The verdict in Jennifer Latheef’s trial on a charge of committing a “terrorist action,” which was due on 25 September, has been postponed for a second time until further notice on the official grounds that two of the co-defendants who are in custody are not fit enough to be transferred from prison to court. At the same time, a court source suggested that these two defendants may in fact have escaped.
The young press photographer Imran Zahir has meanwhile just been placed under house arrest in Malé after more than three weeks in Dhoonidhoo prison. He told Minivan, the daily newspaper for which works, that he was badly beaten by six policemen at the time of his arrest. “A policeman punched me in the face, another kicked me, while a third had a hold on my neck... I thought I was going to die,” he said. The police are still refusing to return his camera.
Reporters Without Borders reiterates its call for the release of all the detained journalists and cyber-dissidents and the dropping of all charges against them.
Journalist and human right activist on trial amid continuing crackdown on press
Reporters Without Borders appealed for clemency today as a court in the Maldives prepares to hand down its verdict and sentences in the trial of journalist Jennifer Latheef and five other defendants on “terrorism” charges. Jail terms would be a clear sign that President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom is breaking his promises about democracy, the organisation said.
“No one is taken in by the resumption of terrorism trials against journalists and human rights activists,” Reporters Without Borders said. “The Maldivian authorities are trying to use the international fight against terrorism as a cover to crack down on a peaceful, democratic opposition as they did during the worst years of dictatorship.”
A young journalist and human rights activist, Latheef is due to appear before a criminal court in the capital, Malé, on 25 September on a charge of committing an “act of terrorism” by supposedly throwing stones at a policeman.
When rioting broke out in Malé in September 2003, Latheef went to the scene of the incidents and then to a hospital to get interviews. She was making documentaries about social issues at the time. She now writes for two independent publications, including the daily Minivan.
The son of the exiled leader of the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), Latheef told Reporters Without Borders she had limited confidence in her country’s judicial system. She denied the charges against her, saying they were based solely on the testimonies of police officers.
Some ten pro-opposition journalists are currently being prosecuted on charges of terrorism or breaking the press laws.
Mohamed Nasheed, a prominent government opponent and frequent contributor to several publications and websites, has been charged with terrorism and sedition. The date of his trial is not yet known but the UK-based Friends of Maldives organisation has just announced that four British lawyers will travel to the Maldives soon to follow the trial. Despite international protests, Nasheed is still facing a heavy prison sentence.
At least three other journalists have been arrested in the crackdown that followed Nasheed’s arrest on 12 August. One of them is photographer Imran Zahir, whose pictures often appear in the opposition daily Minivan. Held since 4 September, Zahir was asked during interrogation by the police if he had taken pictures of an MDP meeting.
Launched in July, Minivan had to discontinue normal production in August when its printer pulled out under pressure from the authorities. It is currently being produced in photocopied A4 format.
Judicial proceedings are under way against its editor, Aminath Najeeb, and five of its journalists, who have already been summoned several times for questioning by the police. The information ministry sent six of its articles to the office of the public prosecutor in mid-September with a request to start proceedings.