An online petition calling on the Maldivian government to end the practice of flogging women and children for the crime of fornication has been signed by more than one million people worldwide.

The Avaaz.org petition, titled ‘Horror in Paradise’, follows the sentencing of a 15 year-old rape victim to 100 lashes and eight months house arrest, for confessing to a separate instance of fornication during the investigation into the alleged murder of her baby. The child was found buried in an outside shower area.

“Let’s put an end to this lunacy by hitting the Maldives government where it hurts: the tourism industry,” declares the Avaaz petition.

“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,” it states.

Worldwide support for the petition has extended to the travel media, with industry news website eTN declaring that that it would not accept advertising or press releases from any Maldives government agency until the issue was resolved.

“I am outraged on hearing that a 15 year-old girl, who has survived rape by her stepfather and a resultant pregnancy, has now been found guilty of “fornication” and sentenced to flogging and house arrest. I am an active member of the UNWTO World Tourism Network on Child Protection and as a world citizen I cannot be silence about this. No civilized country should get away with such a nightmare system of justice,” said eTN publisher Juergen Thomas Steinmetz.

Tourism Minister Ahmed Adheeb had made no response at time of press following the petition reaching one million signatures. Deputy Minister and Head of the Maldives Marketing and Public Relations Corporation (MMPRC), Mohamed Maleeh Jamaal was also not responding.

However, following an interview with Maleeh, local news outlet Sun Online reported the minister as saying that the Avaaz campaign was an attempt by the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) and “different media groups that work alongside the MDP” to “crush the country’s tourism” and “cause havoc on the country’s economy.”

“When they started the campaign, they were clearly aware of the president’s stand, as well the attorney general’s stand on the matter,” Maleeh said, according to Sun.

“Looking back, a 14 year-old was given the same sentence during former President Nasheed’s presidency and nobody seemed to have talked about that. This whole deed is an attempt to defame the country’s tourism industry and [damage the] economy,” he said.

According to Sun, resort tycoon, Judicial Services Commission (JSC) member and presidential candidate of the Jumhoree Party (JP), Gasim Ibrahim, at a rally on Fuvahmulah over the weekend also declared that a slight decline in tourism could have serious consequences on the lives of Maldivians.

As such, Sun reported Gasim as saying, “more focus should therefore be put on developing the fisheries industry.”

In the wake of global media coverage of the initial sentencing, the President’s Office issued a statement late last month expressing “sadness” over the sentence, and promising a review.

“The government is of the view that the case merits appeal. The girl is under State care and the government will facilitate and supervise her appeal of the case, via the girl’s lawyer, to ensure that justice is done and her rights are protected,” the statement read.

President’s Office Spokesperson Masood Imad has meanwhile expressed hope that punishments such as flogging would be debated and one day repealed.

Sources on the island Feydhoo have meanwhile told Minivan News that concerns had been raised by islanders since 2009 that the girl had potentially been the victim of sexual abuse not just by her stepfather, but a number of other unidentified men on the island.

Atoll Council President Moosa Fathy said police had conducted numerous investigations into the girl’s situation since 2009, but that she had ultimately been left in the custody of her mother and stepfather even after she was found to pregnant. He blamed the “limited facilities” available to house and protect the girl, as well as a lack of budget, management and staff to shelter vulnerable young people.

Second flogging sentence of underage girl

The most recent flogging sentence passed against the 15 year-old abuse victim follows a similar case in September 2012, in which a 16 year-old girl was sentenced to house arrest and 100 lashes for fornication with a 29 year-old man.

The man was convicted of sexual assault under common law and sentenced to 10 years in prison.  The girl was sentenced under Islamic Sharia on the charges of consensual sex outside of wedlock.

An official of the Ministry of Gender, Family and Human Rights at the time said the matter was the concern of “either the court or JJU (Juvenile Justice Unit). We will be concerned once the girl is flogged, but as far as I know, she hasn’t been flogged yet. We do not want to associate ourselves with a case that we are not involved in.”

Calls for moratorium

Amnesty International in 2009 called for a moratorium on flogging sentences in the Maldives, arguing that the sentences were disproportionately applied to women.

Amnesty’s calls were echoed in November 2011 in an address to parliament by UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay, who said the practice “constitutes one of the most inhumane and degrading forms of violence against women, and should have no place in the legal framework of a democratic country.”

Her comments were condemned by religious groups in the Maldives, with protesters urging authorities to arrest the UN High Commissioner and gathering outside the United Nations carrying signboards with slogans such as “Islam is not a toy,” “Ban UN” and “Flog Pillay”.

A presidential state apology for allowing Pillay to speak to parliament was one of the five demands of the December 23 coalition [of 2011], a mass gathering in the capital Male’ that saw the fractured opposition unite against President Nasheed on the pretext of protecting Islam.

Religious NGO Jamiyyathul Salaf meanwhile sent a letter to the UN Resident Coordinator, alleging that the Pillay’s call for a moratorium on flogging was “inhumane and disrespectful.”

The Foreign Ministry – at the time under the Nasheed administration – dismissed the calls for discussion on the issue, stating: “There is nothing to debate about in a matter clearly stated in the religion of Islam. No one can argue with God.”

Source: Minivan News – 24/03/2013 (http://minivannews.com/politics/one-million-people-sign-petition-calling-for-end-to-flogging-of-women-and-children-in-the-maldives-55045)