Fifteen year-old’s appeal of flogging sentence for fornication stalled in High Court

State and judicial authorities have failed to provide a timeline for the appeal of a 15 year-old rape victim sentenced to flogging for a separate incidence of fornication, despite repeated pledges and promises of wider legal reform.

The 15 year-old minor from the island of Feydhoo in Shaviyani Atoll was convicted to 100 lashes and eight months of house arrest in February 2013, after confessing to fornication with another man during an investigation into allegations she was sexually abused at the hands of her stepfather. Those allegations arose with the earlier discovery of a dead baby buried in the outdoor shower area of the family’s home.

A month after the sentence was delivered, sources on Feydhoo told Minivan News that islanders had been raising concerns to the authorities over the girl’s abuse by other men on the island since 2009.

Sources at the time accused law enforcement officials, civil society and successive governments of failing on every level to protect the minor.

Widespread international coverage of the sentencing has since led to over two million people signing an petition calling for her sentence to be quashed, a moratorium on flogging, and reform of laws to protect women and girls in the Maldives.

Despite the country’s international reputation as an romantic island getaway for couples, fornication (sex outside marriage) is illegal in the Maldives and is subject to Sharia punishments under the 1968 penal code.

However, statistics from the Department of Judicial Administration show that flogging sentences are overwhelmingly issued to women. Of the 129 fornication cases filed last in 2011, 104 resulted in sentences – 93 of whom were female.

Meanwhile, the Judicial Services Commission (JSC) has dismissed calls to suspend Supreme Court Judge Ali Hameed following the judge’s appearance in at least three recently-leaked sex videos appearing to depict him fornicating with unidentified foreign women in a Colombo Hotel room, citing “lack of evidence”.

15 year-old’s appeal stalled

The opening hearing of a High Court appeal of the girl’s flogging sentence, filed on her behalf by Attorney General Azima Shukoor, was held on April 29

The High Court has confirmed to Minivan News that there had been no further hearings in the three months since, and no further hearings scheduled.

However, a legal source speaking this week on condition of anonymity said the hearing in April was believed to have been the last, with the court expected to deliver a verdict on the case the next time it reconvened on the issue.  The appeal is being heard behind closed doors.

The flogging would be administered when the girl turns 18, although local media has previously cited a court official who claimed it could be implemented earlier should the minor request so.

Deputy Solicitor General Ahmed Usham confirmed that the sentence had not been carried out, and reiterated that no date had yet been set for a verdict on the minor’s appeal.

Usham added that a process to oversee legal reforms into the treatment of sexual abuse victims involving state bodies including the Attorney General’s (AG’s) Office was ongoing at present.

“Hopefully something concrete will be announced on this soon,” he said, but could not speculate on a timeline.

President Dr Mohamed Waheed’s government has previously pledged to review and “correct” laws it says victimise young women and minors who have suffered sexual abuse.

President’s Office Spokesperson Masood Imad previously expressed hope that the use of punishments such as flogging would be among practices debated as part of reforms.

“I’m sure when we debate [punishing suspects for fornication with lashes], we will find an acceptable solution for all parties,” he said.

More recently, the President’s Office said current legal practices involving the treatment of victims of sexual offences could not be changed overnight, and required gradual implementation.

“We cannot go any faster on the matter than this, we don’t want to see any trouble like in the past. We can’t just go and ask a judge not to [give sentences like this] anymore,” Masood said in May.

The President’s Office today confirmed that Dr Waheed had established a “special committee” as part of efforts to try and oversee the requested legal reforms, referring any specific questions on its work to Spokesperson Ahmed ‘Topy’ Thaufeeq.

Thaufeeq was not responding to calls or text messages at time of press.

Recently appointed Gender Minister Dr Aamaal Ali meanwhile requested Minivan News contact the office of former Gender Minister and current AG Azima Shukoor concerning the current status of attempts to reform laws on the treatment of sexual abuse victims.

Azima was not responding to calls or e-mails to her office at time of press.

Local newspaper Haveeru meanwhile last weekend interviewed the judiciary’s official flogger, Abdul Khalig.

“According to his memory, Khalig has enforced flogging sentences of over 300 people which amounts to thousands of lashes with his leather whip,” reported Haveeru.

“But Khalig to this day remains hesitant when it comes to flogging the elderly given their age. But he assures that no old person mostly sentenced for fornication and child abuse had come to any harm as a direct result of the flogging.

“No matter who the person is, this must be done. It is not a cruel punishment. Only one woman fainted whilst I was flogging her,” Khalig told the paper.

“I notice that people who have been flogged, repent and live good lives afterwards. Because this such a small society I see it quite often. People who have been flogged for fornication later go on to live very good lives,” he said, adding that he was now hoping “to impart what he has learned to the next generation before he retires.”

15 year-old’s case “tip of the iceberg”: Amnesty International

Speaking to Minivan News at the conclusion of a nine day visit to the country in April, Amnesty’s South Asia Director Polly Truscott claimed the treatment and controversial flogging sentence handed to the 15 year-old girl was the “tip of the iceberg” regarding the Maldives’ treatment of sexual abuse victims.

Earlier the same month, Maldivian NGO Advocating the Rights of Children (ARC) criticised child protection measures currently in place in the country as “inadequate”, urging government authorities to incorporate several key human rights obligations into domestic law.

ARC at the time told Minivan News that although the Maldives has signed and agreed to be legally bound by the provisions in the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and its Optional Protocols, the commitments have yet to be adopted into law.

Minivan News meanwhile in June investigated reports of “widespread” child prostitution being conducted in Laamu Atoll, and was informed by a private clinical psychologist that the practice had become “so common” that the victims considered it “normal”.

Multiple sources told Minivan News the practice has prevalent across the Maldives, ranging from male benefactors grooming children with ‘gifts’ to parents actively selling the sexual services of their children – some as young as 12.

Official and public acknowledgement of the “systemic” child sexual abuse remains taboo, although Azima Shukoor – then Family and Gender Minister – in a statement on May 10 to mark Children’s Day revealed that “children being used as sex workers, where the children are sent to places as a means to pleasure people and to gain an income from such a trade. This is being practiced in the Maldives today. Both boys and girls are being used in this trade.”


Attorney general appeals 15 year-old girl’s flogging sentence as authorities contemplate legal reforms

Attorney General (AG) Azima Shukoor has appealed a court decision to sentence a 15 year-old girl alleged to be the victim of multiple cases of sexual abuse to 100 lashes on charges of fornication, the government confirmed today.

The Juvenile Court sentenced the girl after she confessed to authorities of having consensual sex with an unknown man during investigations into a separate case of abuse against the minor.  The abuse was alleged to have been carried out by her stepfather.

President Mohamed Waheed’s government has previously criticised the verdict, pledging back  in January to review the use of flogging as a punishment for sexual offences – a practice it has alleged in some cases actually serves to punish victims of rape and abuse.

Sources on Feydhoo in Shaviyani Atoll, where the 15 year-old girl originates from, last week told Minivan News that concerns had been raised by islanders since 2009 that the minor had allegedly been the victim of sexual abuse not just by her stepfather, but by a number of other unidentified men on the island.

The case has brought international attention to the country’s legal system, including the launch of an online petition signed by 1.3 million people that threatens to boycott Maldivian tourism, as well as public criticism from British multi-billionaire Sir Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin group of companies.

In a statement posted on his website yesterday (March 26), Branson spoke of the “enormous damage” he believed the verdict was causing the country. As a result, Branson said he had written to President Waheed, who in turn claimed he had pledged to review the case through a ministerial committee.

“The attorney general has now appealed the case on behalf of the child,” Branson wrote.

Speaking to Minivan News today, President’s Office Spokesperson Masood Imad confirmed that the attorney general had now appealed the court’s ruling, but that he was still waiting on the exact details from the AG’s Office. Massod added that further details would be provided on the appeal later this week.

He was also unable to confirm if a time-line had yet been established for consultations between various state bodies to oversee any proposed reforms to the legal system.

Legal reform

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 has previously noted that the Maldives had a tradition of turning away from practices such as the death sentence and corporal punishment that form part of Sharia law.

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.

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.

Avoiding prosecution

A senior legal expert with experience of working under both the present and former governments has told Minivan News that that while the Maldives Constitution requires that laws in the country do not contradict Islamic Sharia, there were ways of avoiding prosecuting suspects on charges of fornication.

“There are many Islamic legal interpretations that place several conditions to fulfill before a prosecution on fornication be brought forward. Some scholars even go further and argue that hudood offences cannot be practiced in the legal justice systems at the current time,” claimed the legal source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“Their argument is that Islamic Sharia is a way of life and you cannot pick and choose which areas you need to implement. Basically, you cannot implement Islamic criminal justice system in its original form when Islamic commercial system or Islamic governance is not observed.”

Addressing the wider issues of how minors were identified and viewed in the eyes of Maldivian law, the legal source added that the culpability of children was identified in a regulation called ‘Kuda kudhin kuraa kushuge masala thah balai, thahugeegu koh, insaafu koh, adhabu dhinumugai amalu kuraane gothuge gavaidu’

The legal source said that the culpability of minors is specifically dealt with in section five of the regulations.

“According to section five, children above the age of 10 and below the age of 15 are criminally responsible for five offences, which are apostasy, treason, fornication, falsely accusing fornication and consumption of alcohol,” the source said.

“Children above 15 years are criminally responsible for their actions. With children who are below 10, parents are required to make good any damage because of a criminal act. There is no criminal liability for below 10.”

Minister of Islamic Affairs Sheikh Mohamed Shaheem Ali had his phone switched off at time of press.


Under-age rape victim convicted of fornication, sentenced to 100 lashes

A 15-year-old rape victim from the island of Feydhoo in Shaviyani Atoll was convicted of premarital sex at the Juvenile Court today and sentenced to 100 lashes and eight months of house arrest.

In June 2012, the girl gave birth to a baby that was discovered buried in the outdoor shower area of her homeHer stepfather was later charged with child sexual abuse, possession of pornographic materials and committing premeditated murder.

Her mother was meanwhile charged with concealing a crime and failing to report child sexual abuse to the authorities.

An official from the Prosecutor General (PG)’s office told Minivan News in January this year that the fornication charges against the minor were related to a separate offence of premarital sex that emerged during the police investigation. The charges were filed on November 25, 2012.

In its verdict delivered today, the Juvenile Court ordered the state to transfer the girl to the Children’s Home in Villigili to enforce the sentence of eight months house arrest, according to local media reports.

The girl reportedly confessed at the trial to having consensual premarital sex.

The Islamic Shariah punishment of flogging would be administered when the girl turns 18. However, the sentence could be implemented earlier should the minor request expedition, a court official explained to local media.

In late January, the PG’s Office told Minivan News that it was reviewing the decision to press charges against the minor. Two hearings at the Juvenile Court were subsequently cancelled upon request by the PG.

However, the trial resumed after the PG decided earlier this month not to withdraw the charges.

Officials from the PG were unavailable today to clarify whether the male offender faced the same charge of premarital sex.

The case of the 15 year-old had prompted concern from the executive following international media coverage. The government announced last month that it would review and “correct” laws that victimise young women and minors who have suffered sexual abuse.

President’s Office Spokesperson Masood Imad told Minivan News that from government’s perspective, the 15 year-old girl was a victim who needed to be protected, not punished by authorities.

“We will be talking with the Ministry of Islamic Affairs over this manner and will review and correct the problem,” he said.

Masood said that the Maldives had experienced a number of similar cases of late where young women had been victimised and punished by authorities – a situation he said the government was looking to prevent.

“We are reviewing this right now and if we have to go to the extent of changing existing laws then we would look to do this,” he said.

“Absolute outrage”

The criminal charges against the minor was slammed by Amnesty International last month, which called the prosecution “an absolute outrage.”

“This is an absolute outrage, regardless of the reason for her charges. Victims of rape or other forms of sexual abuse should be given counselling and support – not charged with a crime,” said Abbas Faiz, Amnesty International’s Maldives Researcher.

“We urge the Maldivian authorities to immediately drop all charges against the girl, ensure her safety and provide her with all necessary support.

“Flogging is a violation of the absolute prohibition on torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment. The Maldivian authorities should immediately end its use regardless of circumstances. The fact that this time a 15-year old girl who has suffered terribly is at risk makes it all the more reprehensible,” said Faiz.

“Flogging is not only wrong and humiliating, but can lead to long-term psychological as well as physical scars.”

In response to a Minivan News report in 2009 of an 18 year-old woman fainting after a 100 lashes, Amnesty International called for a moratorium on the “inhumane and degrading punishment.”

Of the 184 people sentenced to public flogging in 2006, 146 were female, making it nine times more likely for women to be punished.

In November 2011, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay urged the authorities to impose a moratorium on flogging and to foster national dialogue and debate “on this issue of major concern.”

“This practice constitutes one of the most inhumane and degrading forms of violence against women, and should have no place in the legal framework of a democratic country,” the UN human rights chief told MPs during a maiden visit to the Maldives.

Her remarks sparked protests by Islamic groups outside the UN building and drew condemnation from the Islamic Ministry, NGOs and political parties.

According to statistics from the Department of Judicial Administration, almost 90 percent of those convicted of fornication in 2011 was female.

Of 129 fornication cases in 2011, 104 people were sentenced, out of which 93 were female. This included 10 underage girls, 79 women aged 18-40 and and four women above 40 years.


Discovery of dead baby in outdoor shower a distressing reminder of the Maldives’ failure to address unwanted pregnancies

The police have recovered the body of a newborn infant buried in the outdoor shower of a house on Shaviyani Feydhoo island. The baby’s mother was identified as a 15 year-old school student.

This incident is a reminder of the pervasiveness of underage and out of marriage pregnancies in Maldives, and the subsequent acts of infanticide and abortions – a distressing flaw in the social fabric of the island nation which continues to be unacknowledged and under-addressed by authorities.

According to local news outlet Sun, Feydhoo island girl was allegedly sexually abused and impregnated by her own stepfather. The allegation has not been confirmed by the police.

Media official Sub-Inspector Hassan Haneef said “the case is sensitive” as the girl is a minor, was being investigated in collaboration with the Gender Ministry. He also refrained from confirming local media reports that the girl is now under arrest.

However, he noted that four people, including the girl’s legal guardians, mother and step father, were now under police custody in relation to the case. He added that the suspects resisted arrest, causing a scene on the island of approximately 700 inhabitants.

“We are investigating allegations of  giving birth outside wedlock, killing and burying the baby,” Haneef explained.

Doctors confirm the baby was already dead when found by the police at around 6:30pm, he observed, adding that the police are investigating the cause of death as well.

However, without post-mortem services and an absence of visible wounds on the infant’s body, proving infanticide in the Maldives is almost impossible without a confession from the suspects.

In 2006, the Juvenile Court acquitted a woman from Dhabidhoo island, who police alleged killed her newborn and threw into the lagoon, ruling that her three confessions contradicted each other. The woman gave birth out of wedlock in 2008.

Tale of illegal pregnancies and throwaways

Due to the conservative exterior of the Maldives  and the deep-rooted culture of blaming the victim, the stigma of having a child out of wedlock drives women to desperate measures.

Mothers helplessly hide the growing bump for nine months and endure the pain and struggle in silence until an abortion is possible, or else abandon the newborns after birth – dead or alive.

Abortion is illegal and unavailable to most mothers, unless it is proved that the conception is the result of rape or that the pregnancy is a threat to the mother’s health.

In last two years, three babies have been discovered dead and two alive. The dead infants included two fetuses, one hidden in a milk tin and the other at the bottom of Male’s municipal swimming pool, while another fully-developed baby was thrown into a park having apparently been strangled by the underwear tied around its neck. Two babies were found abandoned and alive, and have now been placed under state care.

Anecdotal evidence suggests some mothers, both young and adults alike, use abortion-inducing pills or receive injections from amateur abortionists; others turn to harmful vaginal preparations, containing chemicals such as bleach or kerosene. Although infrequent, some women insert objects into their uterus or induce abdominal trauma.

Though these alarming throwaways have grabbed headlines and attracted public attention momentarily, it came short from prompting concrete action from authorities and public to address the underlying issue. Instead it merely provoked widespread condemnation and vehement calls for the mothers to be put to death.

Meanwhile, in the recent case of the 15 year-old, police have not revealed any information surrounding the circumstances of the pregnancy.

Unless it is proved that the pregnancy is the result of rape, Maldivian law provides for her to be publicly lashed and placed under house arrest.

Although the current judicial system restricts adult punishments to children until they reach the legal age of 18, there are currently three exceptions to the provision. One of these is that if she has had a child, a girl will be tried as an adult, according to a 2004 study on gender issues in the criminal justice system.

Out of fear of potentially being stigmatised, fathers seldom take responsibility for their actions, while pregnancy leaves girls guilty by default, leaving mothers to be flogged, publicly humiliated for fornication or incarcerated for infanticide – a disturbing trend of gender-bias observed in the criminal justice system.

All talks, little commitment or action

The issue has been raised at various gender related forums – with many words, but little action.

In 2010, the Deputy Minister of Health and Family at the time, Fathimath Afiya told Minivan News that a meeting was held to discuss reproductive services in the Maldives. While Maldivian and Shariah law criminalise abortion and intercourse outside of wedlock, Afiya said communication between relevant services and the judiciary made it difficult to fully address each case.

“There needs to be an appropriate legal framework for reporting these cases to the services that could help unmarried and teenage women in compromised positions,” said Afiya. “We are very concerned about the rising number of unwanted pregnancies and abortions by married and unmarried women. Today, we began formulating an action plan for short- and long-term improvements,” she added at the time.

However, at the national stakeholders meeting held by UN Women yesterday on the UN Secretary General’s Unite campaign to end violence against women and girls, officials confirmed that “no concrete action plan” has been finalised.

During yesterday’s meeting, as a Unite Youth Network Member, I gave a presentation on violence and problems faced by youth, highlighting sexual health illnesses such as STIs, early pregnancies, abortions among youth and emphasised the need for immediate sexual and reproductive health education.

All participants, including government officials, councilors, police, and gender advocates unanimously agreed on the importance of tackling the problems.

But as participants pointed out at the workshop, most of the time “it is all talk, with little commitment or action”.

“Raising public awareness and educating the girls and boys about their bodies, the ramifications of being sexually active and how to protect themselves from harm is very important,” said a public health official from the Centre for Community Health and Development.

The official noted the magnitude of the sexual health problem and its consequence as a “great national concern”.

“Discussions are underway,” the official said.


Parents reject foreign principal and shut down school

Parents have shut down the Shaviyani Feydhoo school for two days by refusing to send their children to school.

The school, which had around 170 students, was closed on Sunday and Monday because parents were unhappy that a principal had not been appointed despite the academic year having already started.

The previous principal, Mathew Varugees, returned to India at the end of last year.

Aishath Mohamed from the school’s parent teacher association said “The parents are not happy. The school is being run without a princiapal and it is affecting the studies of the children.”

“The old principal could not speak Dhivehi and many parents can’t speak English, so there was a major communication issue,” she said. “We had many issues to discuss but it was not possible and no one was happy with the situation. Even Mr Varugees agreed there was a communication problem – that is why he left, he said this school needed a Maldivian principal.”

Aishath said a senior teacher, Mohamed Shahid, had been running the school in the interim, “but he only agreed to stay until the start of the school year, when a new principal was promised.”

Parents have gone to the island office and demanded a new principal within the next two weeks.

Principal was arranged

Their story clashes with that of the Feydhoo councilor, Mohamed Mustafa Ismail.

“A principal was arranged for our school by the education ministry. Everything was ready including accommodation and transfer,” he said.

“But when the parents found he was not a Maldivian principal, they didn’t accept it. They gathered outside the island office and said not to bring the principal, because they would not let him set foot on the island.

“Obviously we had to let the ministry know that we could’t bring him here, and they have now said they can’t find a Maldivian for the position.”

Mustafa said while the parents had given the government two weeks to find a Maldivian principal, “it’s not like we can go to a shop and buy one. It’s hard to find Maldivians who are qualified for the job.”

He blamed the teachers for failing to show teamwork with foreign principals.

“Good teamwork is needed to work when working with foreign people, but the Maldivian teachers don’t like it and they tell the parents who then react this way,” he said

“By closing down the school the parents have got it wrong. It is not the solution.”