On World Press Freedom Day, The Maldives Independent profiles 13 men – dissidents, writers and journalists – who suffered prison, solitary confinement, prosecution, and torture for their words, written on newspapers, magazines, leaflets, mailing lists, websites and their own personal diaries.
Abdul Majeed Shameem, reform activist
Abdul Majeed Shameem, known as Majeed Sir, was arrested and sentenced in 1990 for leafletting. He is now a member of the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party.
“In the early 90s, late 80s, all of the newspapers carried articles praising then-President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. I disagreed with his authoritarianism, so we dumped leaflets criticising Gayoom and his ministers, at the mosques and at the People’s Majlis. There was no other way; we did not have the freedom to gather or freedom to express ourselves.
In early 1990, I was speaking amongst friends of a note I had written about how Gayoom had appointed his brother Ilyas Ibrahim as defence minister to maintain his autocratic rule – I had that particular note in my pocket. One of the men there reported this incident to the police, and the police came and searched a private tuition center I was running. They searched me, found the note in my pocket and took me in.
I was arrested along with six others. During the interrogation, I was not questioned over the note, but only about my support for Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan, who had been elected to the parliament with an overwhelming majority the previous year. Gayoom was afraid that we were attempting to help bring Waheed to the presidency. While in detention, we were not mistreated as such, we were given mattresses, the police did not lay a finger on us. I was banished to Noomara in Shaviyani atoll, a northern island with a very small population, for seven years. The others who were sentenced with me were not really involved in dumping these notes, except for Adam Fulhu. I was pardoned after one and a half years on the island.”
Mohamed Nasheed, Sangu
Mohamed Nasheed, former president of the Maldives (2008 – 2012), was first arrested on November 24, 1990 over an article published in Sangu. He was held in solitary confinement for 18 months.
He was re-arrested in 1994, and sentenced in 1996 for comments he had made about the presidential elections of 1993.
“In 1989, after graduating from university in England, I went back to the Maldives. By this time, the state had become more and more repressive. It’s not an exaggeration to say that, at the time, the Maldives was one of the most repressive countries in the Commonwealth, if not the world.
Political parties were banned, NGOs were outlawed, the media was under tight government control, dissent was forbidden, the president was the head of the judiciary, the head of the parliament and only one name that ever appeared on a ballot paper. Nevertheless, a few friends and I decided to set up a magazine, called Sangu. It was a political publication, talking about corruption and human rights abuses.In our magazine, we talked about some of the regime’s dirty secrets. We started to expose its ugly underbelly. We shone a light on it’s murkier operations.
Not surprisingly, the regime cracked-down hard on our independent magazine. One night, at around 3am, the police came to my house, raided my home and took me to jail. This was the first time I was taken to prison…I was eventually let out of jail. And while the regime continued to crack down on Sangu magazine, they were never able to completely stop it, or the ideas that it espoused, namely, democracy, human rights and good governance.
With Sangu, we had created a spark, which eventually turned into a flame, and later became a raging inferno demanding political change. The regime was unable to put out the fire. In the end, they were forced to relent, amend the Constitution and allow political parties. In 2008, the country held its first free and fair presidential election, which I was fortunate enough to win.”
Ahmed Shafeeq, historian
On April 21, 1995, Ahmed Shafeeq, a prominent local historian, was arrested and held in solitary confinement for 83 days. Shafeeq’s home was raided by a dozen soldiers, who also confiscated his personal journals. His peers, Ali Moosa Didi, Hassan Ahmed Maniku and Ahmed Latheef were arrested with him.
Following his arrest, local newspapers reported that the four who “collect and research historical documents about the Maldives, and write about the history of the Maldives in newspapers and magazines,” had been arrested for writing unspecified texts that had consisted of “untrue and defamatory stories about certain individuals and families.” They were also accused of misrepresenting the Maldives abroad.
“My diaries were taken from me without due process, without my consent, after threatening me… They contained information about people who were killed – I collected that information, from my friends and other people who carried out this research. A lot of people who assisted me have now passed away. These writings have also been lost along with my diaries. There is information about an estimated 111 murders. I would like for former President Maumoon to be questioned and provide compensation for the loss I incur with the loss of this information,” Shafeeq wrote in a letter to the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives in 2009.
“I think President Maumoon wanted to read my texts and diaries for four reasons. The first reason is that I journal my memories, and the President Maumoon wanted to read what I had written. That is why he sent the police to seize my books. The second reason is perhaps because I refused to write a book based on President Maumoon’s life upon Abdulla Hameed’s [Gayoom’s brother and cabinet minister] request. The third reason is because President Maumoon is afraid of writers. He wants to stop us. The fourth reason is because President Maumoon dislikes my friends. He has, at various times, informed his once- brother-in-law Fathuhulla Jameel, Dr Zahir Hussain, and Mr Zakariyya Hameed via various representatives, to stop coming to Shafeeg-ge [my house] and to stop talking politics on the Shafeegge joali.
What I gather from my interrogations while I was incarcerated is that the president was deeply unhappy with me, and that freely expressing ourselves is not something we can do.”
Shafeeq was released without charge and was ordered to write a letter to the president offering thanks for his release. In 2012, he published the book, “A day in the life of Ahmed Shafeeq,” alleging that some 111 people had died in prisons during Gayoom’s regime. The former president successfully sued Shafeeq for defamation that year. The historian passed away in 2014, at the age of 87.
Moosa Wajdee, Haveeru
“I was banished to remote islands twice in the 1990’s; once for writing that the then-President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom had lied, and once for writing that the presidential elections were rigged.
I was accused of writing baseless stories. I accept that. The punishment handed to me was valid. I had committed a crime under the laws of Maldives and everyone is equal before the law. I was also jailed for the duration of the first two SAARC summits held in the Maldives. The security services had deemed me a threat to national security.
I believe that punishment was legal too. They had the authority, under the laws of the day, to imprison people they deemed a threat to security. These things happen all over the world. Journalists are not exempt from the law. If they commit a crime they should be duly punished.
I believe that today’s journalists lack the appropriate knowledge to do their job. The government is not out to attack journalism or journalists. The government is only doing their job by enforcing the law.”
According to Amnesty International, Wajdee was taken into police custody on October 19, 1994, and held at Dhoonidhoo detention center until after the elections. His arrest related to an article he wrote for Haveeru which reportedly referred to the possibility that candidates running for the December 1994 parliamentary elections may have a record of corruption and that government officials running as candidates were using their positions to gain votes.
Wajdee now works at the environment ministry.
Abdulla Waseem, Haveeru
“In 1995, I was working for Haveeru in Addu Atoll Hithadhoo. At the time, the Atolls Ministry had appropriated private powerhouses and increased electricity prices. I wrote a short article on the price hike. Days later, I was told to travel to Malé. That was during the month of Ramadan.
I was taken to the defence ministry and held at the police headquarters. A man called ‘Lady’ Ibrahim Manik interrogated me. He showed me the paper, and asked me who had written the article. I said it was me. He hit me and said: “You reporters make it impossible for us to administer this country.” At the time, riots had broken out in nearby Fuvahmulah over electricity prices. He said the citizens were protesting because of my report. I asked him if the people would not have realised the hike in prices if we had not written that report.
I never thought I would be arrested for reporting the facts.
I was taken to Dhoonidhoo the next day and kept detained for three months. I was questioned twice. I told the military that my wife was pregnant and about to give birth, but I was not allowed an opportunity to inform my family of my arrest. Three months later, I was taken to Himmafushi, where I met Mohamed Nasheed. He told me to write to President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. I asked how it would help. Nasheed said, why don’t you write, even if all that you have to write is profanities. I wrote a letter, and within three days, I was brought to Malé, and told that the president was not aware of my arrest. I was promptly released. Six months had passed by then.
I quit journalism and became a pharmacist. I had three children, my fourth child was born while I was in prison. My wife and family suffered, they had no one. That is why I quit journalism.”
Mohamed Shaheeb, Haveeru
Mohamed Shaheeb, a journalist writing for the newspaper Haveeru, was arrested on January 20, 1997, over a fictional short story he had written, called “Kuda Golhi” or “jail cell,” according to Amnesty International. The story was about the treatment of a young woman detained in solitary confinement in a police cell.
Shaheeb was not responding to calls for comment.
He is now the president of the Maldives Broadcasting Commission.
Ibrahim Luthfy, Sandhaanu
“I was arrested in 1988 for a silly reason I cannot remember. After my release, I told then-Defence Minister Ilyas Ibrahim of the horrors I had witnessed in prison. He told me to forget what I had seen. In 1998, I was arrested again and held in Gaamaadhoo prison. I was tortured every time. A fire broke out in Gaamaadhoo that year, and the security officers beat us even more. After my release, I wanted to inform the public, somehow, of what was going on behind bars in the Maldives.
We started publishing Sandhaanu in 2001 in Malaysia. We circulated a newsletter via email and people in Malé would distribute the paper in the city. We were not involved in its distribution. We had decided not to set up a website because the Maldivian government was already blocking some sites.
We were operating in Malaysia and the Maldives. One of our writers Ahmed Zaki was living there at the time. Then in 2002, the Maldives government in a joint operation with the Malaysian authorities raided our offices and homes, both in the Maldives and Malaysia. Many were arrested.
Myself, Ahmed Zaki, Ahmed Didi and my secretary Fathimath Nisreen were charged with defaming and planning to topple the government. We were severely tortured. I was hung by chains out of my cell for 11 days and 11 nights.
Gayoom wanted to show the world that we were getting a fair trial. Our relatives and friends were allowed to observe the trial. When we were brought in to court, we would tell the truth, we said the proceedings were a sham and that we would be sentenced as Gayoom wished. Every time we spoke in court we would be held in small tin cells. The intense heat made us weak. But we did not back down, and were sentenced to life in jail. In 2003, I was allowed to travel to Sri Lanka for treatment. That’s when I fled to and started working in Switzerland.
The Maldives is once again backtracking on freedom of expression, signalling a return to 1988. The government does not want any media outlet to criticise it. Maldivians are no longer allowed to speak their mind. President Abdulla Yameen has arrested all political leaders on false charges, and has now targeted the media. I wonder how many journalists will be able to write freely after one of you are sentenced to jail. These criminal charges to journalists are a message from the government to you. Shut up or else go to jail. Just like when we were made an example to the youth back then.”
Mohamed Zahir, Haveeru
“I interviewed Mirufath Haneef, a transgender woman, known as “Hanee” in the early 2000s. I was a journalist with Haveeru at the time. On the same day the interview was published, I came home to find National Security Services officers waiting for me at my house. They told me to accompany them to the military barracks, where I was kept overnight. I was accused of encouraging homosexuality in the Maldives. Every time I nodded off, the soldier on duty would hit my chair to keep me awake.
The following afternoon, I was taken in for questioning, in my sleep-deprived state. The NSS officers brought me a confession they had written and ordered me to sign it. I refused. Then they brought in Hanee, and asked me if she was a man or a woman. I said she was a woman. They then brought in four soldiers armed with batons, and asked her if she was a woman or a man. She said she was a man. “Now do you know his gender?” they asked me. I told them: “If you threaten me with a beating and tell me to confess to being an infidel, I would do it. But would that make me a disbeliever?” The next 48 hours passed in a similar manner. I was released without charges, because Zahir Hussain, Haveeru’s owner, intervened.
I am concerned today about threats to journalists, especially legal action, the failure of oversight bodies to protect press freedom and also poor discipline by reporters.”
Mohamed Zahir works at the Environment Ministry.
Mohamed Abdulla Shafeeg, Fiyes
“I was arrested twice, once in 2003 and then in 2005, over articles published in the weekly magazine Fiyes. The magazine first published short stories, but later carried political news, following the birth of the democracy movement.
My arrest in 2003 came after I published an article about a case of incest. The police had made arrests over the case in Villingili, too. I never knew the exact reason for the arrest, but I heard that a senior policeman was not too happy about the article. All of Fiyes’ senior staff were summoned and questioned. I was detained because I was the author. I spent 15 days in jail then.
In 2005, I was summoned to the Ministry of Information for publishing an interview of Ahmed Shafeeq, or DO Sappe, who ran a clandestine website in exile. The interview was supposedly a threat to security. They dropped charges later, because of the pressure from the democracy movement. The same scenario is looming again. I fear we are going back to the old days. Fundamental rights are being slowly narrowed.”
Nazim Sattar, Minivan Daily
“I was first arrested on February 14, 2004. It was a time of great political upheaval with calls for change and democratic reform reverberating throughout the country. We were still recovering from the shock of Evan Naseem’s brutal murder in police custody in September 2003.
I was arrested for distributing a newsletter published by the Maldivian Democratic Party, which had been established in exile in Sri Lanka by a group of reformists, including my brother [Mohamed Nasheed]. I was detained for 33 days, without a trial, without access to a lawyer, without charges, and in solitary confinement.
They did not file charges in the end, because of international pressure. At the time, I had already been accused of defaming the Maldives, because of an interview I gave to the BBC about political oppression in the country.
In 2005, I went on to become the Deputy Editor of Minivan Daily, the first opposition newspaper to publish a printed edition. My staff and I faced numerous threats. I was constantly on the alert for suspicious moves. We understood that the regime was on the lookout for something, anything to silence us.
In 2005, Minivan Daily posted an article quoting an MDP member, Ahmed Abbas, who said: “what we should do to those in the Star Force [riot police] who beat us, is to seek them out individually and for us to act in such a manner that makes them feel that beatings result in pain, otherwise they will not be subdued.”
The Attorney General’s office pressed criminal charges of disobeying police orders against Ahmed Abbas. That was April of 2006. I too was charged. However, the AG office withdrew the charges after Abbas was convicted in November of 2006.
I was arrested for a few hours again in 2007, in fact on this very day; May 3, during a press freedom rally.”
Abdulla ‘Fahala’ Saeed, Minivan Daily
“I joined Minivan Daily on July 27, 2005 as a writer. It was a time when space for press freedom was slowly opening up. I was writing news as well as opinion pieces for the paper.
Four months after I started working there, sources within the military told me the regime was planning to imprison me. Their aim was to cut off my voice, stop me from writing, and to intimidate my colleagues. I was told that the investigative authorities were spying on me, waiting for me to make a wrong move, to come up with any odd reason to arrest me. They apparently went through volumes of the daily paper to try and find something, anything!
My friends within the military kept telling me: “Eventually they will arrest you even if it means framing you for a serious offence like drugs possession.” However, I proceeded with my work, of course, I was a bit alarmed but I did not give it much thought.
Ministers who were close to my father-in-law advised him to ask me to take a job at state broadcaster, TVM, other offers such as a rent free flat and MVR100,000 (US$6,485) came my way too. The condition was that I leave my job at Minivan Daily. I did not budge, I could not, I was not interested.
Suddenly, sometime in November 2006, I was summoned to the police headquarters. The summons did not specify the reason. Of course, it came to me as no surprise, I was prepared for the worst. I went to the police station with a lawyer and some of my colleagues from the paper around 7.15pm.
The police immediately escorted me upstairs, and when I attempted to take my lawyer with me, they would not allow it. I was pushed and shoved, some police officers were patting my jeans pockets and doing such odd things, while escorting me through the hallways and doors. I was confused as to what was happening. I asked them what was happening, why I was being treated this way, and what I was accused of. My questions were ignored.
Finally they pushed me into a toilet and asked me to strip down. I complied. They kept checking my jeans pockets and kept patting my clothes over and over again. Then I was ordered to bend down. They checked my anus, and patted my private organs. I was ordered to remain that way for a long time. I remember this because when I finally stood up, I felt disoriented, my eyes were cloudy and hazy.
Suddenly Constable Ahmed Zahir – one of the officers who checked me, took a packet of some powder from my jeans pocket and asked me what it was. How would I know, I asked him.
That is how I got framed and put in jail for a crime I did not commit – possessing drugs.
I spent two years and eight months in prison, and mind you, I was not even given access to a lawyer during court proceedings. My appeal of the sentence dragged on for a long time, until President Mohamed Nasheed came to power in 2008. I was finally freed on November 30, 2008, after the High Court overturned the lower court’s ruling, acknowledging the fact that I was framed.
The regime did not have anything personal against me, rather it was their fear of freedom of speech and press that made them resort to such tactics.
At least we had streets that we could protest on back then, for you guys, who are in the field of journalism now, you are in a very vulnerable position. State institutions assigned with the task of protecting press freedom have been made toothless, street protests have been banned and defamation is once again going to be criminalized. I think you are in a more dangerous situation now.
The ultimate aim of an authoritarian regime is always to control the masses, the flow of information, the right to freely express one’s views. That is what is being done now, in a seemingly more ‘legal’ way by manipulating and changing laws.”
Abdulla ‘Gabey’ Latheef, Miadhu
“I joined Miadhu in 2008 and in 2009 I was sued by former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom for publishing a direct translation of a news article by The New York Times. The article had summed up all of the interesting bits of the audit reports that were released during and after the transfer of power in 2008.
Anyway, The New York Times article had quoted a figure of US$400million as the total amount that had been lost in state funds. Gayoom’s defamation lawsuit said that I had not afforded him the opportunity to respond. I did not call him for a response because the news about audit reports was nothing new, it had been in the media for a long time. Besides, we were just republishing an article from another paper.
Gayoom’s lawyers also argued that even though an audit report highlighted misappropriation of funds, unless and until the allegations are proved in a court of law, journalists should not write about them. I asked them, “What then will we write about?” We did not make these allegations. The Auditor General made them.
Eventually the court ruled in 2010 that I was not in the wrong, that I had not engaged in an act of defamation.
It is extremely worrying that defamation is being criminalised, especially during this very sensitive period of time where public confidence in the judiciary’s capacity and impartiality has hit an all-time low. The new defamation law and other measures will certainly obstruct press freedom and will result in journalists having to engage in self-censorship. These measures will certainly have a negative affect, especially on the mental frame of writers and journalists.”
Hussain Fiyaz Moosa, Haveeru, Raajje TV
“In August 2004, I was reporting on the now famous Black Friday protest. I was there all day. After the military crackdown on protesters, a friend and I took to the streets on a motorbike. We were taking photos and asking around on what happened. I was taking a photo of a group of soldiers when they suddenly ran towards me and arrested me. I was assaulted once. But then someone else told them not to harm me.
We were taken to the military barracks, Kalhuthuhkala Koshi, and handcuffed with plastic clips and blindfolded. The blindfold was taken off only after 22 hours. We were not given any water when we went to the toilet. I was told to clean myself with saliva.
Then we were taken to the military island on Girifushi. I was released after nine days.
I was also arrested last November, with my colleagues Leevan Ali Naseer and Ahmed Wisam, while reporting on the bomb at the Maafannu Stadium. The police had blocked the surrounding streets, and told us to leave the area. We were walking away when all three of us were arrested. Wisam and Leevan were beaten badly. I was slapped once. I did not know why I was arrested until they told me a few hours later. I had supposedly hit a cop, and am now facing a prison sentence of four years if I am convicted.
Journalists in the Maldives today are in grave danger. It seems as if the government is out to get anyone who is critical or independent. Look at Haveeru. Look at all of us who are facing criminal charges. In all my years in journalism, I have never seen darker days.”
Reporting by Hassan Mohamed, Mohamed Saif Fathih, Zaheena Rasheed and Xiena Saeed
Correction, May 4, 2016
This article previously misstated the magazine Mohamed Abdulla Shafeeq worked at. He was a writer at Fiyes, not Manas.