Didi, Mohamed Zaki and Ibrahim Luthfee–businessmen who founded, edited, and wrote for the Dhivehi-language Internet publication Sandhaanu–were arrested along with their secretary, Fathimath Nisreen.
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 convicted 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, which is known for its harsh conditions, 18 miles (29 kilometers) south of the capital, Malé.
Before Sandhaanu was effectively closed in early 2002, the Web site attracted a large audience by local standards, according to Luthfee. The independent publication criticized the government for alleged abuse of power 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 the Maldivian government claims that the four received a fair trial, Luthfee told CPJ that officials denied the defendants’ requests for legal representation at the time of the trial.
A Maldivian government representative in London sent a statement to the BBC in 2003 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 convicted of inciting people “to violence … against a lawfully elected government.”
Luthfee told CPJ that the case against them was politically motivated, and that it was intended as a warning to others who criticize the government. Since Maldivian authorities fully control the media, Luthfee says it is impossible to write anything critical about the government in the official press. Therefore, Didi, Luthfee, and Zaki decided to launch their independent publication online from Malaysia, where Zaki immigrated from Mali in 1990. Because they were concerned about government surveillance inside the Maldives, Didi and Luthfee sent the text of Sandhaanu to Zaki in Malaysia in PDF files to upload and distribute from there.
On May 19, 2003, Luthfee escaped from custody while receiving medical treatment in Sri Lanka and has since received asylum outside the region. In the wake of prison riots in September 2003, Maldivian President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom pledged to reform his county’s prison system.
In December 2003, Zaki and Didi’s prison sentences were reduced to 15 years; Nisreen’s sentence was halved to five years, and she was banished to Feeali Island, south of Malé. All three were on medical leave when police and the National Security Service rearrested them in an August 2004 crackdown on pro-democracy reformists. After a massive tsunami struck the Maldives in December 2004, Nisreen’s remaining term was postponed. Zaki, who suffers from back and kidney problems, was released in August 2005.