Monday, August 17, 2009

The human rights commission: tennis and foreign trips

According to Human Rights Commission of Maldives insiders, the president Ahmed Saleem is in the habit of arriving leisurely for work, settling himself down comfortably in his office, and watching tennis on cable TV for most of the day. Vice-president Mohamed Zahid, meanwhile, never misses an opportunity to go on a foreign trip, even when it is to attend a specialist workshop or meeting more suitable for a reporting staff. A strict division is maintained between the "members" and "staff" of the HRCM, with the former reaping all the benefits like overseas travel and out-of-the-country expenditure. 

Both were appointed to the posts by the previous government, due to their close links to Gayoom. Saleem, of course, was a recipient of one of the notorious presiden't office "loans". To date, the HRCM hasn't found a single human rights violation that would implicate the aging ex-dictator, even though the commission was involved in all the high-profile investigations of alleged prisoner abuse of the recent past. Saleem was aslo part of the commission set up by Gayoom to clear himself from the murder of Evan Naseem and others in Maafushi jail in 2003. If Gayoom's motive for getting these two into the HRCM was protect himself from the barrage of accusations, he clearly chose the right pair. 

At the height of the recent Sula Siraz controversy, Saleem was overheard "confirming" to people that president Anni did, indeed, drink.  The human rights chief knows only too well which party controls the votes needed to get himself re-appointed and Zahid, a member of the DRP, has always been a faithful defender of Gayoom. 

Human rights experts who have worked with the pair have been flabbergasted by their sheer ignorance of international human rights laws and their unwillingness to learn.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the HRCM has not made a statement against the recent flogging of an 18-year-old girl in Male, or Wahhabi preacher Bilal Philips's endorsement of lowering the age of marriage for girls to the onset of puberty. These would violate at least four UN conventions signed by the Maldives: the child rights conventions; the convention on the elimination of discrimination against women; the civil and political rights convention; and the convention against torture. But Saleem and Zahid have been silent and no one has openly challenged their silence.

Under the leadership of the former human rights president Mujthaba, there was some hope that the Maldives would move towards an independent, efficient, and functioning human rights commission. But today, staff are frustrated with their new bosses and morale is at an all-time low. No one can get Saleem to sign anything when tennis is on, and many worthy initiatives by the staff themselves never see the light of the day.

The latest from the HRCM is that the president and vice president have been more active lately; apparently, their terms are about to expire and they are sweating it out in the bid to get re-appointed to continue to enjoy fat salaries, tennis, and foreign trips.

A human rights commission staff has pointed out to me that Saleem has an exemplary record of reporting to work on time. So I apologise for describing his arrival at work as "leisurely" in the first paragraph of the post.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Bilal Philips, friend of misogynists and child sexual abusers

On 8 August, Wahhabi preacher Bilal Philips told thousands of Maldivians that it is ok to marry young girls once they attain puberty. Upon reaching puberty, he said, girls were capable of carrying children regardless of what age she was. 

The medical profession should have a thing or two to say on that, but you can count on Maldivian doctors to remain silent. Bilal Philips's remarks are also a direct contradiction of Maldivian laws under which the general age of marriage is 18 years. However, young people of 16 and above can be married off under special circumstances, at the discretion of the judge.

The Maldives has one of the highest child sexual abuse rates in the world and the speech by Philips will be seen by many as an endorsement of the pro-child sexual abuse ideology. Many child sexual abuse sympathisers - and there are many in this country - have long tried to justify sex with minors by claiming that once a girl attains puberty she is no longer a child 

What is unacceptable is that the Maldivian Human Rights Commission, which has an obligation under national and international laws to defend the rights of children, and UNICEF, didn't feel a need to make a statement in response to Philips's speech. Other silent onlookers include the child protection services at the police department and the health ministry, MP Kutti Nasheed, and former MP Ibra, who champion against child sexual abuse only when it suits them.

The state broadcaster TV Maldives gave free, live airtime to Bilal Philips while the Adhalat Party-led Islamic ministry endorsed the preacher's visit. There are those that claim that without the support of the Islamic ministry, the Wahhabi NGO Jamiyyathul Salaf would never have been able to bring Philips to the Maldives. Meanwhile, the Maldives Human Rights Ambassador Mohamed Latheef, who was also spotted at a recent pro-flogging rally, was scheduled to meet Philips, though it is not known in what capacity.

The education authorities were no better. The principal of CHSE not only provided the pro-child sexual abuse preacher access into her school, but made it compulsory for her students to attend his talk. 

On Saturday night, Bilal Philips was unabashedly condescending to women. While it was "permissible" in Islam, he said, for women to become heads of states, he warned of the consequences. "It's a fact," he said, that rule by women ended in failure, pointing out that this was what the prophet Muhammad had warned us a long time ago.

Bilal Philips also warned Maldivians against "Quranites". Recent Islamic scholarship has challenged people like Bilal Philips for their departure from the Quran  and dependence on Hadith to endorse regressive, misogynistic ideology. In response, Wahhabis have attacked liberal scholars of being "Quranites". Philips notably dismissed the progressive Islamic scholar Amina Wadud as a product of Jewish brainwashing.

The preacher will find many fans among misogynistic, pro-child abuse Maldivians, who try to justify their ideology under the guise of Islam.

But I'm not sure what they made of his declaration that cigarettes are haraam.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Cover-up of Independence Day pickup accident

A re-telling of the Independence Day pickup accident in Gan, Laamu Atoll, by several sources to Maldives Dissent, is pointing to irresponsible actions by those in charge and a cover-up by the authorities. At least 22 students, aged 12-15, and two of their teachers sustained various levels of injury when a pickup truck, speeding on the dirt-track from Thundi to Mukurimagu, lost control, skidded and overturned.

Three students were flown to Male for treatment the same night, while five more students and two teachers were ferried to the capital on a high-speed boat by the Coastguard the following day. According to the police the driver of the pickup truck, who received minor injuries, was taken into police custody after being treated by the hospital in Gan. It emerged that the license of the driver had expired in 2007 and both the police and officials, who accompanied the injured to Male, appear to put the blame solely on him for the worst accident in Laamu recently.

But sources in Thundi, Gan, claim that the picture painted by the authorities is misleading. The pickup truck was, in fact, part of an entourage including two motorcycles, a bus, and another pickup. The pickup that overturned was, in fact, trailing the other vehicles. The bus, at the head of the pack, with the police motorcycles, was carrying the principal of the Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Sani School and the female students. According to the girls, it was the principal, Ibrahim Asif Rasheed, who ordered the bus driver to break the 40-km/hour speed limit. The two pickups following tried to keep up with the bus, which had kicked up a massive cloud of dust. Motorists on the road at the same time claim the vehicles must have been speeding at at least 80km/hour. 

Without clearly seeing where he was going, the driver of the second pickup saw a pit on the dirt-road too late, tried to avoid it, and caused the pickup to skid and overturn, throwing off the students.

While the driver will almost certainly face charges, the authorities have not asked the principal of the school for an explanation of his irresponsible behaviour. Not only did he allegedly order the driver of the bus to break the speed limit while he had several of his students under his charge, it is also not quite clear why he bundled several other students in the back of two pickups. Under Maldivian law, it is illegal for pickup trucks to carry passengers in the back; only two persons can sit in the back to look after loads. But the second pickup had at least 25 students in the back when it lost control.

The authorities also appear to be downplaying the injuries caused by the accident. Families of the injured students say that the principal Rasheed tried to discourage them from sending the boys to Male for treatment, by claiming they would be discharged the same day and the school would not foot the medical bills. Initially, Male's Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital went with the official version. The official in charge, Dr. Abdulla Ubaid, at first said that no one had sustained serious injuries, praising Gan Hospital for their primary care of the patients. However, he later contradicted himself when he admitted that three of the students who had sustained head injuries, as well as a teacher who broke his shoulder, were in a  "serious" condition.

But sources in Gan claim the injuries included fractured skulls, and uncontrollable bleeding. Moreover, families complained that Gan Hospital didn't disinfect the wounds properly before stitching them up; as a result, they turned septic and IGMH had to take out the stitches.

Meanwhile, the evening of day that the patients arrived in Male, principal Rasheed was telling parents that all the patients had been discharged, and that there was no need to send any more students to Male. In fact it was only after three days that anyone was released from the hospital. But the education minister Musthafa Luthufy wasted no time in getting on TV to praise the school for its handling of the events.

The Al-Sani School, its principal, and the education authorities may hope that arrest of the driver of the pickup will be enough to appease the families of the victims. 

If things go as they plan, Rasheed may never have to answer any uncomfortable questions or be held accountable to the actions which directly and/or indirectly caused the worst accident in Gan, Laamu Atoll, in terms of the number of injured.