- The Washington Times - Friday, September 26, 2003

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — The Maldives, the usually peaceful nation of small coral islands in the Indian Ocean, has been rocked by unprecedented political dissent and rioting sparked by a prison clash.

Maldivian dissidents, most of them based abroad, say at least 100 people have been arrested. They claim the crackdown is linked to a November election, when President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom is expected to seek a sixth five-year term.

Amnesty International, the London-based human rights watchdog, blamed the arson attacks in the capital, Male, to rights abuses that had caused simmering dissension in the tiny nation of 250,000 Sunni Muslims.

Maldivian authorities say the unrest was unrelated to Mr. Gayoom’s re-election bid, which was announced a day before the rampage.

Mr. Gayoom, 64, has governed the archipelago of 1,172 coral islands since 1978 and is considered almost certain to win again in November.

Maldives, a nation twice the size of the District of Columbia, has no organized political parties. Candidates for office run as independents. The president is nominated by a secret ballot of parliament, and then must be confirmed by a national referendum.

The troubles started after Mr. Gayoom’s National Security Service clashed with inmates of the Maafushi prison, located on a tiny island near Male, leaving two prisoners dead last weekend.

A third prisoner died after in a hospital in the neighboring island nation of Sri Lanka.

Mobs set fire to the elections office, the high court, several police stations and vehicles and stoned other public buildings, including the main international conference center.

Opposition groups accused the security services of rounding up young men and women in Male, according to the underground Maldivesculture.com Web site. Information Minister Ibrahim Manikku said he could not confirm the reported arrests.

Officials said Mr. Gayoom has appointed a commission to investigate the cause of the prison unrest and has pledged to prosecute those responsible for the ensuing rampage in the capital.

Mr. Gayoom also has fired five members of the security service who were at the jail, placing them under arrest.

However, Amnesty International, in a statement released Wednesday, slammed Mr. Gayoom for his “systematic suppression” of dissent and said the unprecedented civil unrest underlined people’s anger.

“The scale of civil protest in Male last weekend and the targeting by the protesters of government buildings, which are closely associated with endemic human rights violations, underlines people’s anger caused by the blatant abuse of their human rights,” Amnesty said.

“Many prisoners were reportedly held in chains, or deprived of food for over a day following the shooting at prisoners at Maafushi Prison,” it said.

It also criticized the appointment of a five-member team to investigate the prison riot and said the panel had been asked to take directives from Mr. Gayoom, who personally heads the security service.

Neighboring Sri Lanka offered assistance in restoring order this week, but the situation had largely returned to normal in the Maldives.

In November 1988, Sri Lankan Tamil mercenaries tried to overthrow the Maldivian government, and at Mr. Gayoom’s request, the Indian military suppressed the coup attempt within 24 hours.

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