- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 7, 2008

COLOMBO, SRI LANKA (AP) - Maldives President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom signed and adopted a new constitution Thursday that allows multiparty elections and other democratic reforms after decades of authoritarian rule.

The new constitution also creates for the first time independent bodies for human rights, the judiciary, police, defense, elections and investigation of corruption, government spokesman Mohammed Shareef said.

The first multiparty presidential election is to be held before Oct. 10, with a specific date to be announced after an election commissioner is appointed within 30 days as stipulated in the constitution, he said.

“This is an important milestone for us. Many, many things will change from this point onward,” Shareef said.

Gayoom has ruled the Islamic nation with tight control for the past 30 years. He promised in 2004 to enact a new constitution amid widespread protests demanding reforms.

During his rule, the nation of 300,000 people living on 1,190 mostly uninhabited coral islands became one of the most attractive tourist destinations in South Asia.

A special 114-member council representing political parties and elected representatives prepared the draft constitution before it was endorsed by the president.

The opposition praised the charter’s adoption.

“For the first time the people are getting to chose a president and we have ended the autocratic powers of the president,” said Ahmed Shaeed, a former foreign minister under Gayoom and currently a member of the opposition New Maldives Party.

Thursday was declared a national holiday to allow citizens to witness the televised signing ceremony.

Britain’s minister for Asia, Africa and the U.N. welcomed the new constitution.

“This is a significant milestone in the country’s reform process,” Mark Malloch Brown said in a statement.

“It will initiate the next important series of reforms, including the establishment of key institutions, leading to elections.”

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