Here are excerpts from President Abdulla Yameen’s May 3 speech, in which he defended a constitutional amendment that set age-limits of 30- 65 years for the presidency, dismissed calls to amend clemency laws to facilitate former President Mohamed Nasheed’s release. He also spoke on the death penalty and press freedom.
On press freedom:
“I also want to say, today is World Press Freedom Day. I extend my sincere greetings to all journalists. Additionally, I want to say, believe me, this government is with journalists. On World Press Freedom Day, I say with greetings, believe me, journalists must alert the Maldivian government on government affairs and on improving on matters of public interest. Journalists must accept that press freedom actually has its boundaries. Press freedom is the act of reporting responsibly. It is not detailing to the people, the disputes between neighbours, or stories that undermine and defame individuals. Journalism will become a platform to speak out about wrongdoings by the authorities, those who govern the people. Journalists must accept that they are first human brings. Maldivian journalists are second Maldivians. And thirdly, just as they want dignity, they must be people who protect other’s dignity.
“Therefore, journalism must be responsible. As World Press Freedom Day is marked around the globe, I greet journalists and I say, this government has not violated press freedom. What has only happened with journalism is defamation, the publishing of stories that do not solicit the views of the accused, without the opportunity for the accused to defend themselves, without looking into what had happened. Published on newspapers and online websites. It is unacceptable, in my opinion, to broadcast such stories on radios and TVs, in a small community such as the Maldives, comprising of a citizenry that follows Islam. If I defer to Islamic principles – I only know what the scholars say – it is a grave sin.
“So today, my appeal is for journalists to do whatever they want, within the limits of press freedom. As long as I remain in power, I have no issue with what is written or said about myself or government institutions and their work. But I do not believe in destroying others’ reputations without thought. So on this day, World Press Freedom Day, I say to you, proceed with your freedom. I am only stating what journalists must not do. You can do everything else. Even as I speak, I know there is much underway to defame me. Although this is not an issue for me, the problem is, that there are some who are not able to bear this, and if all of this people live in the Maldives, they too must be afforded equal rights. If equal rights are to be afforded, journalists must carry on with their work by respecting others, and without undermining the rights and dignity of others.”
On the constitutional amendment that set age limits of 30-65 years for the presidency:
“The Maldives and the world accept democracy to be the best process. As Siyam just said in his speech, Islam and Prophet Muhammad promotes consensus. Finding consensus entails implementing policies that are accepted by the majority. And soliciting the opinions of their opinions. This is the system in the Maldives.
“What happens to us sometimes, is that if things don’t go the way we want – the constitution is deemed to be at an infant stage. If they get their way, the constitution is ripe and ready. So, we do not know what stage the constitution is at. When people talk about losing their rights, or having their rights trampled on, when they talk about having those rights, they will say that the constitution is in its infant stage. So, we have to work outside of what is said in the constitution. That’s because things aren’t going the way they want. But if things are going the way they desire, if they conclude in the way they want then this is a ripe and ready constitution, it is ready to fall from the tree.
“There must be some substance to what we say and how we act… We have not brought a change to the features of democracy as outlined in the Constitution. We brought a minor change. It is not easy to amend the Constitution. Few changes. The Constitution has been locked up to prevent amendments to the Constitution. It is especially difficult to amend provisions on individual rights. It requires a specific majority in the parliament. That is not easy given that representatives from different political parties were elected to the People’s Majlis. Other provisions are also useful to the Maldivian people. It is not easy to amend those either. Of the changes brought recently, one amendment has caused some concern, that setting age limits for presidential candidates. The provision that disqualifies individuals over 65 years of age. That has caused concern. But considering this from the perspective of a typical Maldivian mindset, I do not see how this should cause disputes among us. That is, if you look at the population of the Maldives, some two-thirds are the youth.
“To those who want to debate with me on this matter, I say let’s debate. The government’s actions are not without thought. It comes with careful consideration, consideration of future advantages to the people. [The Constitution] details criteria for presidential candidates. The only criterion that those who wrote the Constitution did not set was the age. But since the young comprise such a large portion of the Maldivian population – it is only when I come to islands such as these what people crave for, the fast speed at which people want development. If we want to do carry out these tasks at a fast speed, we must act fast. So, think about what happens when one reaches 65 years of age… We lowered the age limits for the presidency because we wanted to let the young and educated know they too have the opportunity to govern and even assume the position of head of state. Some lawyers then said this was a loss of rights. No, no one’s rights has been lost. When we set that in the Constitution, that right is afforded to everyone without discrimination. It is not just in this matter that the Constitution has set criteria for. This was not an unlawful act by the government. This amendment was brought through due process. If a majority of the people, and a majority of MPs support this, there is every reason for change.”
On amending clemency laws:
“The Maldivian people do not accept slaughter of their brothers and sisters. Under previous laws, before the current Constitution came into force, those who murder, those who commit heinous crimes, could get out, receive clemency, and serve just like the innocent. Serious offenders have come out of jail. When the Constitution was being amended, we decided that the president must not be afforded that authority. When individuals who destroy the entire society’s innocence get sentenced to jail, they must serve and complete that sentence. We did not believe then that, in as small a state as ours, the president must not be afforded the right to reduce sentences of those who commit such crimes.
“And so the change has been made. The president alone is not responsible for pardoning or reducing sentences for criminal offenders. There is a clemency board. A parole board. The law specifically states which offences are not eligible for clemency. The law shows the path the president must walk on. It makes it easy for anyone who assumes the presidency. More discretion means more mistakes. The basis of democracy is writing down everything in the law in black and white. The courage to enforce those laws, written in black and white, is ensuring the freedoms of a democratic system, and the only thing that can ensure those freedoms is the presence of leaders who can enforce the law, especially criminal laws, on everyone without discrimination. This was the most important basis of my primary contest when I stood against the candidates in my party’s presidential primaries; that I would uphold the rule of law for the Maldivian people. So today, I do not have the authority to discriminate in enforcing the law. I do not have that choice. In a democracy, the law must be enforced on everyone. The president has no discretion in the matter…
“When the law is such, is it that we are inebriated when there are some who believe that the act of arresting a judge and holding him for days is not a crime? We believe this offence must be punished. The arrest of an ordinary man bothers us. We have to know what happens to them. They must have the opportunity to speak in their defence. The constitution guarantees them the right to appoint a lawyer. This are democratic principles. But when these principles are enforced on some, it is deemed unacceptable. So democracy is weakened. The authority to enforce the law is weakened. When this government decided to enforce the death penalty, those who spoke out the loudest against the move was the opposition. I do not believe this has anything to do with human dignity. If they respect human dignity, the first step is to reduce the number of people who commit major crimes. One’s life is not a plaything of the other. The strongest criticism came against us when we started to implement [the death penalty]. If our citizens are criticizing this, why wouldn’t foreign nations do the same? As I said in Kuda Huvadhoo yesterday, such rights are practiced differently everywhere. The most-democratic nation implements the death penalty. A majority of EU member states don’t. Islamic states do practice it. We must implement the death penalty in the Maldives because this government wants to protect human dignity. This government does not want to allow the opportunity for a person to kill another…
“When major crimes are committed, criminal justice will be enforced. The law states what sort of crimes the president cannot pardon, for example, terrorism. It is not the president who will change that law. It is the people’s representatives who will change that law. If they change the law, the president will have to act accordingly.”
On democracy, gay rights and tuna:
“I had to speak on democracy because of the pressure by some foreign governments over complaints that there is no democracy in the Maldives and that there are no freedoms here… In matters where I have no discretion, no matter the sanctions proposed by foreign parties on the Maldivian government, I have to say, let’s look at our laws. Afterwards, if we accept amendments to our laws as dictated by foreigners, then we do not have to write down that Islam is the religion of the Maldivian state. Why don’t we let go of that too? Why don’t we let go of that? If so, the Maldives would not be fixed in a particular location in the Indian Ocean, it will float away with the waves. Must we be forced to do such a thing? I’m speaking of proposals from people amongst us. This is not acceptable. A majority of the Maldivian people will not believe it when they say they did so for in the interest of the Maldivian people. I want to say, to my brothers and sisters at MDP, if they lose their rights or dignity, it is to those same courts that they must go to protect their rights. When the dignity of that court is violated, how will they regain those rights? And if the law is not enforced when their rights are being dismissed, where will they go to regain their rights? This cannot happen. Rights are protected by the powers stated in the law, and the law will be implemented…
“The Maldives may be a small country, but we want to let the world know of our ways. We also want progress. And as a member of the international community, we also want to accept good practices adopted by other states. But there are some practices we cannot accept. Because we are Muslims, we are not able to accept all the individual freedoms, that is certain. We get penalised for these things, too. We get penalised for the fish we export too. And the dead fish in tins, there don’t have any rights. They don’t commit crimes either. But even the canned fish are getting punished, because there aren’t some specific rights in the Maldives. For example, because we don’t have rights like same sex marriage. Because people don’t have the right to behave however they want. Because people can’t practice whatever religion they want. If that is the case, it is not the people of the country who get punished. But the fishermen. As Siyam said, we have been deprived of duty-free status for fish imports to the EU. Even so, we cannot let go of this. Since we are Muslims, we remain steadfast on our principles. So we have no issue with the extent to which canned fish is being punished. We do not want to slip from our faith.”
Additional reporting by Xiena Saeed