Asian Centre for Human Rights

Dedicated to promotion and protection of human rights in Asia


[The weekly commentary and analysis of the Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR) on human rights and governance issues]

Embargoed for 18 August 2004
Index: Review/

Maldives: Emergency and tyranny in the Blue Lagoon

On 13 August 2004, President Abdul Maumoon Gayoom of Maldives proclaimed emergency under Article 144 of the 1988 Constitution of Maldives to suppress peaceful and democratic protests. The protest started on 12 August 2004 evening when a group gathered outside the national police headquarters in capital Male demanding the release of four reformists detained earlier. As more people joined the protesters after Friday prayers on 13 August 2004, the authorities decided to release the detained reformists. But the gesture failed to pacify the pro-democracy activists who also demanded the immediate resignation of hardline minister and President Gayoom’s brother, Yameen, Executive Secretary to the President, Abdullah Shahid and the Male’s Police Commissioner, Adam Zahir. 

After the declaration of emergency, President Gayoom assumed all the powers under Article 145 which provides that “while the Proclamation of Emergency is in force, the President shall have the power to take and order all measures expedient to protect national security and public order. Such measures may include the suspension from time to time of fundamental rights as deemed appropriate by the President and suspension of laws which in the opinion of the President impede the maintenance of national security and public order.”

The protest is the most serious challenge to President Gayoom who ruled the Sunni dominated country since 1978. The government’s security forces claimed that they have arrested about 200 protesters. Unofficial estimates put the figure much higher. The government subsequently started witch hunting of the pro-democracy activists.  President Gayoom also disconnected Maldives from any internet connection. Scrutiny of all outgoing Maldivian passengers at the airports reportedly increased as a part of the government's witch hunting campaign against the pro-democracy activists.

Those presently detained include former Attorney General, Mohammed Munavvar and former Minister of Planning and Secretary General of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), Ibrahim Hussain Zaki, former President of SAARC Chamber of Commerce, Mr Gasim Imbrahim and Mr Ibrahim Ismail. Dr. Hussain Rasheed Hassan, member of the National Human Rights Commission, lawyer Husnu-Al Suood and Ahmed Athif  have also reportedly been arrested. Many of the detainees including Gasim Ibrahim, Ibrahim Hussain Zaki, Mohammed Munavvar and Dr. Hussain Rasheed have reportedly been beaten up. Maldivian Democratic Party activists Mohamed Ziyad of Saljamuge and Muad Zaki were severely tortured by the National Security Services personnel; and Mohamed Ziyad, who has been in Intensive Care Unit since 13 August 2004 has reportedly been transferred to Singapore after his condition deteriorated.

Can dictators reform themselves?

Since 1978, President Gayoom ruled Maldives with an iron hand. President Gayoom and his rubber stamp parliament, Majlis, adopted a new constitution in 1988. 60% of the 1988 Constitution is concerned with the powers and immunities of the President, while 40% deals with the responsibilities of the state and the rights of the Maldivian people.

The 1988 constitution of Maldives gives sweeping powers to President Gayoom, enabling him to control both the parliament and the judiciary. Besides being Commander in Chief of the armed forces, the Minister of Defense and National Security, the Minister of Finance and Treasury, and the Governor of the Maldivian Monetary Authority, the President also controls the judiciary, with the power to appoint and remove judges and to overturn any of the High Court’s rulings. He also has the power to grant pardons and amnesties. Members of his family and long-term friends are in prominent positions of power: the Speaker of the Parliament and Minister of Atolls Administration is his brother, as is the Minister of Trade, while a brother-in-law is Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation.

The Maldivian constitution offers no distribution of powers. The main legislative body is the Majlis, or Parliament, composed of 50 members, nine of whom are private citizens, and 41 of whom are public officials such as cabinet members, government officials and managing directors of state-owned companies. The President has power over the appointment of a sixth of its members (eight MP’s), which provides him with a strong power base for re-election, which requires the nomination of a third of all members.

According to the Article 34, anybody who meets the criterias to be President can contest the election. The election is conducted under Article 35 of the Constitution. However, this election is not a national one. It occurs only among the Majlis members who select the final nominee for the Presidency. Only God and the Majlis members know how this person is selected. The only time the Maldivian people are involved is after the Majlis has chosen the new President. The so-called public presidential vote by 'secret ballot' is only a referendum where people can say yes or no to the President that the Majlis has already chosen. Not surprisingly, Gayoom was the only candidate in the referendum held on 17 October 2003 and was declared winner for the sixth term.

In the light of increasing protest against repression and denial of democracy marked by prison riots in September 2003, President Gayoom presented an agenda for constitutional reform on 9 June 2004. The proposals have since been tabled before the Majlis. The proposals, among others, seek to provide greater independence to the judiciary, separate the powers of the head of state and government and impose a two-term limit for the presidency. The President would also lose the right to appoint eight members of the 50-seat parliament.

Although, the imposition of emergency provided the necessary excuse to President Gayoom to postpone the debate on reforms scheduled for 16 August 2004, Maldivians have not been impressed by the overtures of President Gayoom. The reform proposals are perceived as another manipulative tricks to tailor made constitutional reforms to suit his purpose. The arrest of many reformist Members of the Majlis like Gasim Ibrahim, the reformists’ choice for Speaker of the Special Majlis, Mohammed Munavvar and Hussain Rasheed adds credence to the suspicion. Both Munavvar and Zaki were sacked from the government in November 2003 due to their pro-reformist leanings. With the arrests of these leaders, President Gayoom has little opposition in the Majlis.

Although Article 26 and Article 27 of the Constitution of Maldives respectively provide the freedom of association and the right to freedom of expression, there is no political party in Maldives. President Gayoom openly discourages formation of political parties. Member of Parliament, MP Abdullah Shakir was arrested in July 2001 for signing to a petition to the Minister of Home Affairs to request permission to set up the Maldivian Democratic Party. The government arrested him under a civil offence to harass and intimidate. In 2003, Mohamed Zaki, Ibrahim Luthfee and Ahmed Didi were given  life imprisonment while Fathumath Nisreen was given 10 years sentence for working on an electronic newsletter, Sandhaanu. They were charged with inciting violence and defamation. Earlier, Naushad Waheed, an artist, was sentenced to 15 years in jail for informing Amnesty International about the abuses by the Maldivian government.

Fashionable non-sense

“The anti-government demonstrations that led to the imposition of an emergency in the Maldives on Friday (13 August 2004) were hijacked by Muslim fundamentalists who do not have any democratic agenda”, chief government spokesman Dr Ahmed Shaheed has said.

It is fashionable nonsense to link pro-democracy activists of Maldives with Muslim fundamentalists even if the political activists include former Secretary General of SAARC. As the majority of Maldivians are Sunni, it suits the phobia of the war against terror in the post September 11th period. President Gayoom has reportedly ordered the building of 100's of new cells in Dhoonidhoo Prison Island to accommodate more prisoners.

Despite serious repression, Maldives escaped international scrutiny.  It is essential that United Nations especially the Secretary General and High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Commonwealth and SAARC intervene against the repression of pro-democracy activists in Maldives. If Zimbabwe and Pakistan could be suspended from the Commonwealth for repression and denial of democracy, there is no reason as to why the situation in Maldives would not warrant similar interventions until President Gayoom takes the process of democractic reforms to involve all strata of Maldivian society, not the members of the Majlis alone, to draft a new constitution and ensure multi-party democracy. President Gayoom should be urged to immediately release all the pro-democracy activists detained on 13 August 2003 and International Committee of the Red Cross must be given immediate and unrestricted access to all the political prisoners.

© Copy right 2003, Asian Centre for Human Rights, C-3/441-C, Janakpuri, New Delhi-110058, India