An online campaign urging tourists to boycott the Maldives has received the backing of nearly two million people.
The petition is calling for reform of the country’s judicial system after a 15-year-old rape victim was sentenced last month to 100 lashes for premarital sex.
The girl, from the island of Feydhoo, reportedly confessed to police investigating accusations that she had been raped by her stepfather and abused by other local men.
Hosted by the website Avaaz.com, it contains a plea to the Maldivian president Mohamed Waheed Hassan, to “do more to protect vulnerable women and children” and “change the law so that it better protects the victims of rape”.
“Let’s put an end to this lunacy by hitting the Maldivian government where it hurts: the tourism industry,” it says. “Let's build a million-strong petition, 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.”
Last week Sir Richard Branson also spoke out against the sentencing. He called for the president to intervene and said “enormous damage” was being done to the Maldives.
The petition, which has so far been signed by more than 1.87 million people, is illustrated with a picture of a crying child, alongside an image of one of the country’s trademark tropical beaches.
The decision to target tourism was strongly condemned by the country’s tourism ministry.
“People should not be doing anything to damage the industry,” Mohamed Maleeh Jamal told Minivan News, an English-language newspaper based in the capital, Male.
“In Switzerland, you would not see a campaign designed to damage Swiss chocolate. Likewise you would not see a German campaign to damage their automobile industry.”
He added that the government had already pledged to appeal the sentence given to the girl, and to review local laws on the use of flogging.
Tourism accounts for around a third of the country’s GDP, and since the overthrow of former President Mohamed Nasheed in February 2012, several calls have been made for travellers to stop visiting the islands.
Mr Nasheed – who became president in 2008, ending the 30-year authoritarian rule of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom – maintains that his overthrow was the result of a “coup”. He urged a complete tourism boycott last year, before issuing a new plea for holidaymakers to avoid those resorts whose owners he alleges were responsible for his downfall. The UK-based campaign group Friends of Maldives has made similar calls, while Amnesty International used the country’s idyllic tourism image to highlight alleged human rights abuses, with the publication of a pamphlet entitled “Another Side of Paradise”.
Attempts by country’s tourism ministry to promote the islands using the slogan “Sunny Side of Life” have also backfired.
Last month a pamphlet entitled “Cloudy Side of Life”, which drew attention to police brutality and human rights abuses, allegedly sanctioned by the current government, was handed out at a travel trade show in Berlin. “White sandy beaches, dancing palm trees and sparkling cocktails beckon the eager tourist to the Maldives,” it read. “However, a few miles away from your secluded resort island, the same government, backed by the same resort-owners who wave over the honeymooners to the sunny side of life, with their other hand, imposes great injustices, brutality, and human rights abuses on us, the citizens.”
It concluded by requesting visitors to “reconsider” a decision to visit the Maldives, which it claimed would “directly fund” alleged human rights abuses.
And last year the Twitter hashtag #sunnysideoflife – set up by the tourism ministry – was hijacked by thousands of pro-democracy campaigners who used it to issue similar statements.
Oliver Smith Telegraph.co.uk