CPJ condemns detention of online publishers

Your Excellency:

The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the recent detention of online publishers Ahmed Didi and Mohamed Zaki, and their secretary Fathimath Nisreen, and calls for their immediate and unconditional release from prison.

Originally arrested in early 2002 on charges related to their work for the independent online publication Sandhaanu, the three were on medical leave from prison in the capital Malé when they were re-arrested by police and the National Security Service (NSS) in a crackdown on pro-democracy reformists. Although Didi, Nisreen, and Zaki are all in need of medical attention, authorities are holding them under harsh conditions that include blindfolds, handcuffs and solitary confinement, according to local sources.

On the evening of August 12, in a rare protest, several thousand people gathered outside police headquarters in Malé demanding democratic reform and the release of political prisoners. That night, protesters went to the homes of Didi, Nisreen, and Zaki and attempted to escort them to the demonstration to address the crowd. Didi and Nisreen did attend, but Zaki was too ill to go, according to CPJ sources.

Your government declared a state of emergency the following day, August 13, and police used tear gas to disperse the crowds, arresting as many as 200 people and injuring dozens, according to international news reports. Internet connection with the Maldives was disrupted for several days, and a curfew is still in effect.

Military personnel arrested Didi on the afternoon of August 13, and took him to Girifushi, an island with a military training center, even though he was suffering from shortness of breath and in need of medical care for a heart condition. A group of NSS forces detained Nisreen on August 13 as well, taking her to Maafushi prison, known for its harsh conditions. According to CPJ sources, Nisreen is being kept in solitary confinement and prison officials are abusing Didi, keeping him blindfolded and handcuffed.

Zaki was arrested three days later on August 16, and taken to Maafushi prison, according to local sources. Zaki suffers from ill health, with back and kidney problems. His son, Muad Mohamed Zaki, was also arrested and beaten by police. He was taken to Girifushi Island.

Local authorities defended these actions by claiming the protesters were trying to overthrow the government. But opposition representatives said the demonstrators held a peaceful protest, and the government’s actions were another blow to reform in the Maldives.

Didi 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. A fourth businessman, Ibrahim Luthfee, was also arrested, but escaped in May 2003. After a summary three-day trial, they were found guilty of defamation, incitement to violence, and treason in July 2002. 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.

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. Nisreen was allowed to return to Malé recently to receive medical treatment.

In the wake of prison riots in September 2003, you pledged democratic reform for the Maldives. The August 12-13 protests came just days before a scheduled Majlis or parliament meeting to discuss such reforms.

As an organization of journalists dedicated to defending our colleagues worldwide, CPJ respectfully calls on Your Excellency’s government to make good on its pledge to reform by releasing Didi, Nisreen, and Zaki immediately. Journalists should never be imprisoned for doing their jobs. We also ask you to ensure that all three receive immediate and adequate medical attention.

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


Ann Cooper
Executive Director