Living on an idyllic tropical island surrounded by some of the world’s most beautiful atolls and beaches is a dream for some. Yet, for many inhabitants of the Maldive islands, it is more like a nightmare: an atmosphere of fear and insecurity is almost universal, amid frequent arrest and imprisonment of its citizens for minor ‘offences’.
On July 7, three men were sentenced to life imprisonment after being found guilty, not of murder or treason, as one might assume -- but of taking part in an internet forum that criticised Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the Maldives’ ‘democratically elected’ president. Since becoming president in 1978, the former schoolteacher has been winning every presidential ‘election’ with the usual unrealistic ‘ninety-nine percent’ majority.
The cases of Mohamed Zaki, 50, Ahmed Ibrahim Didi, 50, and Ibrahim Moosa Luthufee, 37, were not reported in the international media, but were mentioned briefly in some human-rights newsletters. Because of the islands’ remoteness Gayoom has enjoyed a free hand, brutalising his people largely without attracting outside attention.
The three were accused of trying to “overthrow the government by calling on the people to come forward and fight” and “cause hatred in the people’s minds towards the government by forming a newsletter called Sandhaanu”, a newsletter available only through the internet. A woman, Fathimath Nisreen (21), was given a 10-year prison term for “encouraging writings against the government”. Earlier this year, Amnesty International expressed fears that they were tortured while in detention. Like many prisoners, their whereabouts are unknown. They are believed to be held on one of the 1,200 islands that comprise the Maldives republic.
Mohamed Zaki was a businessman who resettled in Malaysia after escaping a crackdown on those who supported Dr Waheed (now head of UNICEF Asia), who defeated Ilyas Ibrahim, Gayoom’s brother-in-law, during elections in 1989. Zaki’s part of the ‘crime’ was forwarding emails he received to those who requested them.
“This deeply upset the president, as he had always maintained his relatives and close friends as his ministers and members of the parliament. Thus, he wanted to arrest all the people involved in campaigning for Dr.Waheed and arrested a lot of people,” Zaki’s daughter Mazeena Zaki told Crescent International recently.
Zaki was arrested without warrant during a business trip to the Maldives, denied a lawyer and imprisoned without being charged. After five months under lock and key, he was brought to court and charged with “causing hatred”. The following month he was charged again for insulting Gayoom and his cabinet, who are mostly the president’s relatives. He was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment with the others.
Thanks to the close comradeship of Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad with Gayoom, the Maldivian secret police found its Malaysian counterpart cooperative. (The Malaysians are said to have huge business contracts in the Maldives, mainly in the tourism sector.) Simultaneously, Zaki’s 18-year-old son, also in Malaysia, was briefly arrested without warrant and interrogated by Maldivian secret police; his family was harassed and his house raided. Zaki’s life sentence is not the end of the matter: the Maldivian authorities are constantly interrogating him to find out about his business ventures.
These life sentences are part of a vicious campaign by Gayoom to try to ensure that the Maldivians -- who are all Muslim -- give up criticising the government’s policies. This government operates like a mafia under a parliament called the majlis, and its own brand of ‘shariah’. The president has powers to review and overturn court decisions, and appoint and dismiss judges without consulting the majlis.
Gayoom assumed his post in 1978 after a secret deal was reached to have his predecessor, Ibrahim Nasir, exiled to Singapore, where he now lives. The majlis has 48 members, all nominated and ‘elected’ by a referendum in which the only choice was ‘yes’ or ‘no’.
Thus it comes as no surprise that there is a large number of political prisoners in the Maldive republic, despite its small population of less than 200,000. On February 28 last year, 42 people, mostly academics and businessmen, handed in a petition to the Minister of home affairs requesting permission to set up a political party. The government refused, and by December a number of signatories had been detained.
MPs Umar Jamaal, Mohamed Latheef, Abdul Hannan and Abdul Aziz were detained without trial in December 2000 and January 2001 after they supported a bill in parliament on the protection of detainees’ rights. Abdulla Shakir, a member of parliament in Male, the capital, was abducted on July 18 and released several days later after interrogation. Mohamed Nasheed, another MP, was arrested on October 8 and held in comunicado for several weeks before being banished for two and a half years on charges of theft of unspecified ‘’government property’’, a favourite accusation of this regime against its critics. Nasheed was neither allowed a lawyer nor given any opportunity to speak in his own defence. Cartoonist Naushad Waheed and two students, both of whom had been studying in Malaysia, who were arrested on December 9 last year, have been treated likewise. Naushad now faces a life sentence after he admitted contacting Amnesty International and taking part in an internet discussion group.
Events in the Maldives are of concern to all Muslims because it has been a Muslim country for many centuries. It was originally a Muslim sultanate, ruled with relative stability until the current ‘republic’ was formed in 1968. Maldivian society is religious. The language, Divehi, is written in an Arabic-like script called Thaana. The Arab traveller Ibn Batutta visited the island in 1343 and described its inhabitants as “religious and upright”, and spoke of its Islamic atmosphere. This social fabric is now threatened by the government’s obsession with attracting tourists, who will bring with them social ills such as alcoholism, prostitution, gambling and drugs. In 1994 such concerns were expressed by poet Adam Nasreen in a poem called “Hayah al-Salah” (‘come to prayer’). He was arrested and denied communication with the outside world.
The Maldivian regime does not tolerate the mildest dissent. Gayoom has a penchant for personal luxuries and is more interested in million-dollar tourist-resorts than industries to provide meaningful employment to citizens. He is also beholden to special-interest groups. At one time there were reports of prominent Maldivians having links with the drugs mafia. Their funds were not commensurate with their businesses. Such rumours are no surprise, considering the experiences of the West Indies, which show how drug barons ingratiate themselves with the rulers of small island states.
The only hope for the Maldives lies in the current emergence of an educated class who increasingly demand a role in politics and accountability of its rulers. It remains to be seen how long the president’s secret police and the use of force and fear can contain the Maldivians’ frustrations.