Global outrage is growing against a Maldives court's verdict announced on February 26, 2013 to flog a 15-year-old girl who was originally a victim of rape and sexual abuse. She now faces 100 lashes in public which will be administered when she turns 18.
More than one million people have signed a petition created by the campaign website Avaaz.org, urging Maldivian authorities to protect the girl and end the practice of flogging of women and children for sex outside marriage. The petition also threatens to hit at the country's tourism industry until President Mohamed Waheed acts.
The girl has been a victim of sexual abuse dating back to 2009 and consecutive governments have failed to protect her, according to a report by Minivan News.
The court sentenced her to 100 lashes and 8 months of house arrest for confessing to a separate case – not related to the rape – of consensual sex with a man. She was first taken for questioning in 2012 when a dead baby was found buried inside her family compound. Her stepfather has been charged with murdering her baby and child sexual abuse while her mother has been charged with concealing the sexual abuse.
The police are under fire for a rushed investigation without providing adequate counselling for the girl and obtaining a confession out of her for prosecution. The Prosecutor General's Office claimed that a confession of fornication left no choice for them but to press ahead with prosecution under Maldives’ laws. In January 2013, when charges were pressed against the girl, the government said it will review and correct laws that victimize minors and women who suffered sexual abuse.
Amnesty International immediately condemned the charges. Abbas Faiz, Amnesty International’s Maldives Researcher, argued that suspected victims of rape and sexual abuse required counselling and support rather than facing prosecution.
When the Juvenile Court sentenced the girl in February, the news was covered by mainstream media outlets including BBC and CNN. Faced with prospect of international condemnation, the government pledged to review the case and appeal it in a superior court. The conservative religious Adhaalath Party supported the court's verdict.
The Prosecutor General's decision to use the confession of the girl as evidence against her in the prosecution has been heavily criticized.
Following the sentence, Maldivian activists started using the hashtag #OperationEndherima on social media to mount a campaign to protect the girl and voice out against the injustices she was facing.
Twitter user AdduHaanee (@AdduHaanee) wrote:
Ismail (@Ismaar1) encouraged others to stand up for the girl:
Azaf Riza (@azaf_riza) lamented the situation:
The issue has gained worldwide attention after the petition started on Avaaz on March 20, 2013 received one million signatures within three days.
Meanwhile, Maldivians are reacting online to Avaaz's petition and are continuing the local campaign #OperationEndherima as well.
On Twitter, Hamid Shafeeu (@shafeeu) wrote:
Nuvana (@Nuvana) called the girl's punishment “insane”:
xiena saeed (@dorinbakedbeans) tweets:
Avaaz is planning to run ads on travel magazines to pressure the government of Maldives to abolish flogging as a form of punishment. In a country that aimed for one million tourists in 2012 and narrowly missed that mark, the implications of a global campaign that could damage the tourism industry are huge. The Avaaz petition reads:
Tourism is the big earner for the Maldives elite, including government ministers. Let's build a million-strong petition to President Waheed this week, then threaten the islands’ reputation through hard-hitting ads in travel magazines and online until he steps in to save her and abolish this outrageous law.
Maleeh Jamal, the deputy minister of tourism, has said such a negative campaign will damage not only the tourism industry of Maldives but the country as a whole. Jamal's concerns are echoed by some Twitter users who feel opposition activists are using this issue to attack the government.
asoa (@asoa) wrote:
#OperationEndherima has also been criticized for failing to highlight the issue of “Hoara” Ibrahim Rasheed, a senior official of Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), who is accused of having consensual sex with an underage girl and then later claiming to have married her.
asoa (@asoa) was critical on this point:
There are mixed reactions, both from Maldivians and foreigners, about Avaaz's plan on targeting the tourism industry. The publisher of tourism news website eTurboNews supports boycotting Maldives tourism.
Farah Faizal (@FarahDidi) wrote about the country's priorities:
Some Maldivians feel that targeting the tourism industry is the only option left to force the authorities to review the gross injustices associated with the Maldives’ criminal justice system. However, there are others who feel that a negative tourism campaign will impact not only the politicians as Avaaz believes but the ordinary people of the Maldives who depend on the tourism industry for their livelihood. An estimated 30,000 Maldivians are employed by the tourism industry while thousands of others benefit indirectly from tourism through support services such as the supply of fish and vegetables, transport services and sales of souvenirs.
anonymous (@AnonQC), believed to be a Twitter handle of supporters based in Quebec of the hacker collective Anonymous, wrote that the campaign should specifically target certain tourism spots:
The account added:
Some Maldivians are against the Avaaz campaign because they believe flogging is a punishment prescribed by Islamic Sharia.
Whistle Blower (@Whistleblovir) defended Sharia law:
Ibrahim Mustafa (@imustho) wrote:
@imustho: Tomorrow if 1 million people make a petition on Avaaz do we have to change our constitution also to allow other religions in Maldives.