Almost 150 women living in the Maldives face a public flogging for indulging in extra-marital sex after being convicted by the Muslim country's conservative courts. Around 50 men also face the punishment.
Earlier this month, an 18-year-old woman fainted after she was flogged 100 times having been found guilty of having sex with two different men. The woman, who was pregnant at the time of sentencing, had her punishment deferred until after the birth of her child and the court said the teenager's pregnancy was proof of her guilt. In contrast, the accused men were acquitted, with one of them escaping punishment simply because he denied the charge.
The head of the country's Criminal Court, Judge Abdulla Mohamed, told the island's Minivan News that flogging was a deterrent and not designed to cause injury and said the person carrying out the punishment was prohibited from raising his arm higher than his shoulder. "The public should know this lady or man have done these things and they will stay away from these things," he said. As to why fewer men were prosecuted, he said: "A man, after making this problem, will go away and maybe the woman will have relations with more than one man and won't know who was responsible. Or the man denies it."
But Amnesty International's Maldives specialist, Abbas Faiz, called flogging "a cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment which is banned by international human rights law. The practice is humiliating and leads to psychological as well as physical scars for those subjected to it for years. [It is] a form of torture." The most recent official statistics available to the group date from 2006 and show that a total of 184 people were sentenced to flogging for extra-marital sex under a penal code that includes elements of Sharia law. Of those 146 were women, with the majority of the punishments still to be carried out.
In the Maldives, an island nation made up of more than 1200 atolls, the issue of flogging has become a political battleground following the whipping of the teenager earlier this month outside a government building in the capital, Male. Reports said that the women required hospital treatment after she was flogged in front of a jeering crowd of men.
Since then there have been a number of demonstrations in favour of flogging and several articles published defending its use. Since the case was publicised there have been a number of demonstrations in support of flogging, some calling for the deportation of a British journalist, Maryam Omidi, who published reports of the incident in the local Minivan News. "It's hard to tell whether this is indicative of a wider feeling, because people are afraid to speak out," Omidi said. "But I had people calling me up to offer their support."
In its first free polls held last year, the Maldives elected as its president Mohammed Nasheed, a former prisoner of conscience. But campaigners say the liberally-inclined Mr Nasheed feels prevented from speaking because of his dependence on Islamist coalition allies and because of opponents who are using a debate over Sharia law as political lever.
The Islamist Adhaalath Party, which is a member of the coalition government, has denied organising these demonstrations.
Yet, some voices have spoken out. "We don't cut off the hands of all those who steal and we don't implement the death sentence so why do we continue with these very inhumane practices, especially when the statistics show that the victims are women," said MP Eva Abdulla.
Reports suggest that in recent years, many mosques in the Maldives have fallen under the influence of foreign, conservative imams. The previous president, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who had been Asia's longest-serving ruler and who positioned himself as the country's "defender of Islam", had sought to use the religion to bolster his dwindling. The government in turn said that more conservative forms of the religion had been able to spread as restrictions on freedom of expression were lifted.
For Mr Nasheed, a former political activist who served six terms in jail, the controversy is a severe test. While his inclinations may be of a moderniser, he remains dependent on the support of the conservative Adhaalath Party. Indeed, the party is said to have a grip on the ministry of Islamic Affairs which Mr Nasheed created last year, apparently a political reward for its support.
Last night, presidential spokesman Mohamed Zuhair told The Independent the government was committed to fulfilling its obligations to international treaties that prohibit torture. He added: "The president is holding meetings with all concerned parties to try and deal with this."