Zaki, Didi, 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, Male.
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 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 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 to 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. 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 Male, on December 13, 2003.
All three were on medical leave from prison in Malé when police and the National Security Service (NSS) rearrested them in an August 2004 crackdown on pro-democracy reformists.
On the evening of August 12, in a rare protest, several thousand people gathered outside police headquarters in Male demanding democratic reforms 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 attended, but Zaki was too ill to go, according to CPJ sources.
The government declared a state of emergency the following day, August 13, and police arrested as many as 200 people, according to international news reports.
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. Prison officials abused Didi, keeping him blindfolded and handcuffed. He was transferred to Doonhidoo Prison, where he was kept in solitary confinement. In October, he was brought to the emergency room in the government hospital in Male for a deteriorating heart condition. Didi, who has been unable to get the bypass surgery he needs, was placed under house arrest in Male for a temporary medical leave. He remained there at year’s end.
A group of NSS forces detained Nisreen on August 13 as well, taking her to Maafushi Prison, known for its harsh conditions. She was transferred to Doonhidoo Prison on August 21 and was placed under house arrest on October 24. Suffering back pain due to her detention, Nisreen was under temporary house arrest in late December when a massive tsunami struck the Maldives. The remaining term of her sentence of banishment to Feeali Island, which was flooded in the tsunami, was postponed.
Zaki was arrested on August 16 and taken to Maafushi Prison, according to local sources. Zaki suffers from ill health, with back and kidney problems. Due to back injuries exacerbated by harsh prison conditions, he was put under house arrest on October 6, where he remained at year’s end.