PEN versus the Sword



14 April 2006

It is commendable that on 10 April, over forty PEN members and friends gathered outside the Maldive High Commission in London to urge the Maldives to release all writers and journalists detained in violation of their right to freedom of expression, as guaranteed by Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

An article in the web site of PEN referred to three prisoners in particular, who are detained in violation of their right as defined in the Covenant.

PEN is a writer's organisation and it is at pains to explain that the objective of its protest was not on behalf of any political movement, but for individuals who are persecuted for their writing.Note: Since this editorial was written, the Minivan News journalist on whose behalf PEN campaigned, has been convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment for possessing narcotics for supply. The circumstances of his conviction were, admittedly, highly dubious. However none of the Maldive opposition news organs have reported that the individual had been pardoned in 2003 in a general amnesty, while serving a similar sentence for trading in narcotics. PEN has not claimed that his first trial was unfair or politically motivated.

PEN is nevertheless treading a fine line.

The three prisoners it has mentioned by name are all prominent activists of the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) including its chairman. In its web site, PEN alleges that one of the prisoners, Jennifer Latheef is being persecuted because she is the daughter of a prominent leader of the MDP
. This is an allegation being made by factions within the MDP and one that the Maldive authorities vehemently deny.

In a highly politicised issue, by giving publicity to an allegation of the MDP without stating that it is denied by the Maldive authorities, one finds it difficult to accept PEN's claim that it "is not campaigning for the MDP".

PEN is also campaigning on behalf of an individual who wrote in an obscure foreign language in a politically biased newspaper, the Minivan News. One has to wonder if PEN has access to independent translations of what the individual wrote and is able to determine the literary and journalistic merit of his writing.

It is unclear if PEN is fully aware that the MDP has a written commitment in section 3.3(a) of its provisional constitution known as the Rules of Procedure (published only in the local language) that violates Article 18(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Divehi text of section 3.3 (a) of the MDP's provisional constitution

The section states that the MDP shall endeavour to protect and preserve the "esteemed religion of Islam" and that the Party shall not permit any religion other than Islam.

Like the Maldive authorities, the MDP has two versions of many of its statements. The English language versions that are sensitive to Western viewpoints are not widely circulated in the Maldives and are never in the Divehi language. The English statements are cosmetic and are usually not taken seriously by Maldivians.

It does not seem right when PEN draws attention to violations of Article 19 of an International Covenant by the Maldive authorities while remaining silent on a written commitment by the MDP to violate Article 18 of the same Covenant, particularly when PEN is actively campaigning for the rights of prominent members of the MDP.

This web site itself has called on the Maldive authorities to release Jennifer Latheef and others without any condition. We will continue to do so without reservation. Unlike PEN we do not shy away from pointing out the opposition MDP's own commitment to violating international norms of human rights.

"We should not forget that it is the suppression of freedom and basic rights that often leads to extremism and terrorism."

Mr Zaki, charity begins at home. Why does not your party abandon its commitment to suppress the freedom guaranteed in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 18(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights?

Taliban-style mullahs officiate at MDP meeting

Members and friends of English PEN demonstrate for MDP members
PEN wrote on 13 April 2006:

Many thanks for your email and interest in our campaign. However PEN is a writers’ organization, that campaigns against violations of freedom of expression – we are not like Amnesty who can take on more, and broader, human rights issues.

PEN is not campaigning for the MDP, but for individuals who are persecuted for their writing. Mohamed Nasheed was a writer before he founded the MDP and in fact was a case of ours in the 1990s. Fahala Saeed, is a journalist and we believe the charges against him are in retaliation for his articles for Minivan News.

Best wishes,

Lucy Popescu
Programme Director
Writers in Prison Committee
English Centre of International PEN
6-8 Amwell St, London EC1R 1UQ
Tel: 020 7713 0023
Fax: 020 7837 7838