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Last Updated: Thursday, 10 June, 2004, 11:02 GMT 12:02 UK
Maldives reforms proposed
By Adam Mynott
BBC South Asia correspondent

The President of the Maldives has outlined a programme of what he says are historic changes to the country's constitution.
President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom
President Gayoom denies there is any repression in the country

President Abdul Gayoom has ruled the small island nation in the Indian Ocean for the past 26 years, in what many have described as a "despotic totalitarian regime".

President Gayoom has suggested changes to the constitution which would limit his powers and permit political parties in the country.

Opponents of the regime say they are very sceptical of any proposed changes.

Radical changes

They say the changes have come after the media spotlight was directed at human rights abuses in the Maldives in the past few months.

The proposed changes to the constitution do look radical.

If carried through, the powers of the president would be significantly curtailed.

  • The president would not be able to serve more than two five-year terms

  • He would lose the right to appoint eight members of the 50-seat parliament.
    We could have the most liberal, democratic constitution ever but it would be of no use if the president, backed by the use of force, is not willing to adhere to it.
    Mohammed Latheef, leader of banned Maldivian Democratic Party

  • The office of prime minister would be created

  • The powers of the executive and legislature would be separated

  • There would be freedom of association.

    According to the present constitution, political parties are allowed.

    But members of an opposition party set up last year say they are banned in the Maldives.

    Mohammed Latheef, leader of the banned party, the Maldivian Democratic Party, welcomed the proposed changes, but said he was unsure whether they would work.

    "It is not the constitution which needs to change it's the political cadre which runs the country," says Mr Latheef.

    1,200 islands in archipelago
    Population is over 300,000
    Majority is Sunni Muslim
    One-party rule since 1978
    Low-lying islands vulnerable to rise in sea-levels
    "So long as the government continues to arrest and lock people up on trumped charges simply because they dare to say something which is critical, then any proposed reforms will be viewed with great cynicism."

    Mr Latheef says the present constitution gave people of Maldives "a wide range of fundamental rights".

    "(But) none of them are honoured by Mr Gayoom."

    Opponents of the government say it is responsible for arbitrary arrests, detention without trial and torture in prison.

    The government says there is no repression and that it has no political prisoners in its jails.

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