Minivan News presents the first in a series of in-depth interviews with the heads of the independent commissions in the Maldives.
The Human Rights Commission of the Maldives (HRCM) would seem a vital institution to a government that was elected on a platform of human rights and accountability. Founded by former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom in 2003 it came to the fore following the death in custody of Evan Naseem.
More recently, HRCM has come under heavy criticism from parts of government for its unwillingness to investigate human rights abuses committed prior to 2000. President of HRCM Ahmed Saleem defends the commission, claiming it is misunderstood.
JJ Robinson: What do you see as the role of HRCM?
Ahmed Saleem: HRCM’s major role since 2003 has been teaching the population what human rights and democracy are all about. It’s extremely difficult – you know the pressure we have been under. We are a non-political body – we don’t take sides, and there is always friction with the government in power. That’s very natural. But while I don’t mind the opposition or members of parliament criticising HRCM, it becomes a problem when the sitting government criticises and slanders independent commissions. Independent commissions must be respected, because without these independent commissions, democracy cannot work. Our job is an extremely difficult one to do without taking sides, and I think we are doing our best.
JJ Robinson: What would be some specific incidents of criticism you consider to have been the most damaging?
Ahmed Saleem: It is not even in the interest of the government [to slander us]. HRCM doesn’t go on TV shows, and we don’t retaliate even if somebody attacks us – you’ve never seen us retaliate, because we want to respect even those who criticise us. When people like the press advisor to the president criticises the commission, that means the government doesn’t respect the commission and that’s a problem because this government came to being on platform human rights and democracy – the government can’t afford to criticise the commissions, least of all the human rights commission. There are times we criticise the government but that’s because we are obliged to do so by law.
The government should respect our criticism, find out what’s wrong and talk to us. We cannot demonstrate our independence if the government gives the impression it is trying to use HRCM to achieve its own objectives, like investigating abuses [under the former government]. For that we have suggested a way: a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
JJ Robinson: Groups such as the Torture Victims Association (TVA) and the Maldivian National Congress (MNC) have attacked the former president for human rights abuses committed during his administration. Do you think this is a productive way forward?
Ahmed Saleem: [TVA founders] Moosa Ali Manik is my brother in law and and Ahmed Naseem is a friend of mine, so I know very closely exactly what happened. These are people who have suffered grievously, and I can’t blame them. I am not at liberty to criticise anybody. It it is the system – the system is wrong.
We must look into these abuses, we must investigate and find out who is responsible and who is not responsible. They have genuine grievances and I think it would be wrong for anybody to say nothing happened during the last 30 years. Abuses have taken place, and we must find out who did it, why it happened, and also find out how this can be prevented in the future. That is why we have suggested a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
JJ: Do you think the TVA was attempting undermine HRCM through its promises to bring in international lawyers to document and review human rights abuses?
Ahmed Saleem: We definitely support them doing that, but I don’t think it’s so easy. It doesn’t happen that way. They are saying they will take statements and submit them to international courts – it’s not that easy; there are procedures and ways of doing these things.
If they can do it we would welcome it, but I have my doubts as to how successful they will be without the support of the opposition. That why I always talk about a national effort – even if this TVA claim they are not political, the people involved in it make it extremely political.
There are people like my brother-and-law who are not political, but I know for sure what he went through. He was hurt really badly, and until recently he did not want to even talk about it. Abuses have taken place in the past, but only they know what they went through – we will never understand it. As a human rights commission we will support any NGO working to promote the protection of human rights as long as there are no politics.
JJ: A lot of people currently in power have gone through some terrible things. Do you think that at any stage those experiences can compromise some body’s ability to work effectively in a government with an opposition?
Ahmed Saleem: Yes, I think so. And I think it is worth making an effort. After all we are one people, we are all Muslims here and almost everyone is related, it’s like one big family. The Maldives is just not like any other country that has many cultures and communities – everything here is homogeneous.
That’s why I’m saying we must put the country first, otherwise we may create problems that affect the country and our very existence. But if they feel like [investigating the past] we should do it in the right way. We will play a major role if this Truth and Reconciliation Commission happens, but it will have to be initiated by the government.
JJ Robinson: You yourself were appointed by the former government, and as a result some of these groups have attacked your willingness to investigate past abuses. Has this position you’re in made your work more challenging?
Ahmed Saleem: Yes it has. But we are going to stick to our policy. If you have seen our law, we can’t investigate any issue before 2000.
For instance there is this case some MDP people are trying to pursue through us which took place in 1994. This particular issue has been up taken by my wife’s own family, the person in question is my wife’s brother-in-law, but it happened in 1994. It was very cruel the way he was handled, and we talking about an 80 year-old man. Putting him in jail and harassing him was completely wrong. They brought this case to HRCM and we had to say, ‘no we can’t investigate that’. Because if we did investigate, we’d have to investigate each and every case or I would be open to accusations of favouring family members.
If we take a case like this it has to really do with the sovereignty of the country – we can’t handle so many cases otherwise. Right now we are investigating the political abuse case of someone who is very close to the MDP, the high commissioner to Malaysia. He says he was abused, and we looking into it because that case occurred after 2000.
JJ Robinson: The Maldives is a very small country and you have many links here yourself. How has being president of HRCM affected you? Have you been subject to threats or intimidation?
Ahmed Saleem: We don’t have threats like we used to have. I was personally attacked, my car was attacked, I was attacked by people on the street in those days, when the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) was in the opposition. The previous government attacked me and my family, and MDP was very supportive of us. But this the life of a Human Rights Commission. That is what it was all about. HRCM is misunderstood so I don’t take anything personally. I do understand when people criticise on street, but talk to them and most people don’t understand what we trying to do. Creating awareness of human rights is the main objective of HRCM.
JJ: What kind of public support do you think there is for HRCM?
Ahmed Saleem: We don’t see anybody working against us, and understanding of HRCM and its work has increased. In 2003 when we came into being everybody felt HRCM was only about caring for inmates in jails. We visit jails because there is nobody else to care for [the inmates], but that’s only a fraction of what we do.
People who’ve never been to jail don’t understand what happens in there. We work very closely with government because if the government fails, we fail. We ensure the government does its job and respect article 18 of the constitution, but some in senior levels criticise us and I feel that’s not right. We have enormous support from UN Ambassador for Human Rights, and with this in mind it is very damaging for the government to criticise the human rights commission. Because HRCM could fail.
JJ: Is there a risk of HRCM failing?
Ahmed Saleem: Yes there is a risk. If we keep being attacked by the government on a daily basis we have an obligation to let our friends in human rights circles know this is happening, and they would not be happy about this. They expect a government that came into being on a platform of human rights and democracy to work with HRCM and other independent commissions; they don’t expect the government to criticise the commission all the time.
JJ: Why is the government criticising the commission, then?
Ahmed Saleem: Let’s be very clear. I don’t think the government as such has any policy on it – it’s individuals [in the government]. Sometimes we find it difficult to be mature politicians instead of activists. I think this is something we have to learn quickly – there are those in high positions in the government who must change themselves into mature politicians, because the things they say can have enormous effect.
As far as the president is concerned we work very closely and I have enormous faith in him. For instance, he has told me personally to ‘never ever give up on torture.’ ‘If you do that, the government itself will torture people,’ he said. He has gone through it himself.
The president keeps saying ‘If we never let go of the past we’ll never have a future.’ But then he might say HRCM’s work will never be complete until it has investigated past abuses, and the next day he says something different. I don’t think he himself wants to dig into the past.
JJ: Who are these individuals in the government who have a problem with HRCM?
Ahmed Saleem: There are a few in the government. I don’t think some of them even believe in the policies President Nasheed has issued. He is milder, compared to some of these people.
I’m talking about only a few people here; these are the same people who criticise HRCM and other independent commissions. You’ve never heard the president criticise HRCM or any other commission. He is more democratic than most of these people and he knows value of commissions. I have great confidence in the president, but he has a very challenging job.
JJ: What are some of the areas in which HRCM hasn’t achieved what it set out to do?
Ahmed Saleem: One thing I would say is the culture of torture. I remember a few years back, on human rights day, I said there was a culture of torture in the Maldives. During the previous government someone came up and said ‘you’re wrong, you’re making a very big mistake – there is no culture of torture in the Maldives.’ I stick to my word and stand by what I said.
You can still see it happening. But unlike before the police have changed; police tactics have changed, and they want accountability. We are working with police and the police integrity commission, and the police are giving us all the evidence we need because they feel we should be investigating [complaints].
But I can be 100% sure that the new government has no policy of torture. It’s been the system – it’s the system that’s been wrong, whether it was President Nasir, President Gayoom… under that system anybody could do anything and get away with it.
That’s not the case now, and that is why [the previous government] was a dictatorship – there was no separation of powers, there was no justice. But right now the nature of politics in this country is so divisive it is threatening the existence of this country. I think at some stage the opposition must acknowledge that violence took place in the past.
JJ: Let’s look at some specific issues around human rights in the Maldives. How important is gender equality to the country’s future?
Ahmed Saleem: I think it’s extremely important. I don’t think you’ll find any other Muslim country that has so little discrimination against women; even in the government there are more women than men. At the top levels there are fewer women because they started late – this used to be a very male dominated society.
We have extremely well-educated young ladies these days and I think we should be bringing more of them into the government. Women in Maldives had voting rights long before many other countries, and the only hitch we had as far as human rights were concerned was that women were barred from running for president – that’s gone from new constitution.
I don’t think any there’s effort being made against women being active in society except by conservatives – extremists I would say, who are a threat to the very existence of this country.
JJ: How has religious extremism affected the country? And how has this changed under the new administration?
Ahmed Saleem: I think there is more extremism [in the Maldives] now than then. I also think that unless we can bring it under control we are going to be in danger. In our 2006 report we predicted that there would be serious problems in society not because of politics but because of extremism, and that’s become very true – we see it happening now. People are misusing freedom of speech and expression.
We have had moderate Islam [for a long time] and most of us belong to moderate Islam, but there are a few – I would saw half-baked – religious scholars who are advocating something totally different. I think the Islamic Ministry has to take huge responsibility for this.
JJ: Do you think the Islamic Ministry is fulfilling this responsibility?
Ahmed Saleem: I don’t think so. They should be doing much, much more.
JJ: Where are these scholars coming from? Why has this suddenly surfaced?
Ahmed Saleem: We never thought of religious extremism as a problem, so nobody really thought of doing anything about it. Now I think the present government recognises the danger, and are even trying to restrict people going to certain countries and certain colleges.
I think that’s very good. This state is a democracy and anybody can go anywhere, but when it threatens the whole of society and the country I think it’s time the government takes action. I heard the other day [the government] is trying to restrict people from travelling to certain madrassas in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan.
JJ: How much of this happening because people are seeking higher education opportunities that the Maldives cannot provide?
Ahmed Saleem: This happening because the people advocating this kind of extremism don’t understand what Islam is. Islam is a very simple religion. I don’t think Islam advocates any violence – it doesn’t do that. But some of these extremists think any non-Muslim should be killed, for instance, which is wrong. They go on jihad to various countries – Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is highly against the religion.
I don’t know if this is anything to do with our education system. I think our own system should work on this, and try to [cater to] those who want to learn religion. I think the Islamic and education ministries should really think about how best they can handle this situation [internally], rather than have large numbers of people going outside the country and returning with different beliefs and only half an education. It’s a very serious problem that must be addressed.
JJ: Do you think human rights can be guaranteed under the current constitution?
Ahmed Saleem: Yes, I think so. We have never had a Constitution like this – it’s very democratic, but it’s not perfect; no constitution is perfect. I think it was done in a hurry in a way, and there are lots of changes that must come with practice. Our own legislation needs change – the Maldives is one of the few countries that has signed almost all human rights instruments, and there are so many laws that must be incorporated into Maldivian law.
This ought to be done by the Majlis (parliament). At a time like this, during a process of transition, there is so much to be done, and yet the members of parliament are going on leave for two months. I think that is very irresponsible – now is the time to do this, before people get fed up with democracy, before they start thinking that the former dictatorship was better because there was no quarrelling; there was stability under dictatorship. I don’t know why the Majlis has to take two months leave, and cannot take leave like we do. They are elected by the people why not take leave like we do? There are so many laws pending and so much work to be done.
JJ: Do you think the members of parliament are as informed about human rights as they need to be?
Ahmed Saleem: Democracy cannot function without rights. So much is missing because they are not in session. Some people are saying there is more peace in the country because the Majlis is not in session. It is going to take maybe 20 years to create the kind of parliament we are trying to imagine.
JJ: How much success has the media had in the last year in becoming independent, and what do you think of its current condition?
Ahmed Saleem: The media has developed a lot. But with media independence also comes responsibility – we need responsible journalism these days. I find there aren’t too many people who can investigate a report or analyse a situation and suggest recommendations for the government and independent bodies. People just go and report anything they want, and in most cases they want sensationalism. And they don’t follow up their reports – just one report and that’s it. The media needs to mature.
JJ: Until recently media in Maldives existed on government subsidies for quite some time. Do you think it is possible to have a fully independent media that receives subsidies from the government?
Ahmed Saleem: In order for the media to develop I think the government must provide some kind of media subsidies until they mature. The media is the fourth pillar of democracy, and unless there is a genuine and productive media I don’t think we can work as a democracy.
JJ: Has one of the failings of journalism in the Maldives been its political attachments?
Ahmed Saleem: The only problem is unfortunately we are still learning what democracy and human rights are all about. That people are misusing both is a matter of great concern – there is a limit to criticising the government and making the government responsible. I don’t think anywhere else in the world people call for the ousting of the government at every meeting of the opposition – you just don’t do that. I wish there was some kind of law to prevent that from happening.
JJ: Would that conflict with freedom of speech?
Ahmed Saleem: I don’t know, but at this time we must do what is right for the country. I’m not saying if the time is right the opposition shouldn’t call for a no confidence vote, it is the opposition’s mandate to do that. But not at every rally; you don’t do that without a reason.
It is a difficult situation for the government in power – extremely difficult after so many years without democratic rule. People are misusing freedom of speech and freedom of expression to a great extent, and that is a concern.