Maldivian reporter gets life in prison; CPJ seeks thorough review

New York, April 20, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists is disturbed by the Maldivian government’s prosecution of journalists working for Minivan News, a media group affiliated with the opposition Maldivian Democracy Party. Minivan Daily reporter Abdullah Saeed, known as Fahala, was sentenced on Wednesday to life imprisonment on a drug charge, which colleagues believe was fabricated by the government in an effort to silence the newspaper.

“The Maldivian government has repeatedly demonstrated its antipathy toward the country’s only nongovernmental daily by harassing its journalists, prosecuting them on a litany of charges, and smearing them in government publications,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said. “These circumstances lead to skepticism that the government has given Abdullah Saeed a fair trial. We call for a thorough review of any evidence against him during his appeal.”

The judge blocked several witnesses from testifying in Saeed’s defense in a trial that concluded last week, the online Minivan News reported. The Maldives, governed by President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom since 1978, does not have an independent judiciary despite pledges of reform, and judges are still appointed by the executive branch.

Saeed’s lawyer argued that police planted drugs in the journalist’s clothing after calling him to the station for unspecified reasons. The lawyer said that police found no drugs during an initial search of the journalist’s pockets—while the lawyer was present—only to discover 1.1 grams of heroin after isolating Saeed and removing his clothes from view. Possession of more than 1 gram of an opiate in Maldives brings an automatic charge of intent to sell. The journalist was convicted on a drug charge once before, in 2000, but was pardoned three years later.

The reporter has been imprisoned since March 27 in Maafushi Prison, south of the capital Male. Authorities have denied his request to see an eye doctor after his glasses were broken during his arrest. Saeed plans to appeal his sentence.

In a separate development, Minivan Daily Editor Nazim Sattar was charged on Tuesday with “disobedience of an order” in connection with an article he wrote for the newspaper in August 2005, he told CPJ. In the article, he quoted a Maldivian Democracy Party leader who suggested that police violence be countered with acts that make them “feel that beatings result in pain.”

Police have not told Sattar what order he is accused of disobeying. If convicted, he could face up to six months in prison. His colleagues believe that if Sattar, who acts as the newspaper’s editor-in-chief, is imprisoned for even a few days, his absence could threaten the survival of the newspaper. Under the Maldives’ strict regulations, newspapers can lose their registration if they fail to publish three consecutive issues. Minivan News—the word “Minivan” means independence—became the first nongovernmental daily in the country when it was permitted to register in 2005.

Minivan journalists told CPJ that a third journalist, Mohamed Yushau, has been in custody since April 13 for unspecified reasons. Yushau had intended to report and participate in a demonstration in the south of the country