Zaki, Luthfee, and Didi, businessmen who founded, edited, and wrote for the Dhivehi-language Internet publication Sandhaanu, were arrested along with their secretary Fathimath Nisreen. Luthfee, Nisreen, and Zaki were arrested in the capital, Malé. On February 5, Sri Lankan authorities arrested Didi in Colombo, Sri Lanka, for alleged travel document violations while he was en route to Bangkok for medical treatment for a heart condition. According to Luthfee, Sri Lankan authorities deported Didi to the Maldives, where he was promptly arrested. Zaki, a native of Mali who lives in Malaysia, was visiting the Maldives from Malaysia at the time of his arrest.
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 Malé.
Before Sandhaanu was effectively closed in early 2002, the Web site 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 the Maldivian 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 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 disagreed and 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 the media are fully controlled by the Maldivian government, Luthfee says 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, where Zaki emigrated from Mali in 1990. Because they were concerned about government surveillance inside the Maldives, Didi and Luftee 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. 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, Maldivian President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom pledged to reform his county’s 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.
Since March 2003, 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.
Zaki was allowed to go home on medical leave for two weeks in May for treatment of kidney stones, back pain, and prostate problems.