The Human Rights Commission of Maldives (HRCM) has said its mandate has been pushed to the limit after “braving” the country’s courts to oppose a controversial flogging sentence handed to a 15 year-old sexual abuse victim that was overturned this week.
The flogging sentence handed to the minor by the Juvenile Court in February was overturned by the High Court yesterday (August 21) after the girl denied confessing to having had consensual sex with an unknown partner.
HRCM member Jeehan Mahmoud said that the decision to punish the minor, which has since garnered global media attention, represented a “continuous failure” on behalf of the whole state to protect children and other victims of sexual abuse.
She therefore called on all stakeholders to strengthen their internal mechanisms for protecting vulnerable people in the country.
“Lots of money has been invested, but we have failed to uphold a system,” said Jeehan. “There must be a better translation into reality. We need to ensure that the group works for all cases – rather than the one or two that gain international attention.”
Jeehan said that as part of efforts to appeal the flogging sentence handed to the minor, the HRCM had adopted what she called an unprecedented tactic of “braving the courts” as a third party by directly approaching the judiciary.
“We required permission from the courts,” said Jeehan. “This was a groundbreaking opportunity…we pushed our mandate to its limits.”
Authorities had previously said that the minor had confessed to having consensual sex during a separate investigation into her alleged abuse that had resulted in the birth – and subsequent murder – of her baby.
On the back of the High Court’s ruling yesterday (August 21), Amnesty International – which has previously warned that the 15 year-old’s case was the “tip of the iceberg” in terms of the country’s treatment of victims of sexual offences – has released a statement welcoming the decision.
“Annulling this sentence was of course the right thing to do. We are relieved that the girl will be spared this inhumane ‘punishment’ based on an outrageous conviction,” said Amnesty’s Deputy Asia-Pacific Director Polly Truscott.
Amnesty went on to argue that the sentence ought not to have been imposed in the first place, before calling for a moratorium on flogging.
Despite the moratorium calls, President Dr Mohamed Waheed defended the wider use of Islamic Sharia in the country’s courts, while expressing his satisfaction with the High Court verdict this week.
“I also note that [the] verdict has established beyond doubt the sound principles of Islamic Shariah for such cases and became part of the country’s legal framework,” said the president in a statement.
“Considering the state of the country today, with sexual violence against women and children increasing daily, it is essential for the criminal justice system to ensure that women and children do not become prey to further abuse. I believe that establishing procedures necessary for the legal framework to protect such children is a welcome development to ensure that such tragic incidents do not repeat.”
Waheed added that he saw the decision as “major progress” in the protection of children’s rights. He concluded by saying that the child was still under the state’s care.
“The state will continue to provide the assistance she needs to overcome the tragic ordeals she endured and live a happy life in our society.”
Attorney General (AG) Azima Shukhoor echoed President Waheed’s comments today, arguing that Islamic Sharia is perfectly well-equipped to protect the rights of children.
The AG also spoke of an online Avaaz petition calling for both the minor’s sentence to be overturned as well as an end to flogging, criticising those she said had “politicised” the issue, arguing that they had made the work of Maldivian authorities difficult.
The online petition was signed by over 2 million people – a group more than six times the population of the Maldives.
The Maldivian judicial system currently practices a combination of common law and Islamic Sharia. Article 142 of the country’s constitution mandates that any matter on which the constitution or the law is silent must be considered according sharia.
Maldivian civil society group Advocating the Rights of Children (ARC) meanwhile has continued to press the government for ratification of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on a Communications Procedure.
This protocol provides an additional avenue of complaint should the state fail to uphold the rights of a child, which ARC mantain would greatly improve upon current domestic mechanisms.
“The case of the 15- year old girl is a good example of how the procedure could have been used to approach the UN Committee,” the group’s co-founder Zenysha Shaheed Zaki told Minivan News.