Amnesty International gave imprisoned activists credibility as political refugees: Zuhair

The world’s largest human rights NGO, Amnesty International, celebrated its 50th anniversary over the weekend, marking half a century since a British lawyer named Peter Benenson campaigned for the release of Portugese students sentenced to seven years imprisonment for toasting liberty.

The Nobel Peace Prize-winning organisation counts three million supporters, members and activists in 150 countries and territories all over the world, and produces 400-500 reports on human rights every year.

Amnesty adopted current Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed as a prisoner of conscience in April 1996 after he was sentenced to two years imprisonment on charges relating to his activities as a dissident journalist.

“Amnesty International considered his detention to be politically motivated and was concerned he would not receive a fair trial,” Amnesty said at the time. “Mohamed Nasheed attended several court hearings but the court did not come to a decision. Amnesty International is very concerned that despite release, Mohamed Nasheed’s ‘sedition’ charges have not been withdrawn “

In 2008, Amnesty issued a statement welcoming Nasheed as President of the island nation, and urged him to “make human rights a central part of his presidency.”

“The legacies of human rights abuses such as politically motivated arrests, torture, and unfair trials, will mar the Maldives’ human rights record if legislative reforms are delayed,” Amnesty noted, particularly the draft penal code which remains stalled in the parliament to this day.

“The new government must now end decades-long legacies of abuse of political power with no accountability for human rights violations such as politically motivated arrests, torture, and unfair trials,” Amnesty added, observing that human rights violations appeared to have “decreased significantly” in the last two years of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s 30 year administration.

Nasheed’s Press Secretary Mohamed Zuhair said today that Amnesty’s campaigning on behalf of the then political activist was vital in establishing his credibility with embassies and other international organisations, such at the UN’s Refugee Agency, which subsequently issued temporary travel documents to five Maldivian activists.

Amnesty’s campaigning on Nasheed’s behalf became especially invaluable after the office of the then opposition-in-exile in Colombo was raided by the Sri Lankan police, Zuhair explained.

“There was information sent by the Maldivian government that the MDP was storing illegal firearms in Colombo seeking to transfer them to the Maldives,” he said.

“Our office and houses were raided and I was roughly handled in front of my wife and children. The Colombo CID interrogated me about reports that we’d apparently been talking to pilots about doing the job, and at last these were proven to be false.”

Following the raid, four of the five political activists expressed doubt over their continued safety in Colombo and sought asylum in the UK. Of the five, Zuhair elected to remain in Sri Lanka “because I had faith in the Sri Lankan legal system, which was later [justified].”

Nasheed was detained in 2001 days after being elected to parliament, Zuhair noted, “on charges brought against him for petty theft from the demolished home of the former president, Ibrahim Nasir. These were mementos that were being thrown out as garbage, but he was thrown in jail on the pretext. The Minister of Home Affairs later acknowledged that nothing of value had been taken, after we argued in court that a price be fixed to the items.”

Nasheed was detained “on and off” 12 times, Zuhair said, and like many prisoners at the time, fell victim to institutionalised methods of punishment.

“He was handcuffed to his shins, and placed in a pillory (a series of hinged wooden boards locking the head and limbs from movement). He was also handcuffed to a hot generator for 14 days. In one instance, the guards mixed shards of glass into his food,” Zuhair claimed.

The credibility given by Amnesty to Nasheed as political prisoner allowed the opposition to organise outside the Maldives, Zuhair recalled, and pressured the introduction of greater human rights in the country.

“We are very grateful to them,” he said.

Amnesty’s current entry on the Maldives, last updated in May 2010, acknowledges ongoing concerns about parliament’s delay in enacting the draft penal code, and concern over the use of flogging as a punishment.

“An 18-year-old woman received 100 lashes on July 5, 2009 after being accused of having sex with two men outside marriage. Local journalists reported the woman fainted after being flogged and was taken to hospital for treatment,” Amnesty wrote.

“The woman, who was pregnant at the time of sentencing, had her punishment deferred until after the birth of her child. The court ruled the woman’s pregnancy was proof of her guilt. The men involved in the case were acquitted.”

In July 2010, Amnesty chided Nasheed’s government for the extra-judicial detention of opposition People’s Alliance (PA) MP Abdulla Yameen – Gayoom’s half-brother.

“The Maldives Government’s proposed reforms do have the potential to improve human rights protection, but this does not give them the right to arbitrarily detain opponents of those reforms. Instead, the government should seek international assistance to resolve this impasse,” Amnesty said at the time.

“There are fundamental flaws in the Maldives criminal justice system, leading to unfair trials. There is no unified definition of a criminal offence in the Maldivian law, which consists of acts of parliament, Shari’a edicts, and regulations passed by the ministries.”

The Maldives has since ascended to a seat on the UN Human Rights Council. Yet human rights concerns remain in the country about the efficacy of the criminal justice system, the prevalence of human trafficking – resulting in the country being placed on the US State Department’s tier two watch list – and an ongoing “culture of torture” the government has at times acknowledged continues to pervade both the police and prisons system.