CPJ condemns prolonged detention of journalists

Your Excellency:

The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the prolonged detention of three people–Ahmed Didi, Fathimath Nisreen, and Mohamed Zaki–affiliated with the online publication Sandhaanu who were arrested in early 2002. A fourth person, Ibrahim Luthfee, was also arrested, but escaped in May 2003.

Didi, Luthfee, and Zaki, businessmen who founded, edited, and wrote for the Dhivehi-language Internet publication Sandhaanu, were arrested along with their secretary Nisreen in late January 2002. Luthfee, Nisreen, and Zaki were arrested in the capital, Malé, and Didi was arrested days later in Colombo, Sri Lanka, en route to Bangkok for medical treatment for a heart condition, by Sri Lankan authorities on alleged travel document violations. According to Luthfee, the Sri Lankan authorities deported him to the Maldives where he was promptly arrested.

All four were held in solitary confinement for five months until their sentencing on July 7, 2002. After a summary three-day trial, they were found guilty of defamation, incitement to violence, and treason. Didi, Luthfee, and Zaki were sentenced to life imprisonment and one year of banishment for defamation, and Nisreen received a 10-year prison sentence, with a one-year banishment for defamation. The four were sent to Maafushi Prison, 18 miles (29 kilometers) south of the Malé, which is known for its harsh conditions.

Before it was effectively closed in early 2002, Sandhaanu attracted a large audience by local standards, according to Luthfee. Started in August 2001, the independent publication criticized the government for alleged abuse of power and corruption and called for political reform. There is no independent press in the Maldives: Television and radio are state-run, and the country’s three newspapers are under government control.

Although your government claims that the four received a fair trial, Luthfee told CPJ that their request for legal representation at the time of the trial was denied.

A Maldives government representative in London sent a statement to the BBC last year claiming that the charges against Didi, Luthfee, Nisreen, and Zaki were “purely criminal” because their publication was not officially registered, and that the four were found guilty of inciting people “to violence…against a lawfully elected government.”

Luthfee disagreed and told CPJ that the case against the four of them was politically motivated, and that it was intended as a warning to others who are critical of the government. Since the media is fully controlled by the Maldives government, Luthfee says that it is impossible to view opinions or write anything critical about the government in the official press. Therefore, Didi, Luthfee, and Zaki decided to launch their independent publication online from Malaysia, said Luthfee. Because they were concerned about government surveillance inside the Maldives, they regularly traveled to Malaysia to upload and distribute Sandhaanu.

On May 19, 2003, Luthfee escaped from custody while receiving medical treatment in Sri Lanka and has since received asylum outside the region. It has been reported that conditions for the three remaining people worsened after Luthfee’s escape, and that Didi and Zaki were again placed in solitary confinement.

In the wake of prison riots in September 2003, you pledged to reform the Maldives prison system. In mid-December 2003, Zaki and Didi’s prison sentences were reduced to 15 years, and Nisreen’s sentence was halved to five years. She was released from prison, but banished to Feeali Island, south of Malé, on December 13, 2003.

For the last 2 months Didi has been hospitalized because of his deteriorating heart condition, according to Luthfee. Doctors have asked for his early release because he needs bypass surgery.

As an organization of journalists dedicated to defending our colleagues worldwide, CPJ respectfully calls on Your Excellency’s government to release Didi, Nisreen, and Zaki immediately. Journalists should never be imprisoned for doing their jobs. We also ask you to ensure that Didi receives adequate medical attention.

The Maldives’ constitution protects its citizens’ right to “express his conscience and thoughts orally or in writing or by other means.” Didi and Zaki should not be punished for voicing their opinions about government reform, and Nisreen should not be held accountable for her employer’s actions.

Thank you for your attention to this important matter. We await your response.


Ann Cooper
Executive Director