Trouble in paradise: The darker side of the Maldives

Published: April 11, 2013

Hilath Rasheed, the first openly gay and secular blogger in the Maldives, was about to walk through his front door one afternoon last year when he felt the box-cutter slice through his neck.

It took a moment to notice the blood pouring down his shirt. As his attackers sauntered off, Hilath staggered to the main road, clutching the loose skin over his throat with one hand. He managed to hitch a lift to hospital from a horrified motorcyclist. When a doctor in the emergency room asked him to move his hand away, a policeman and nurse fainted.

Following a miraculous recovery – doctors told him there was less than a 1 per cent chance of surviving such an attack – Hilath, 35, now lives in exile in Sri Lanka. He misses home, but a country where it is illegal to be non-Muslim and violent forms of religious fundamentalism are on the rise is no place for a homosexual secularist, he says.

"Extremism is the biggest threat my country faces," he said at a coffee shop in Colombo. "I was the first person to talk openly about homosexuality and religious freedom. People said I was brave, but often I think I was stupid."

Recent weeks have put a spotlight on Islamic fundamentalism in the Maldives after a 15-year-old girl who had been repeatedly raped by her stepfather was sentenced to 100 lashes for "fornication". A petition by the global advocacy group Avaaz has been signed by more than two million people demanding a tourist boycott until the flogging sentence is annulled.

In a rare interview at his home this week, President Mohammed Waheed told The Independent that he strongly opposes the court ruling. "This case should not have come to the courts at all. We see this girl as a victim," he said, adding that he has set up a committee to "understand what went wrong".

But that sits awkwardly with his recent decision to enter into a coalition with the religious Adhaalath party with elections to be held in September.

In a recent statement, Adhaalath backed the flogging, saying: "The purpose of penalties like these in Islamic shariah is to maintain order in society and to save it from sinful acts. We must turn a deaf ear to the international organisations which are calling to abolish these penalties."

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