Maldive arrests spark claims of state repression

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The Maldives government has begun a new crackdown on political opponents and pro-democracy activists, ordering the mass arrests of peaceful protesters and using violence and intimidation as a means of curbing dissent, a human rights group said.

Hundreds of opposition activists have been arrested and many have suffered torture and beatings after being detained, Amnesty International said yesterday, adding that scores of detainees were still being held without charge in some of the country's worst jails.

"Although the government denies being responsible for such human rights violations, testimonies and reports of arbitrary arrests and torture or other ill-treatment of the detainees abound," the rights group said in a statement.

The crackdown began earlier this month, shortly before a planned opposition rally in the capital, Male, was called off after what organisers described as "a sustained campaign of government harassment". The arrests of 110 members of the major opposition parties, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), were the most obvious signs of a systematic clampdown on government critics which has also seen the introduction of severe restrictions on detainees' access to their families, lawyers and medical treatment.

The government has justified the arrests by claiming that the opposition had been planning a coup attempt. But it has been unable to produce any evidence to corroborate the claims and observers have warned that the autocratic president, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom who, after almost 30 years in power is Asia's longest-serving leader, is looking for an excuse to silence his increasingly vociferous critics.

"The government's allegations against the opposition may have been made simply as a means to suppress the opposition's right to freedom of assembly and expression," Amnesty said. "This is not the first time the government has resorted to such allegations prior to a widespread crackdown on peaceful opposition activity."

The Maldives, best known to outsiders as a luxurious holiday resort for Western tourists, has come under growing international pressure in recent years to make reforms, with rights groups accusing President Maumoon of running an autocratic state. Unprecedented anti-government violence has flared in the streets. While progress has been made and reforms implemented, opposition parties - only legalised in 2005 - say change is not happening fast enough. "We will not stop campaigning against this government unless or until it speeds up the reform process," said an MDP spokesman, Ahmed Moosa.

The chief victims of the latest crackdown have been activists for the MDP, who have reported varying degrees of state repression since the rally on 10 November. In one major incident cited by Amnesty, 45 people travelling by boat from the outer islands to Male for the demonstration were arrested, manhandled by police and transferred to the infamous Dhoonidhoo detention centre, where some have been kept in what Amnesty describes as "Alcatraz" cells, due to their appalling conditions. Another man, Ahmed Abbas, a political cartoonist and vocal critic of the government, was sentenced to six months in prison earlier this month after making remarks in a newspaper article which the authorities considered to be subversive.

The Maldives government denies reports of human rights violations. Yesterday a government spokesman, Mohamed Hussain Shareef, said its response to the November protest had been "very restrained. Amnesty International fails to recognise that the planned assembly was illegal and deemed to pose a real and present danger with regards to public safety and disorder," he said.

Another spokesman told the BBC the government was working hard to promote democracy.

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