An international lobbying firm, based in London, has accepted a commission to boost the reputation of the regime that toppled the first democratically elected President of the Maldives.
Ruder Finn has been condemned for taking the contract – thought to be worth £300,000 – to boost the image of the Maldives in the UK and America.
Mohamed Nasheed, the elected former leader, was made to quit in a military and police coup in February. He was replaced by Mohammed Waheed Hassan – who, it is claimed, is backed by the ex-dictator who ran the Maldives for 30 years.
In the weeks since the change of power, Amnesty International has denounced violence by the security forces against peaceful protesters. In March at least six protesters were injured, some seriously, when police and military officers attacked around 300 MDP protesters in the capital, Malé. Amnesty said this was part of a wider pattern of attacks on supporters of the former President Nasheed's Maldivian Democratic Party.
In a pitch, won by Ruder Finn, the new Government said it was looking for a firm to provide both lobbying and public relations expertise. The new regime said it wanted to "renew the Maldives image in major countries" and create "an alliance of support for the Maldives." It wanted to "seed" positive stories about the islands in the media.
It expected the company to "arrange briefings to build links at various levels with the UK, US and major European governments."
It would also be expected to "leverage outcomes from relationships with governments, academics and NGOs".
Ruder Finn has promised to end the commission if a national inquiry into the change of power finds the new government took power illegally. But the Commission of National Inquiry has been criticised by Maldivian NGOs, who want its mandate to be agreed "across the political divide" and for international observers to monitor the inquiry process.
The Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group – a group of foreign ministers from several Commonwealth states including Australia and Canada – released a statement criticising the Commission as insufficiently independent and impartial. It gave the government four weeks to reform the body or it would consider "further and stronger measures".
Nick Leonard, Managing Director of Ruder Finn UK, which provides public relations and lobbying services, said it felt justified in taking the assignment "to protect tourism, which forms the bulk of the country's economy".
Emmanuel Tchividjian, senior vice-president and ethics officer, told PR Week Ruder "closely examined the complexity of the current political situation" before tendering for the contract.
"Ruder Finn can contribute positively to the people of the Maldives, a country that depends on tourism for the bulk of its economy," he said.
But in a letter to Mr Tchividjian, a member of former President Nasheed's Maldivian Democratic Party, Eva Abdulla, urged Ruder to reconsider.
"You are fortunate in countries such as the United Kingdom to enjoy stable democracy which allow for the full enjoyment of human rights, but with those rights come certain duties and responsibilities," she wrote. "Among those duties, I would hope, is to use your freedoms to promote the rights of other people in other countries and not knowingly work towards the suppression of those rights. If you continue down this path, then you will be party to one of the greatest injustices ever inflicted on the people of the Maldives."
Abbas Faiz, South Asian researcher for Amnesty International, said it had significant concerns about the contract.
"If a government hires any firm to whitewash human rights violations with impunity we would be very concerned. I was in the Maldives in March and the level of atrocity that we witnessed was entirely different from what we were being told by the Government.
"We will be watching the activities of Ruder Finn... if we have concerns about their role we will be raising them."
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