The Republic of Maldives, lying about 420 miles southwest of Sri Lanka, consists of a chain of twenty-six natural coral atolls, comprising roughly 1,190 islands, and has an approximate population of 292,100. Only 198 of these small islands are currently inhabited and eighty-seven are holiday resorts. The Maldives is a popular destination for tourists, and over 500,000 of them visited the Republic in 2003.
The Maldives was an independent sultanate from 1153 until the Portuguese invaded in 1558. They ruled for just fifteen years until they were overthrown in an indigenous rebellion in 1573. In 1887 the Sultan of the Maldives signed a contract with the British Governor of Ceylon which turned the Maldlves into a British Drotectorate. The Maldives gained independence in 1965 and became a republic in 1968. It has been a full member of the Commonwealth since 1982 and is also a member state of the UN.
The authorities established a Human Rights Commission in December 2003, apparently in response to an incident on the Maafushi prison island – where a prisoner was killed, allegedly as a result of torture while in the custody of the National Security Service (NSS) – and the subsequent riots in Malt on 19 and 20 September 2003.
Under the Maldivian Constitution, President Gayoom is head of state and commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and has supreme authority. There are no alternative political parties in the Maldives. Gayoom came to power in 1978 and is currently serving his sixth consecutive term. According to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, President Gayoom is popular and his government has a good record of social development and economic success.
However, in the past fifteen years, dozens of people – including politicians, journalists and others protesting against government policies – have been detained arbitrarily in violation of their fundamental right to freedom of expression and assembly. According to Amnesty International: several prisoners of conscience have been tried and convicted by the Maldlvian Criminal Court without access to a lawyer, or to an independent and impartial appeal mechanism. They have been denied even the most basic facilities such as pen and paper to prepare written statements in their own defence.
Mohamed Nasheed, writer. politician and an elected , member of parliament advocating reforms, was arrested on 8 October 2001 and held incommunicado for several weeks. On 8 November, following a trial lasting only two hours. he was sentenced to banishment for two and a half years to a remote atoll, on charges of the ‘theft’ of unspecified government property. During his trial, he was not permitted access to a lawyer or to speak in his own defence. He was then ‘expelled’ 6-om parliament in March 2002 on the grounds that he had been absent for more than six months – whole he was in detention. On 23 June 2002, he was transferred from banishment to house arrest in Malt. Nasheed had been harassed and periodically detained since 1990, and was not allowed to earn a living as a journalist or publish his work as a historian.
He was granted asylum in the UK and at a recent meeting he updated me on the cases of Mohamed Zalu, Ibrahim Moosa Luthfee, Ahmed Ibrahim Didi and Fathimath Nisreen, who were arrested between 30 January and 1 February 2002 by the NSS. Siobhan Dowd wrote about their cases in LR March 2003. They were accused of writing and circulating Sandkaanu, an Internet magazine, which was being circulated clandestinely in Malt. Although Sandkaanu is highly critical of the regime, it does not advocate violent opposition to the government. One of the four, Luthfee, was severely mistreated in custody in September 2002. His health deteriorated and he was eventually sent for medical treatment, under police escort, to Sri Lanka, where he managed to escape from his guards in May 2003 and sought protection from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. He is currently living in exile in Switzerland. After his escape, Zaki and Didi were reportedly transferred in June from the prison island of Maafushi to Dhoonidhoo detention centre and held in isolation.
In a letter written to the Human Rights Commission of Maldives in January this year, Zaki stated that the case against Nisreen ‘has no foundation at all. She did not take part in the matter. . .. There was no proof or eniforces, dence of her involvement’. Nisreen’s sentence was halved to five years in November 2003.
Nasheed also spoke about the case of Naushad Waheed, a prominent artist with a similar story of political imprisonment. Waheed has been an outspoken critic of the government for many years. His latest arrest took place on 9 December 2001 in Malt. He was held in Dhoonidhoo detention centre for about five months before being transferred to house arrest. On 14 October 2002 he was tried in the Criminal Court without access to a lawyer or the opportunity to defend himself, and ten days later was sentenced to fifteen years’ imprisonment. H; was charged with treason, reportedly because of his involvement in public debates which were deemed critical of the government and in correspondence with Amnesty International detailing human rights abuses. Waheed was later transferred to Maafushi. where he shares a cell with about twenty other prisoners. He is only allowed family visits for one hour each month. In an account smuggled out of jail, Waheed describes horrific scenes of torture inflicted on himself and others. including children.
Readers can send appeals requesting the release of Naushad Waheed, Mohamed Zaki, Ahmed Ibrahim Didi and Fathimath Nisreen and the quashing of the sentence against Ibrahim Moosa Luthfee to:
President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom
The President’s Palace
Malk 2002, Republic of Maldives
Fax: 00 960 32 55 00