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05COLOMBO1823 2005-10-18 11:19:00 CONFIDENTIAL Embassy Colombo
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					C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 02 COLOMBO 001823 


E.O. 12958: DECL: 10/18/2015

Classified By: Ambassador Jeffrey Lunstead, for reasons 1.4 (b, d).

1. (C) Summary: In a perceived crackdown on an opposition
newspaper, police in Male detained two popular columnists for
"Minivan" on October 13 on charges unrelated to journalism.
Mohamed Nasheed and Ablo Saeed were summoned to the police
station and detained on respective charges of "instigating
incitement activity" in connection to the August 12-14
disturbances and possible drug possession. Both are
columnists for "Minivan," the only opposition newspaper which
began production in July 2005 and has, according to its
staff, quickly become the biggest-selling newspaper in the
country. (Note: The Minivan radio station and web site,
based in Colombo, has been operational for a couple of years.
It was formerly officially the organ of the opposition
Maldives Democratic Party (MDP), although its director claims
they are independent of the party now. End Note.) Nasheed is
also an MDP supporter, and was scheduled to address a rally
the day after his detention and was predicted to run for MP
for Male in the upcoming by-election. Maldives Foreign
Minister Dr. Ahmed Shaheed stressed to Poloff that these
charges are unrelated to the journalists' work for "Minivan"
and upheld the GORM's commitment to free press and human
rights. However, with over half of "Minivan" staff under
investigation, Editor Aminath Najeeb claims that the
government is systematically targeting the opposition press.
End Summary.

Criminals in "Minivan"?


2. (C) Maldives police summoned popular columnist and
Maldives Democratic Party (MDP) supporter Mohamed Nasheed
with a "chit" to the police station on October 13. Nasheed
is popularly known as the "Colonel," a name given to
acknowledge his time spent in the National Security Service
(NSS) and to distinguish him from the MDP Chairman by the
same name. The Colonel, who is predicted to run as an MP for
the MDP in the upcoming by-election, has been detained in
connection with the August 12-14, 2005 disturbances in Male.
Although the police have already released most of the
approximately 100 people arrested in the protests, Foreign
Minister Shaheed told Poloff in a phone conversation on
October 17 that the Colonel's case has been under
investigation for the last two months, but is entirely
unrelated to his work as a journalist. According to Shaheed,
the Colonel gave a speech criticizing police during the
disturbances, which may have incited the mobs, and took
advantage of unspecified "sensitive" information that he
gained during his training with the NSS. However, "Minivan"
staff in Sri Lanka Paul Roberts questioned the police's
decision to postpone his detention until October 13, one day
before he was scheduled to address an MDP rally in Male.

3. (C) Ablo Saeed, popularly known as "Fahala," was detained
on unknown charges, but is likely to be linked to drug
possession. Saeed's wife told "Minivan" that when Fahala
turned himself in voluntarily at the station, the police
forced a statement without the presence of his lawyer,
strip-searched him, took his clothing away and then planted
drugs in the pockets of his pants. FM Shaheed did not know
the exact charges against Fahala, but claimed that he has a
track record of drug abuse and crime. When asked about
Saeed's wife's accusations, Shaheed maintained that he had
personally told the police to follow proper procedures.
Saeed's wife refuted reports that her husband would have
carried drugs into the station when he was summoned, and
added that the detention is certainly connected to his work
at "Minivan."

"Minivan" Putters Along


4. (U) From his office in Sri Lanka, "Minivan" journalist
and UK citizen Paul Roberts told Poloff that seven of the
fifteen Maldives staff are currently under investigation,
evidence that the government is targeting journalists who
criticize the government. Although the newly appointed
Minister of Information approved "Minivan's" registration in
July 2005 after a year of indecision, Roberts noted that the
government administration remains largely unchanged and is
unwilling to put up with media criticism. Under Maldivian
press laws, if a paper is unable to print three consecutive
editions, it is automatically de-registered. Despite the
investigations and detentions of half of the staff, Roberts
predicted that "Minivan" would continue to print, but he
remained concerned, however, about the string of attacks
against the media. "Individually, the investigations,
blacklisted journalists and arrests could be seen as
unconnected," he observed, "but taken together, they
represent the government's attempt to prevent free media in
the Maldives."

FM Shaheed Committed to Freedom of the Press


5. (C) FM Shaheed claimed to PolOff that these arrests are
unrelated to journalism and upheld the GORM's commitment to a
free media. "The Government does not make arrests based on
opposition to the President," Shaheed stressed, adding that
"compared to two years ago, the Maldives has complete freedom
of the press." He did, however, admit that the biggest
challenge to a modern, liberal democracy in the Maldives is
the lack of a transparent legal structure. He called for the
government to enact a Police Powers Act to place limits on
arrests and codify legal procedures. That said, interpreting
these two arrests as a crackdown on the press would be
"mislabeling the situation" he concluded.

Political Crackdown or Law and Order Problem?


6. (C) The government has allowed the creation of the
opposition structure, but just like the recent moves to
inhibit the new opposition parties' ability to play a
functional role in the political process, the GORM now
appears to be limiting the ability of the press to perform
the full range of media functions, including criticism of the
government. After delaying "Minivan's" publication by a
year, to put seven of the fifteen staff under investigation
within the first three months and detain MDP supporters on
questionable charges raises serious questions about the
GORM's commitment to the free press. Shaheed was very
concerned that these cases not be "mislabeled" by the
international community and defensive of the Maldives' human
rights record, but he recognized the shortcomings in the
government's legal structure. Further developments in these
cases will reveal whether the government is sincerely
attempting to tackle problems of law and order as the Foreign
Minister attested, or merely attempting to restrict political
criticism in the press.