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Maldives 6 February 2004

Reporters Without Borders calls for early release of cyberdissidents as they begin their third year in prison
Their colleague Fatimath Nisreen (photo) has had her sentence halved

Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans frontières) has called for the early release of three organisers of an on-line newsletter, two of whom were jailed for life in July 2002 for "defamation" and "attempting to overthrow the government".

The call by the international press freedom organisation came after Maldives President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom promised a reform of the prison system.

Mohamed Zaki and Ahmad Didi, directors of the electronic newsletter Sandhaanu, were arrested on 30 January 2002 along with Ibrahim Luthfee, who subsequently escaped, and Fatimath Nisreen.

The Divehi-language electronic newsletter carried articles denouncing corruption and abuse of power on the part of the president.

Calling for the early release of the three, Reporters Without Borders said their only crime was to have exercised their right to self-expression. The organisation pointed out that Article 25 of the Maldives Constitution guaranteed every citizen "the right to express his conscience and thoughts orally or in writing or by other means".

Reporters Without Borders has managed to confirm that Fatimath Nisreen, who was assistant to Ibrahim Luthfee, had her sentence halved to five years on 13 November 2003.

She had been sentenced to ten years in jail for "insulting the President" and "attempting to overthrow the government (...) by founding a newsletter named Sandhaanu." The Department of Penitentiary and Rehabilitation Services, which comes under the interior ministry, also decided to banish her to Feeail island south of the capital Malé. She spent more than a year in prison on Mafushi island in harsh conditions.

Reporters Without Borders has also learned that Zaki and Didi were punished in June 2003 after their colleague Luthfee escaped. They were transferred to prison on Dhoonidhoo island and spent six months in solitary confinement, during which time they suffered harassment and ill- treatment.

Following riots in September 2003 after the beating to death of a common-law prisoner at the central jail in Malé, the authorities decided to send them back to Maafushi island. They are both held in harsh conditions, in unventilated cells and are only allowed to receive visits from their families once a month and limited to one hour.

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