Torture and repression exposed in holiday paradise of Maldives

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The Independent Online

Behind its picture postcard façade, the Maldives are being run as a "secret dictatorship" engaged in "arbitrary arrest, detention and torture", according to a human rights report.

Behind its picture postcard façade, the Maldives are being run as a "secret dictatorship" engaged in "arbitrary arrest, detention and torture", according to a human rights report.

The Indian Ocean archipelago, a favourite luxury holiday destination for well-heeled Westerners, relies on a culture of repression and fear to prop up a brutal regime, said the report by the Asian Centre for Human Rights, entitled Maldives: The Dark Side of Life.

The former British protectorate, which gained independence in 1965, has established itself as one of the world's premier upmarket holiday spots, marketing itself as "The sunny side of life".

The Maldives boast a string of five-star resorts charging up to £3,000 a night, guaranteeing rest, relaxation and pampering amid white sands and palm-fringed beaches. Life for the population of 300,000 is less sweet.

President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, in power since 1978, has banned opposition parties. The country's three newspapers are run by two cabinet ministers and the president's brother-in-law, while Mr Gayoom controls television and radio.

Tourist dollars are the lifeblood of the island republic's economy, but horrific human rights abuses are being committed within earshot of tourists, according to the Delhi-based rights centre.

The report highlighted the fate of up to 20 political prisoners held without trial and the deaths of four inmates at the Maafushi Island prison in September 2003. It alleges that guards responded to a protest over conditions by beating one prisoner to death, then shooting dead three and wounding 15 in the ensuing riot. The President, who is under increasing international pressure to make reforms, has promised multi-party democratic elections "within one year."

But the outlawed Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) says proposed reforms amount to little more than a commitment from Mr Gayoom to relinquish his role as head of the judiciary. "The ongoing torture of prisoners by police and continued infringements of other rights ... leads the MDP to conclude that the government is not genuine in its commitments," the party said.

Naushad Waheed, a Maldivian poet, is imploring tourists to look behind the façade of paradise. He has written: "Everything is not/What it seems to be/While you walk/Soft sand, caressing bare feet. There's a soul/Crying out for help/While you roam/In a packaged resort hotel."

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