim to flogging and house arrest.

Following the release of the confidential report, the Juvenile Court has sent an order to every individual involved from the HRCM, summoning them to a court hearing this Wednesday (March 12) at 1:30pm.

The HRCM stated that they will release an official press statement after the court summons this Wednesday.

On February 26 2013 the Juvenile Court convicted the 15 year old girl on the grounds of fornication and sentenced her to 100 lashes and 8 months house arrest. The case attracted global concern from both local and international organisations, and the charges were later annulled in August of the same year.

Although the sentence was eventually annulled, the case attracted international attention to the Maldives’ juvenile court system and their policies in dealing with victims of sexual abuse.

Speaking with Minivan last year, HRCM member Jeehan Mahmoud said that the sentence represented a “continuous failure” on behalf of the whole state to protect children and other victims of sexual abuse.

The HRCM submitted an investigative report on how the court handled the case, taking into account safeguards, rights, and protections afforded to a victim of child abuse under the Maldivian constitution, Islamic Shariah, and international human rights standards.

Spokesperson for the Juvenile Court Zaima Nasheed explained that some points outlined in the HRCM report were not reflective of how the court conducted its work. She noted that it portrayed a negative impression of the court and tried to exert undue influence on its work.

Zaima added that the HRCM did not hold any discussions or ask for any questions from the Juvenile Court while they were compiling their review.

The Juvenile Court wished to clarify that they sent a letter to the HRCM last month to arrange a meeting, though the commission said that it would not be able to attend.

Following this, the court compiled a written document with all of its concerns and shared this with the HRCM. In addition to this, the court asked to meet again with the HRCM yesterday (March 9) at 10am. The HRCM did not respond to the letter and failed to attend the meeting, said Zaima.

In light of this, the HRCM was in breach of the constitution’s Articles 141, said Zaima. These state that no officials performing public functions can “interfere with and influence the functions of the courts”, instead they must “assist and protect the courts to ensure the independence, eminence, dignity, impartiality, accessibility and effectiveness of the courts.”

Following the 15 year-old’s conviction, local NGO Advocating the Rights of Children (ARC) called on the Maldivian government to pass legislation concerning the treatment of sexual abuse victims.

ARC also previously called for reforms of the juvenile justice system and reform of the current protection mechanisms provided to minors who are kept in state run institutions, such as homes and foster programs.


Human Rights Commission calls for constitutional election date

The Human Rights Commission of Maldives (HRCM) has called on the Supreme Court and state institutions to ensure that Maldivians will not be denied the right to vote guaranteed by the constitution’s Article 26 and the International Convent on Civil and Political Rights.

It also called upon these institutions to ensure there will be an election within the duration stated in the constitution.

The HRCM also called on everyone not to pave way for unrest and to hasten all work that has to be done to uphold the constitution.

The commission also called on EC to solve all the issues with the voters’ registration.

HRCM called on the authorities to take legal action against those to pose death threats and threats of violence, calling on everyone to give high priority to national interest.


Support for women’s rights in the Maldives declining, finds HRCM study

Support for women’s equality has experienced a “significant drop” despite overall progress in improving the human rights situation nationally, a Human Rights Commission of the Maldives (HRCM) second baseline survey has concluded.

“The ‘Rights’ Side of Life” [report] studied knowledge, behaviours and attitudes regarding human rights in the Maldives and reinforced many of the findings from the 2005 survey,” according to the UNDP-backed report released by the HRCM in December 10, 2012.

However, fewer respondents than in the first study believed that women should have equal rights to men in all seven of the areas surveyed (inheritance, divorces, work, politics, family matters, courts, custody), the report found.

“Despite the freedoms that the constitution has provided for women, attitudes towards women’s empowerment show a negative trend,” stated Andrew Cox, the recently-departed UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP representative in the Maldives.

“Alarmingly, the study also suggests that there has been a regression in people’s sensitivity towards domestic violence and gender based violence,” he added.

Male attitudes have become “more conservative” regarding women’s rights issues, whereas female views have become more supportive of rights in some areas, the report stated.

“Women have undergone a significant shift in attitude,” according to the HRCM survey.

In a reversal from the 2005 study, more women than men now consider it inappropriate for men to hit their wives.

However, significant numbers of respondents stated where there was a “substantive justification” – as opposed to something trivial – “violence against wives was justified,” the report determined.

Both genders in the Maldives were also found to believe that in the husband/wife relationship, women should play a “subordinate role”.

“It is widely considered among stakeholders and experts in the field that violence against women is based on such inequality,” the report stated.

Survey respondents mentioned sexual abuse and violence against women most often in regard to improving women’s equality and saw a need to focus on this controversial issue.

“There was some comment that the growing assertion of Islamic values might be resulting in changes of attitude in some areas covered by ‘The Rights Side of Life,’ [survey], such as those on attitudes to family and ideas about acceptable behaviour in the home, justifications for men hitting their wives,” quoted the report.

Furthermore, over a fifth of the women surveyed said they had been sexually harassed, with offensive or obscene sexual comments and behaviour, as well as men grabbing their hands in public being the most likely occurrences.

Regarding sexual harassment in the workplace, “more intimate forms of harassment” have decreased overall compared to the 2005 survey, but there is a “relatively high level” of sexually suggestive/obscene language. Both of these sexual harassment issues happen more often to rural women than urban women, the study found.

In response to sexual harassment at work, a woman’s most common response was to do nothing.

“The main reasons for this lack of action was their fear of not being believed; fear of people knowing/ bringing bad name to the family; and embarrassment and shame,” said the report.

In a related issue, sexual abuse of girls is considered a “serious problem” by 99 percent of women.

Additionally, sexual abuse of boys is viewed as a “serious problem” by both more women and men than in the previous HRCM study.

Political involvement

Women’s support for the right to participate in politics and government has risen, while men’s support has declined from nearly 73 percent to less than 58 percent.

Ultimately, a majority of women consider the country’s democratic reforms unsuccessful.

Their primary reasons for dissatisfaction according to the report were:

  • Ineffective politicians/government/executive
  • Influence/interference with the parliament or judiciary
  • Corruption
  • Mistrust among political parties/ineffective parliament
  • Lack of public understanding of democracy

More men than women respondents regarded the democratic reforms as successful. Less male respondents claimed to have voted compared to women in the 2011 local council elections and overall turnout was lower than the 2009 parliamentary elections. This was consistent with Electoral Commission findings, according to the HRCM report.

The primary grievances with the recent elections included, “mismanagement or incomplete voter registration; lack of voter education; aggressive campaigns along party lines; insufficient duration for voting; and last minute court election rulings,” the report stated.

“Human rights not in conflict with religion”

A “large majority” of people surveyed thought a copy of the Maldivian constitution should be given to every household by the government.

Furthermore, half of respondents believe that human rights do not conflict with religion.

Among the 10 most important human rights nominated by respondents included freedom of opinion, conscience and religion, which were not listed in either the 2012 or 2005 reports.

Of those who did think there was a conflict between religion and human rights, the most frequently mentioned concerns were “women’s right to equality, freedom of expression, child rights and Islamic punishments such as cutting off hands for theft, in that order,” the report determined.

Rural respondents and women were more likely to think there was a conflict between human rights and religion. However, there were many non-responses to the question and “vast majority” were unable to respond because they did not know whether such a conflict actually exists, the report stated.

The survey questions regarding religion were considered controversial, with several new questions added to the study regarding: family planning/contraception issues; the importance of women’s right to seek “safe and legal abortions” as well as the incidence of abortion; the right of foreigners to practice their religion; and the right to voluntarily decide if and when to marry and have children.

Reproductive rights were more strongly supported by men and women alike, including “abortion to be [made] legal to save the life of the mother or the baby, but not in other circumstances”.

Approximately 25 percent of women and 16 percent of men surveyed said they knew someone who had an illegal abortion, the report noted.

While many respondents did not think human rights were in conflict with religion or were unsure, there was little support for migrant workers having to right to practice their religion within the Maldives.

“Overall, less than 10 percent considered migrants should be able to practice their religion in public or private, about a quarter in private and nearly 60 percent not at all,” the study found.

Women were strongly of the view that migrant workers should not have the right to practise their own religion in the Maldives.

Freedom of expression and access to services lacking

Satisfaction levels regarding access to services – particularly regarding the realisation of economic and social rights – were said to be a prominent concern and have undergone an overall reversal since the first HRCM human rights study was released.

“For example, the main areas not working well in the police/security system were listed (in order) as: corruption; can’t get police when we need them; political influence; lack of fairness/ bias; and torture,” the latest report concluded.

Respondents ranked the most important human rights as access to education and healthcare, adequate standard of living, and freedom of expression.

However, the most mentioned human right was freedom of expression, while women’s equal rights rose from 8th to the 4th most mentioned issue.

The most frequently raised topic – particularly in rural communities – was the escalating crime rate.

“Criminals have more rights than ordinary people,” the study quoted a respondent saying.

Crime victims were found to be primarily young, male, and likely from the respondent’s community, the report claimed.

Children, elderly, and disabled vulnerable

Other vulnerable groups within Maldivian society include children, the elderly, and the disabled.

The vast majority of respondents reported that the level of protection of children’s rights was satisfactory – over 50 percent were dissatisfied.

The main areas in need of improvement regarding children’s rights included violence against children, having better access to education, drugs, gender stereotyping/ discrimination, and crime and or gangs, the study found.

“For older people, neglect; inadequate attention to health status of older people; abuse (physical or mental); lack of legislation and/or policies to protect older people; and inadequate housing for older people were concerns mentioned most often,” highlighted the report.

Lack of access to services were the primary issues discussed by the disabled, such as special needs schools for children and facilities within existing schools for them, education opportunities generally, inadequate healthcare including mental health services, employment and related services, stereotyping and discrimination.


Ministry of Health criticises media for misinforming public

The Ministry of Health and Gender has issued a press statement criticising the media for its standards and ethics when reporting on abuse cases, especially those involving children.

Police and the ministry last week confirmed they were investigating a “very serious” case of child abuse, in which which four children were taken to Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital (IGMH) by ministry workers to undergo medical examination.

Deputy Minister of Health and Family Mariya Ali said at the time that all details of the case were being withheld for the protection of the children.

“We have the children’s best interest in mind, and that means we cannot give out any information that might put them in danger,” she said.

The ministry’s statement today claimed that the media had recently written stories misinforming the public “particularly relating to abuse cases”, and criticised the publication of stories “before the ministry releases information [about them]”.

“The media should keep to its professional standards and work to the ethics of journalism, respecting privacy,” the ministry said, referring to article 12 of the the Children’s Law, under which children’s names, ages or addresses should not be made public in the instance of abuse.

President of the Maldives Journalism Association (MJA) Ahmed ‘Hiriga’ Zahir claimed that “the media is respectful of these things. It is not appropriate to reveal this information”, but acknowledged that in the past there were instances in which the victim’s father’s or family name has been released to the public, making it easy for the victim to be identified.

“There needs to be a fine balance when dealing with these issues,” Hiriga said, adding that he still believed the public had a right to know about such cases.

He echoed Mohamed Shihaab of Child Abuse Watch Maldives, who last week said that while he understood the authorities’ fear that evidence would be corrupted, or that the families of the abused children would suffer if their identities became known, “the incident needs to be reported. It’s important that the community knows that something like this is happening,” he said.

Ahmed Rilwan, media officer for the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives (HRCM), said the “general viewpoint of the Commission is that there is nothing wrong [with the media reporting these cases].”

“So long as it is done responsibly, the reporting itself is not a problem,” he said.

He added that these cases should be reported without revealing identifying information that could “revictimise the victims”, and agreed that that the media has previously made more information public than it should.

Minivan News’ reporting of the ministry’s statement highlighted some of the difficulties faced by the media in obtaining accurate and timely information from ministries and organisations.

Media Coordinator for the Ministry of Health and Family, Yasir Salih, refused to comment on the ministry’s press statement, saying he is “not supposed to talk on behalf of the Ministry.” He added that he “directs people to relevant departments and officials” but is not supposed to give information.

According to Yasir, “sometimes our officials are busy and unable to give interviews and comments.”

Deputy Minister of Health and Family Mariya Ali did not respond to requests for comment at of time of publication.

Senior Social Service Officer at the Department of Gender, Fathimath Runa, said she would not be able to speak on the issue until she was “better informed on the issue”, but had not responded to Minivan News at time of press.

President of Human Rights Commission of the Maldives (HRCM), Ahmed Saleem, said he was not the appropriate person to talk to concerning the question on whether or not the media should report child abuse cases.

Hiriga said he believed the ministries and government institutions should implement “proper mechanisms to regulate information” which is released to the media, in a bid to prevent confusion and misinformation being leaked from other sources.

“Various ministries are trying to influence the media,” he suggested. “They have no right to intervene.”