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Maldives President's Promises of Democracy Met With Skepticism

The Maldives president says his country is taking steps to become a multi-party democracy. But human rights groups and opponents are skeptical about promises for political change in the tiny Indian Ocean state.

President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom says he is pursuing an ambitious reform agenda to turn the Maldives into a modern democracy.

No political parties are allowed in the Maldives, where President Gayoom has ruled since 1978.

The president, on a visit to New Delhi, said that a constitutional assembly is drafting new laws on political, media and electoral freedom.

He says the assembly is expected to report within a year, but there is no definite timeline for changes to be introduced.

"It is very difficult to set a specific date because the only authority who can amend the constitution according to our present constitution is the constitutional assembly," he said. " They are sitting, they are deliberating, I can't myself impose a date."

Mr. Gayoom's promise of change has been met with skepticism by human rights groups, who accuse him of repressing those who challenge him.

In a report released Wednesday, the Asian Center for Human Rights says arbitrary arrests, detention and torture of political activists is widespread in the Maldives. The report says the reform agenda the president proposes will only strengthen his powers.

The rights group is calling on the Maldives government to allow political parties to operate freely.

At the moment, many of President Gayoom's opponents are working from overseas to lobby for more political freedom in the country.

Among them is Mohammed Latheef, founder of the Maldivian Democratic Party, which operates from Sri Lanka. Mr. Latheef says the president is attempting to buy time in a country where dissent runs high.

"No, he is not about to make any substantial changes simply because we believe that if he does make political changes that will be political suicide for him," he said. "He depends on this culture of oppression and this very autocratic system of governance to maintain him in power."

The most recent unrest was last August, when a pro-democracy protest in the capital Male resulted in the arrest of dozens of dissidents. The government says they were "rioters" threatening law and order, and that they have since been released under a general amnesty.

President Gayoom denies allegations that his government targets pro-democracy campaigners and is responsible for human rights abuses.