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Last Updated: Sunday, 4 June 2006, 15:36 GMT 16:36 UK
Maldives - reform or autocracy?
By Dumeetha Luthra
BBC News, the Maldives

Police drag away a man speaking to the BBC
Police arrest a man after he called the Maldives a "police state"

When you think of the Maldives you generally think of a tropical island paradise. The advert sells a dream of an exotic escape from reality.

When I was walking along the shore, enjoying its promised golden sands and blue waters, it didn't feel far from the truth.

However, this is just the tourist experience.

The Maldives is also a chain of islands which has been ruled by one man for the past 28 years - President Maumoon Gayoom.

He is now talking about reform and multi-party elections, but the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party says change is not happening fast enough.

Baton rhythm

Party chairman Mohammed Nasheed is under house arrest. He was detained last year at a pro-democracy rally - the police say he was inciting the crowd.

Poster of President Maumoon Gayoom
President Gayoom's government says it has introduced major changes
He has been charged with treason and terrorism, and faces life in prison.

At the fourth hearing in his trial, police cordoned off the entire area around the court house. Dressed in full riot gear, their batons beat an almost hypnotic rhythm as they pushed the crowd of protesters back.

The protesters were breaking the law. It is illegal to have a public gathering of more than three people, without prior notice. The notice needed is generally two weeks, the hearing was only scheduled five days earlier.

One man came to talk to the BBC. He called the Maldives a "brutal dictatorship". He accused the president of "ruling by force" and called it "a police state".

In mid-sentence, without ceremony he was handcuffed and dragged away by security forces. They accused him of ignoring their orders. This time round he was not charged, but was released a few hours later with a reprimand.

Mr Nasheed's trial has become a high profile cause celebre. The government does not seem entirely sure how to deal with it.

Mohammed Nasheed
Mohammed Nasheed: Freedom of expression is vital

His defence lawyer, Husnu al-Suood, says there is no chance the trial can be a fair, because the president is the ultimate judicial power in the land.

"The whole system is controlled by the president and the president's party. For instance, the attorney general, who is prosecuting the case, he is the vice-president of the party.

"So when these people are in charge of what they call meting out justice, then what we are saying is that we can't expect to have a fair trial."

Language 'under arrest'

While the government talks about reform, the opposition says reform has not been implemented in real terms.

The opposition paper Minivan is allowed to operate, but its journalists say they constantly face intimidation and harassment. Minivan is printed on a photocopier because they say their printers have been threatened.

In an interview at his home, Mr Nasheed says this is one of the fundamental reforms required.

"Freedom of expression stands at the centre of any reform programme as we see it. We can't go towards a pluralistic democracy as long as language remains under arrest. As we say, language is at the moment under arrest."

Police and civilians in the capital, Male
Change appears to be in its infancy
The government rejects the opposition criticisms. Foreign Minister Ahmed Shaheed says the government is working towards democracy and is sincere in its reform agenda.

"If you look at the actual situation in the country now, and what it was even two years ago, you will see remarkable differences," he says.

"Even a year ago, we didn't have any political parties. Now we have several, that in itself is a major structural development.

"If you look at the media, the number of dailies, the number of weeklies, and the freedom with which they operate. This itself is a major change in the way we work here."

In many ways the Maldives is a contradiction. Tourism has brought it economic stability - but politically it is still run as an autocracy.

The government is promising reform, the opposition say it is just superficial. The truth seems to lie somewhere in between - an attempt at change, which is still very much in its infancy.


SEE ALSO
Maldives politician faces charges
23 Aug 05 |  South Asia
Maldives democracy plans welcomed
25 Jan 05 |  South Asia
Maldives leader frees dissidents
22 Feb 06 |  South Asia
Maldives dissident denies crimes
19 May 05 |  South Asia
Amnesty blasts 'holiday paradise'
30 Jul 03 |  South Asia
Country profile: The Maldives
05 Sep 03 |  Country profiles
Maldives defends prison terms
26 Feb 03 |  South Asia

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