IN EXILE IN COLOMBO
In the sandy atolls of the Maldives, civil and political rights have traditionally been viewed as a privilege bestowed by a benevolent ruler, rather than as inalienable rights of the citizenry. Nonetheless, under intense internal and international pressure that was heightened last year in particular, President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom was forced to make some concessions.This culminated in the announcement of the much-touted Roadmap for the Reform Agenda on 27 March 2006. Since that time, however, the ‘reforms’ have remained on paper, while systematic, targeted violations of constitutionally guaranteed rights have increased sharply.
In the past few months, the constitutional right to freedom of assembly was severely curtailed by violent actions against peaceful protestors by both the police and pro-government thugs believed to be in the control of Police Commissioner Adam Zahir. Protestors have been brutally beaten, arbitrarily arrested and charged with “disobeying police orders” or “obstructing police work”. Detainees facing trial are typically brought in through the backdoor of the courts and summarily sentenced, without recourse to defence procedures. The police and the pro-government thugs have made a habit of roaming the streets, storming houses and indiscriminately arresting family members and supporters of the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP). Such actions have included the detention of a girl and her four-year-old sister.
Both the United Nations and the European Union have strongly condemned the Male government for the mounting severity of its actions. While President Gayoom, under international pressure, did allow the registration of independent newspapers and magazines earlier this year, media work has been severely hampered through intimidation, arbitrary arrests and spurious charges. Almost half the staff of the opposition-run Minivan, the widest circulating daily, are either in jail or have court cases pending against them. Independent journalists in general face similar persecution, including death threats and intimidation.
‘Christianity and communism’
Judging from the nature of laws that were passed even just during the two months following the introduction of the Roadmap, it appears clear that Gayoom’s intent is to maintain his autocratic rule as long as possible. One piece of legislation, purportedly designed to ‘strengthen’ press freedoms, in fact gives legal backing to attempts to stifle the media. A second law, giving higher level of immunity to parliamentarians, was refused ratification by Gayoom on the grounds that it would strengthen opposition MPs. The president strongly rebuked his own party members for voting in favour of the bill.
One of the reforms previously touted by the president stipulated that both the Parliament and the Constituent Assembly (the Majlis and Special Majlis, respectively) would include only elected members. But when the MDP agitated in support of this proposal, by calling on Gayoom to remove the 29 members appointed by him to the Special Majlis, he balked. His argument was that such a step would pave the way for the MDP to introduce “Christianity and communism” to the Maldives.
Other ‘innovations’ are just as misguided. The newly introduced system of bail empowers the police more than it does the judiciary. The police now have the power to determine the amount of bail to be imposed, and have discretionary powers to determine whether the bail has been violated.
The most draconian of all of the newly introduced legislation, however, is the Presidential Decree regulating freedom of assembly, passed in mid-May. This empowers Police Commissioner Zahir to decide whether citizens can partake in any protest or gathering. These new powers were almost immediately put to use, when over 200 demonstrators were arrested during a week of protests in the capital.
President Gayoom’s actions, and those of his police, belie two particular claims: those of introducing greater separation of powers, and of strengthening competing institutions such as the judiciary and the legislature. In fact, these new laws only further strengthen the power of the executive and the discretionary powers of the Maldivian police. Gayoom’s actions following the introduction of the Roadmap make it clear that, despite the widespread demand for reforms, he has no intention of diluting his powers, or of ushering in a more democratic system of governance. The people of the Maldives continue to be deprived of their constitutionally guaranteed civil and political rights. Under President Gayoom, the Maldives will remain a police state, irrespective of rhetoric about ‘roadmaps’, ‘reform’ or ‘democracy’.