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MALDIVES: Human rights defenders brace for elections

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gayoom.jpgUnder the regime of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the small island nation of the Maldives has suffered 30 years of repression through the use of patronage and subservience, coercive institutions of the State and systematic abuse of religion.

Human rights defenders, in particular, have been targeted and face brutality, torture and a muzzle on their freedom of expression.
As such, 8 October 2008 marks a significant day for the country as it goes to the polls for their first ever multi-party elections.

The movement for reform began on 30 September 2003, when thousands of people took to the streets of the capital to demand a restoration of constitutional rights and freedoms.
The subsequent arrest of 200 protestors led to a number of human rights defenders having to leave the country and campaign for reform while in exile.

Since then, the issue of impunity in the Maldives has been well publicised and international attention has been placed on the reform initiatives.
Through pressure both within the country and external stakeholders such as the United Nations and European Union, Gayoom introduced his "Roadmap for the Reform Agenda" in 2006 which outlines a timetable of commitment to democratic reformed.

Unfortunately, it was not honoured and the slow pace of reform that often backslided has frustrated the nation.
Independent civil society in the Maldives did not exist in any real form until 2003, and even now it needs urgent strengthening and organising.

Prior to the reform movement, there was not a single rights-based NGO in the country.
Building independent civil society and strengthening human rights groups and institutions in the Maldives is of key importance if a meaningful democracy is to be put in place.

For this to occur, Maldives not only needs a progressive government in office, but also international cooperation and solidarity from human rights groups and intergovernmental organisations in order to play a monitoring role as well as to facilitate transfer of expertise and resources.

The stark reality of these elections is that traditional means of vote rigging and the deep-rooted patronage system could lead to the re-election of President Gayoom, who may not stick to his reform commitments.

Activists within the country, and reform-minded colleagues outside, will need to monitor and lobby for open space for civil society participation, media freedom and constitutional rights.

NOTE: The article below was adapted from the paper "Maldives: The Evolving Situation for Human Rights Defenders" by Mohamed Latheef, Native Operators on Rights (NOOR) presented at the 3rd South Asian Human Rights Defenders Forum in Trivandrum, India, from 18-20 September 2008.