150 women face adultery flogging on Maldives

Author: By Andrew Buncombe, Asia Correspondent

Earlier this month, an 18-year-old woman fainted after she was flogged 100
times having been found guilty of having sex with two different men. The
woman, who was pregnant at the time of sentencing, had her punishment
deferred until after the birth of her child and the court said the
teenager’s pregnancy was proof of her guilt. In contrast, the accused men
were acquitted, with one of them escaping punishment simply because he
denied the charge.

The head of the country’s Criminal Court, Judge Abdulla Mohamed, told the
island’s Minivan News that flogging was a deterrent and not designed to
cause injury and said the person carrying out the punishment was prohibited
from raising his arm higher than his shoulder. “The public should know this
lady or man have done these things and they will stay away from these
things,” he said. As to why fewer men were prosecuted, he said: “A man,
after making this problem, will go away and maybe the woman will have
relations with more than one man and won’t know who was responsible. Or the
man denies it.”

But Amnesty International’s Maldives specialist, Abbas Faiz, called flogging
“a cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment which is banned by international
human rights law. The practice is humiliating and leads to psychological as
well as physical scars for those subjected to it for years. [It is] a form
of torture.” The most recent official statistics available to the group date
from 2006 and show that a total of 184 people were sentenced to flogging for
extra-marital sex under a penal code that includes elements of Sharia law.
Of those 146 were women, with the majority of the punishments still to be
carried out.

In the Maldives, an island nation made up of more than 1200 atolls, the issue
of flogging has become a political battleground following the whipping of
the teenager earlier this month outside a government building in the
capital, Male. Reports said that the women required hospital treatment after
she was flogged in front of a jeering crowd of men.

Since then there have been a number of demonstrations in favour of flogging
and several articles published defending its use. Since the case was
publicised there have been a number of demonstrations in support of
flogging, some calling for the deportation of a British journalist, Maryam
Omidi, who published reports of the incident in the local Minivan News.
“It’s hard to tell whether this is indicative of a wider feeling, because
people are afraid to speak out,” Omidi said. “But I had people calling me up
to offer their support.”

In its first free polls held last year, the Maldives elected as its president
Mohammed Nasheed, a former prisoner of conscience. But campaigners say the
liberally-inclined Mr Nasheed feels prevented from speaking because of his
dependence on Islamist coalition allies and because of opponents who are
using a debate over Sharia law as political lever.

The Islamist Adhaalath Party, which is a member of the coalition government,
has denied organising these demonstrations.

Yet, some voices have spoken out. “We don’t cut off the hands of all those who
steal and we don’t implement the death sentence so why do we continue with
these very inhumane practices, especially when the statistics show that the
victims are women,” said MP Eva Abdulla.

Reports suggest that in recent years, many mosques in the Maldives have fallen
under the influence of foreign, conservative imams. The previous president,
Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who had been Asia’s longest-serving ruler and who
positioned himself as the country’s “defender of Islam”, had sought to use
the religion to bolster his dwindling. The government in turn said that
more conservative forms of the religion had been able to spread as
restrictions on freedom of expression were lifted.

For Mr Nasheed, a former political activist who served six terms in jail, the
controversy is a severe test. While his inclinations may be of a moderniser,
he remains dependent on the support of the conservative Adhaalath Party.
Indeed, the party is said to have a grip on the ministry of Islamic Affairs
which Mr Nasheed created last year, apparently a political reward for its
support.

Last night, presidential spokesman Mohamed Zuhair told The Independent the
government was committed to fulfilling its obligations to international
treaties that prohibit torture. He added: “The president is holding meetings
with all concerned parties to try and deal with this.”

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