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Maldives 28 May 2003

Editors of an electronic newsletter sentenced to life in prison


Editor escapes police surveillance

Ibrahim Luthfee, one of three men jailed for life in July last year for putting out an e-mailed newsletter, Sandhaanu, which criticised the government, escaped his police escort while in Sri Lanka on 24 May for medical treatment. He had flown to Colombo on 19 May with his older brother Mohamed and two policemen for an operation for chronic conjunctivitis aggravated by filthy prison conditions, after previous refusals by the government. After he escaped, his brother was taken back to the Maldives and jailed and is feared to have been tortured under interrogation. Ibrahim said in a letter to a Maldives media outlet just before he vanished that he was worried about his safety and appealed for international support. The Maldives authorities have contacted Interpol in search of him and a wanted notice is expected to be issued throughout Sri Lanka.


Since July 2002, Mohamed Zaki, Ibrahim Luthfee and Ahmed Didi, editors of the electronic newsletter Sandhaanu, have been serving a life term in prison. Fathimath Nisreen, Ibrahim Luthfee’s assistant, received a 10-year prison term. They were found guilty of "insulting the President" and of "committing acts hostile to the government (...) by creating a newsletter known as Sandhaanu."

Reporters without Borders (Reporters sans frontières) called upon the Maldivian President, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, to demand the immediate release of those four people, whose only crime was to exercise their right to freedom of speech. Indeed, Article 25 of the Maldives Constitution guarantees that "Every citizen shall have the freedom to express his conscience and thoughts orally or in writing or by other means..."

In January 2002, businessmen Mohamed Zaki, Ibrahim Luthfee and Ahmed Didi, as well as Fathimath Nisreen, Ibrahim Luthfee’s assistant, were arrested by the police for having circulated articles critical of the government on their electronic newsletter Sandhaanu. According to Amnesty International, this Internet publication, written in Dhivehi (the language of the Maldives), had not advocated violent political opposition. After being held in solitary confinement for two weeks by the police force in Malé (the capital city), they were transferred to the detention centre on the island of Dhoonidhoo.

In May, they were charged with "defamation" and "committing acts hostile to the government" by publishing critical information on Sandhaanu. The authorities denied them the right to legal representation and refused to allow visits from their families.

In June, they were transferred to the island of Mafushi, where they are being held in small cells. On 7 July 2002, Mohamed Zaki, Ibrahim Luthfee and Ahmed Didi were sentenced to life in prison. Fathimath Nisreen, 21, was given a 10-year prison term for having expressed her "dissatisfaction with government policy" and having sided with the authors of the Sandhaanu articles. The authorities have denied their request to file an appeal.

During the trial, Ibrahim Luthfee, 37, and Ahmed Didi, 50, admitted that they were the authors of this electronic newsletter, while 50-year-old Mohammed Zaki, a resident of Malaysia, was responsible for sending it to Internet users who requested it. Before the judges, Ibrahim Luthfee claimed that he was prepared to prove, point-by-point, every accusation that he had made against President Gayoom.

They are all still behind bars on the island of Mafushi, under harsh prison conditions. The authorities have placed them in Block C, usually reserved for drug addicts and thieves. Their cells are not ventilated and they only receive five litres of water a day for drinking and washing. Their families are not permitted to visit them more than once a month.

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