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

Embargoed for: 23 August 2006
Review: 129/06

Democratic Maldives?


As we upload this issue of ACHR WEEKLY REVIEW, five day extraordinary congress of Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) opens in capital Male, among others, to finalise the agenda for "Returning the Maldives to the people'' . Following the extraordinary congress, the government of Maldives and opposition Maldivian Democratic Party are reportedly scheduled to hold the third round of talks being facilitated by British High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, H.E. Mr Dominick Chilcott, on 31 August 2006. Two rounds of talks have been held respectively on 23 June 2006 and 17 July 2006 at the Westminster House, the official residence of the British High Commissioner in Colombo for finding solution to the political crisis in Maldives.

The government and the MDP have reportedly signed an agreement which came to be known as the Westminster House Agreement. The MDP has reportedly agreed not to “ferment revolution” or engage in violent street protest in exchange for the government's commitment to release the political prisoners and speed up democratic reforms in the island nation and complete the new Constitution by 7 November 2007. A national election will follow soon thereafter.

The government has also reportedly agreed to amend President Gayoom's restrictive decree of freedom of assembly to bring it in line with international standards, to desist from arbitrary arrests, and to implement the Attorney General's proposed judicial reforms. As for bringing reform in the police force, the government has reportedly agreed to dismiss controversial Police Commissioner, Adam Zahir and set up a Police Integrity Commission to create a ‘community-based' police force.

Building block approach:

So far, both the government and the MDP tried to ensure respect for the Westminster House Agreement.  On 23 July 2006, the government began to release detainees arrested during opposition protests and dropped criminal charges pending against 19 detainees. Dozens of political prisoners including MDP leader Ms Jennifer Latheef and journalist and human rights activist, Mohamed Youshau have been released from detention. On 10 August 2006, the government freed 11 prisoners jailed under ‘summary justice' in May 2006. The government has also reportedly decided to free and drop charges against MDP Chairperson Mohamed Nasheed (Anni), who is currently under house arrest on the charges of ‘terrorism' and ‘sedition'.

The MDP reciprocated by staging ‘low key' commemoration of Black Friday on 12-13 August 2006.

President Gayoom also ratified the bill to amend the Human Rights Commission Act, which could rejuvenate the defunct Human Rights Commission of the Maldives (HRCM). Earlier on 8 August 2006, Members of the People's Majlis voted unanimously in favour of amendments to the HRC Act, which empowered the HRCM , inter alia, to visit prisons and detention centres without prior permission from the authorities.

Gayoom's long arms:

The adoption of the amendments to the Human Rights Commission Act by the Peoples Majlis is a clear signal that people want democracy and the rule of law. Considering that the Peoples Majlis is full of Gayoom's nominees, the writings on the wall could not have been clearer.

Though perceptible progress is being made in the talks, ordinary Maldivians remain suspicious of President Gayoom because of the past experiences. The efforts of President Gayoom have been half hearted so far.

Although many political prisoners and democratic activists have been released by the President Gayoom's regime since the signing of the Westminster House Agreement, many are still in detention under “summary justice”. Recently, Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) released a list of 81 members of MDP who were still under police detention and serving sentences in prison as on 31 July 2006. These included 11 MDP members serving sentences in prison, 1 detained in jail for investigation, 5 under house arrest, and 64 facing investigation and on bail. The Government has also not dropped terrorism charges against Jennifer Latheef who was released from house arrest under the Westminster House Agreement on 16 August 2006. If the released persons are not officially cleared of all the charges that have been brought against them by the government, there cannot be any guarantee that the government will not re-arrest them. There have been allegations that the government has started legal proceedings against many of those who have been released under the Westminster House Agreement and that they could be jailed in near future.

At the same time a “defamation bill” which was presented as part of a broader media reform package also hangs like a Damocles sword.

Conclusion:

Certainly, talks between the government and the MDP have so far been positive. Even if the present negotiation process is to lead to genuine reforms, it is unlikely that President Gayoom's role for democratic reforms will be recognized. It is simply because President Gayoom still holds his long arms over the Maldivians and he has not hesitated to pull the strings. On 21 August 2006, a motion to hold a national referendum on the system of government to be adopted in the new constitution was blocked by the President's unelected appointees in the Special Majlis. President Gayoom appears to be more interested in pulling strings to stymie political reforms.

After registration of political parties was allowed in June 2005, in its ACHR REVIEW, “Multi-party Democracy in South Asia: One Down, One More to Go” of 8 June 2005, Asian Centre for Human Rights stated, “President Gayoom is on the threshold of making history. He could easily go down in history as another dictator who just addressed the increasing democratic protests. He can also decide to immortalise himself as a genuine democratic reformer to make the Maldives as a model democracy in Asia”.

It appears that President Gayoom prefers to go down in history as another dictator in South Asia who had to give in to the people rather than having a change of heart for establishing democracy. Those who fail to read the writings on the wall keep a place reserved in the dustbin of history. Time is soon running out for President Gayoom.


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