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Cablegate: Maldives: Political Turmoil Follows Public

VZCZCXRO1022
OO RUEHBI RUEHCI RUEHLMC
DE RUEHLM #0635/01 1201058
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
O 301058Z APR 07
FM AMEMBASSY COLOMBO
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC IMMEDIATE 5952
INFO RUEHRL/AMEMBASSY BERLIN PRIORITY 0367
RUEHKA/AMEMBASSY DHAKA PRIORITY 0068
RUEHIL/AMEMBASSY ISLAMABAD PRIORITY 7049
RUEHKT/AMEMBASSY KATHMANDU PRIORITY 5136
RUEHLO/AMEMBASSY LONDON PRIORITY 3710
RUEHNE/AMEMBASSY NEW DELHI PRIORITY 0916
RUEHNY/AMEMBASSY OSLO PRIORITY 3782
RUEHKO/AMEMBASSY TOKYO PRIORITY 2863
RUEHCG/AMCONSUL CHENNAI PRIORITY 7634
RUEHCI/AMCONSUL KOLKATA PRIORITY 0340
RUEHBI/AMCONSUL MUMBAI PRIORITY 5317
RUEHLMC/MILLENNIUM CHALLENGE CORPORATION PRIORITY
RHEFDIA/DIA WASHINGTON DC PRIORITY
RHEHAAA/NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL WASHINGTON DC PRIORITY
RUEHBS/USEU BRUSSELS PRIORITY
RUEHGV/USMISSION GENEVA PRIORITY 2005
RHHMUNA/HQ USPACOM HONOLULU HI PRIORITY

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 03 COLOMBO 000635

SIPDIS

SENSITIVE
SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PGOV PHUM MV
SUBJECT: MALDIVES: POLITICAL TURMOIL FOLLOWS PUBLIC
SUSPICION OF A POSSIBLE CUSTODIAL DEATH

1. (SBU) SUMMARY: The discovery of a dead body floating in a
lagoon near Male' on April 15 led to political controversy,
as the deceased's family and opposition charged the victim
was killed in custody -- and government authorities denied
it. A demonstration erupted outside the cemetery. Police
reportedly used undue force to break up the crowd and
arrested at least thirteen. The Ambassador wrote to Attorney
General Hassan Saeed on April 19 to express hope that the
victim's family's wishes would be respected and to note
concern about the violence between police and protestors.
The Maldivian government complied with the victim's family's
request to facilitate an autopsy of the body in Sri Lanka.
The medical examiner noted no visible signs of injury and
concluded that death occurred by drowning. Maldivian
government officials promptly issued press releases claiming
they were exonerated of any wrongdoing. The Maldivian
Attorney General's office reported these findings in a
response to the Ambassador on April 24. Nevertheless, the
family remained unsatisfied with the results, noting major
discrepancies between Maldivian police's initial
announcements and the Sri Lankan examiner's autopsy report.
On April 28, the Maldivian government refused to grant the
family's request for a burial in Colombo and shipped the body
to Male'. The Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs conducted
the burial that same day; police broke up a crowd praying for
the body at a mosque, and three journalists were arrested for
trying to cover the burial. During the week of April 22,
tensions between the government and opposition rose when
several activists faced trial for having violated freedom of
assembly regulations in 2006. Based on the current climate,
the chances for cooperation between the estranged sides on
constitutional reform seem to have receded. End summary.

POLICE AND OPPOSITION CLASH
NEAR CEMETERY
-----------------------------

2. (U) According to local media, police reported the
discovery of Hussain Salah's corpse floating in a lagoon
early the morning of April 15. In keeping with local Islamic
custom, authorities took the body to the cemetery for an
immediate burial. However, Salah had been taken into police
custody on April 9, and members of his family believed he may
have been killed by security forces. The family insisted on
an investigation, and a crowd gathered outside the cemetery.
In dispersing the crowd, police used undue force, with ten
officers reportedly targeting opposition chair Mohamed
Nasheed, hitting him with batons and kicking him. One
published photo showed a policeman punching Nasheed in the
face. Police told the media they made thirteen arrests,
while the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) said
police arrested fifteen, including Nasheed. Several were
released the following day, Nasheed among them.

SUSPECTED CUSTODIAL DEATH
---------------------------

3. (U) Police reported that they released Salah from custody
the evening of April 13. They said he died under unknown
circumstances April 14. Salah's family asked why, if that
were the case, he had failed to contact them on April 13.
Police produced a document indicating Salah's release date,
but the family demanded to see security camera footage of his
release -- which police have not agreed to hand over. In
addition, police initially said Salah suffered no injuries,
but when pictures of the body circulating on the internet
showed visible signs of injury, police said some damage
ocurred as the body was being moved. On the local television
news, police said Salah's body had breaks in the skull,
including a fractured sinus bone. Salah's family, the
opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), and many in the
public were deeply suspicious of the circumstances
surrounding Salah's death. The family called for an autopsy

COLOMBO 00000635 002 OF 003


and went to the Sri Lankan High Commission in Male' to
request assistance on the grounds that Maldives lacks the
facilities to carry it out. Sri Lankan officials said they
would have to cooperate with Maldivian authorities to
transfer the body, and the family granted such permission.

CONTROVERSIAL AUTOPSY RESULTS
------------------------------

4. (U) A Sri Lankan medical examiner conducted the autopsy on
April 21, and published a brief set of findings concluding
there were no signs of injury on the body and "sand in the
lungs" indicated death by drowning. The Maldivian government
immediately released public statements announcing they were
fully exonerated of any wrongdoing. Foreign Minister Ahmed
Shaheed sent poloff a text message to that effect. However,
Salah's family told the press that when they arrived at the
Maldivian High Commission in Colombo to receive the autopsy
results, the envelope had already been opened. They rejected
the findings, saying they may have been tampered with.

5. (SBU) Poloff spoke with family lawyer Mohamed Munnavar in
Colombo on April 23. Munnavar said sixteen Maldivian police
had flown with Salah's body, and the police spoke privately
with the Sri Lankan medical officer at length before he
conducted the autopsy. Munnavar said that Maldivians, coming
from an atoll nation, are familiar with the physical
indications of drowning, none of which (he said) Salah's body
exhibited. Munnavar said the family had requested a return
of the body, ostensibly to bury it immediately, but wanted to
find a doctor to do an x-ray of the skull before-hand.
Munnavar explained that if such a cursory check confirmed the
initial Maldivian police report of head injuries in direct
contradiction to the autopsy report, the Sri Lankan
examiner's findings would be highly suspect. According to
Munnavar, however, the Maldivian High Commission insisted on
making burial arrangements, and
denied the family custody of the body.

FAMILY UNHAPPY WITH RESOLUTION;
CONTINUED POLITICAL STRAINS
--------------------------------

6. (U) In Maldives, the government convened a parliamentary
group to investigate Salah's death. The Maldives Human
Rights Commission urged a full investigation, but did not
take up the task itself. On April 28, the Maldivian
government shipped Salah's body back to Male', rejecting the
family's request to bury him in Colombo. The Supreme Council
for Islamic Affairs took charge of the body and buried it in
Male' because the family refused to be involved. The press
reported that a group gathered to pray for the body at a
mosque near the cemetery, and police disperesed the crowd and
arrested three journalists attempting to cover the burial.
The journalists, including one who works for a
governement-run daily paper, were all released by the
following day. In the meantime, the Maldivian government
stepped up public criticism of the opposition, accusing the
MDP of politicizing Salah's death. The government called on
the opposition to shift the focus to constitutional reform.
The opposition told the press the Maldivian government is
merely trying to deflect attention from the Salah
controversy.

7. (U) On April 25, a Maldivian court called four opposition
activists to trial on charges of violating freedom of
assembly in November 2006. On April 26, Aminath Najeeb,
editor of the pro-opposition Minivan Daily, went to court to
face "disobedience to order" charges for publishing an
article quoting a source who sought to "destroy the court
(system)." An article in the sister website,
MinivanNews.com, noted that Najeeb has faced similar charges
several times before, and ironically, may well be in prison

COLOMBO 00000635 003 OF 003


on World Press Freedom Day, when Maldives will host an
international event to celebrate free media.

AMBASSADOR REGISTERS CONCERNS
------------------------------

8. (SBU) On April 19 the Ambassador wrote to Attorney General
Hassan Saeed urging that Salah's family's wishes be
respected, expressing concern about the reports of violence
at the demonstration, and encouraging a return to dialogue
between the government and opposition. An official from
Saeed's office responded on April 24, noting the autopsy
conducted on April 21 confirmed that Solah died by drowning.
The e-mail also stated that while the government was willing
to accept a Commonwealth initiative to hold talks outside of
Maldives to discuss constitutional reform with the
opposition, the MDP had yet to formally agree.

9. (SBU) COMMENT: The exact circumstances of Salah's death
may remain an unsolved mystery. Given the short time between
his supposed release and his demise, it is perhaps
understandable that many were quick to believe the worst
about the security forces. The heavy-handed response to the
ensuing demonstration did nothing to allay suspicions.
Severe government criticism of the MDP and the start of
trials of prominent opposition members exacerbated tensions.
The current climate is, unfortuanately, hardly conducive to
reasoned discussion of constitutional reform.
MOORE

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