The Maldives authorities have launched a troubling crackdown on peaceful protests and media workers ahead of a visit by the King of Saudi Arabia, Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, which was meant to take place this week. Although the King’s visit has been postponed indefinitely, Amnesty International urges the Maldives government to respect the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and expression, and to not suppress public debate about any development plans in the country.
There have been persistent rumours in Maldives that the government is planning to sell the whole of Faafu atoll – a group of some 23 islands southwest of the capital Malé – to Saudi Arabia for around USD10 billion, and that this deal would be announced during the King’s visit. On 17 March, the government announced that the visit had been postponed indefinitely, citing an outbreak of swine flu in Maldives.(1)
Activists and opposition parties have raised concerns over the possible environmental impact of such a deal, the lack of transparency about the terms and conditions, and what would happen to the estimated 4,000 inhabitants in Faafu. While the government has confirmed that there is a large-scale development project planned in Faafu with Saudi involvement, they have denied that the entire atoll will be sold. The government, however, has also said that the specific details of this project will only be made public once the deal has been finalised. (2)
Restrictions on media and activists
The Maldivian authorities have sought to suppress critical reporting around the Faafu deal and have harassed media workers and activists. On 2 March, a relative of a ruling party MP allegedly threatened to assault and destroy the equipment of two journalists from the Maldives Independent, Hassan Mohamed and Hassan Moosa, when they were visiting Faafu. After the incident, police took the journalists into “protective custody” for nine hours, during which they confiscated their phones and refused to let them contact their editors or families. The Maldives Independent in a statement said they were “extremely disappointed” with the police’s conduct: “The police claimed [the journalists] were held in protective custody but they were treated like suspects.”(3)
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