Human rights in paradise? The Maldives

For many in the UK, the Maldives is simply an idyllic holiday destination. However, away from its pristine beaches lies a worrying human rights record. Since it gained independence from Britain in 1965, the country’s citizens have lived most of their lives under dictatorships. These dictatorships have frequently imprisoned, even tortured, their political rivals.

In 2008, the Maldives held its first multi-party elections which resulted in the Presidency of Mohamed Nasheed. Nasheed’s presidency was short-lived and he was replaced by a President who has been criticised by human rights organisations. This week, Nasheed revealed that he will challenge the current president in the upcoming presidential elections in 2018.

History

For most of its history the Maldives was a sultanate. Between the twelfth and twentieth century, ten different dynasties ruled the archipelago as absolute monarchs. After the sixteenth century, the islands experienced increased political interference from the great European powers. The Maldives had a strategic importance because of its location on the major marine routes of the Indian Ocean. The French, Potugeese and Dutch all involved themselves in Maldivian politics. However, this interference ended when the Maldives became a British Protectorate in the nineteenth century. The Sultans of the Maldives enjoyed significant self-governance in return.

In 1953, after its status as a British protectorate ended, the Maldives temporarily abolished the sultanate under the leadership and elected its first president, Mohamed Amin Didi. Didi made a number of reforms, including advancing access to education and women’s rights. However, some of his reforms proved controversial and his presidency was quickly ended. In 1954, the sultanate was restored. Eleven years later Maldives gained full independence from Britain, and in 1968 Ibrahim Nasir was proclaimed president. In 1973 Nasir was then elected as the Maldivian president (he had previously only been selected by an unelected legislature).

In 1978, Nasir was replaced by Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. In the ‘election’ which made him president, Gayoom faced no other candidates. Between 1978 and 2008, Gayoom ruled the Maldives as a dictator. His regime was characterised by the brutal torture it subjected its political opponents to, often “only a short distance away from well-heeled tourists lounging at high-end resorts”.  

Short-lived democracy

In 2008, with significant international support, Gayoom allowed the first multiparty parliamentary elections to be held in the Maldives. Nasheed, who had previously been jailed for criticising Gayoom, defeated the incumbent with 54% of the vote. During his presidency, Nasheed allowed significant liberalisation of the tourism industry. For the first time natives were permitted to establish their own guesthouses. Nasheed also drew worldwide attention by holding an underwater cabinet meeting to illustrate the unique threat global warming posed to the Maldives. 

In 2012, Nasheed was forced to resign the presidency. His supporters argue that this was a coup organised by supporters loyal to Gayoom. Nasheed’s downfall was triggered by his arrest of the chief judge of the country’s criminal court, who he suspected of favouring Gayoom. The arrest led to months of protest in the Maldivian capital, Male. Nasheed eventually conceded to the protestors and resigned.

In the political vacuum that ensued following Nasheed's resignation, Gayoom’s half-brother - Abdulla Yameen - gained the presidency. Yameen’s rise to power further supported claims that the coup had been orchestrated by Gayoom. Nasheed was later sentenced to 13 years in prison relating to his decision to arrest the judge. In 2016, Nasheed was granted political asylum in the UK. He had left the Maldives on medical leave.
 

Maldives today

Yameen’s presidency has attracted significant criticism from human rights campaigners. Critics have argued that he has curtailed freedom of expression and assembly in the country, both enshrined in the Maldivian Constitution, through a series of laws, including a new law which criminalises defamation. Amnesty International have argued that human rights in the Maldives have "been seriously eroded” and that they are at “significant risk of further deterioration”.

Amnesty states that irregularities in legal processes have led to widespread violations of the right to a fair trial and a severe weakening of the fundamental principle of judicial impartiality. They find that Yameen has attempted to weaken the political opposition. Between February and April 2015, over 130 peaceful protesters were arrested. They were then only subsequently released on the conditions that they did not participate in further demonstrations. Those detained included at least three MPs from Nasheed’s own party as well as members of the official opposition. Amnesty also finds that other non-political actors, such as atheists, have been targeted by Yameen’s regime.

Amnesty’s findings are supported by a number of other human rights organisations such as Human Rights Watch and Reporters without Borders.

Conclusion

The next presidential elections in the Maldives are due to be held in 2018. Former president Nasheed has signalled his intention to challenge the incumbent. However, it is unclear whether next year's elections will be free and fair, and offer the challenger a realistic chance of victory. If the current president does not permit such elections, then there is a very real danger that democracy will be curtailed for a significant period of time in the archipelago.

James Dobson is a researcher at Bright Blue