Maldives: CPJ welcomes release of Internet journalist

New York, February 22, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists welcomes the release from house arrest of Internet journalist Ahmed Didi, who was pardoned today, four years after receiving a life sentence because of his work. Dissident Naushad Waheed was also pardoned.

“The release of our colleague Ahmed Didi is welcome but long overdue,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said. “Didi, like other independent voices in the Maldives, has suffered greatly for the right to transmit news and opinion, which is still not fully realized in the country.”

Didi, a founder of Dhivehi-language Internet publication Sandhaanu was arrested on February 5, 2002, and held in solitary confinement for several months before being sentenced to life imprisonment on charges of defamation, incitement to violence, and treason. His sentence was later reduced to 15 years, and he was transferred from prison to house arrest. Three of his colleagues were also given long prison terms for their involvement in the banned news outlet, but Didi was the last one in custody.

The release comes amid a series of moves by Maldivian President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom intended to ease international criticism of the country’s human rights record, including its treatment of the press. The president, who has ruled for more than 25 years and continues to control the country’s judiciary, has pledged democratic reforms.

“I am thankful to the international community who were concerned about me,” Didi told CPJ after his release. He said that he planned to seek compensation from Gayoom’s government in order to get medical treatment for health problems he experienced in custody. He also expressed skepticism about the president’s promises of reform.

Last week, in another reversal by Gayoom, the government allowed Sandhaanu to register as an independent newsweekly in the Maldives. Its co-founder, Mohamed Zaki, who was also jailed in 2002, told CPJ today that he would start operating the news outlet as soon as possible.

Other independent journalists said that they remain under pressure. Nazim Sattar, a reporter for Minivan News, a daily newspaper affiliated with the opposition Maldivian Democracy Party, told CPJ today that several legal cases are pending against the publication’s reporters and editors after its Web site and newspaper reported critically on the government. Staff members at affiliate Radio Minivan told CPJ that the station, based in Sri Lanka because private news radio broadcasting is illegal in Maldives, was raided by police there in December 2005. Minivan journalists believed that the raid was instigated by false accusations by the Maldivian police that the journalists were involved in gun-running.