48: 24 In and Out of Prison

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by Azra Naseem

It was May 1991. On the small island of Dhoonidhoo, by the beach, stood a windowless corrugated iron shed 4ft wide, 6ft long, and 6ft high. During the day, the hot tropical sun beamed its rays directly onto the tin roof, making the air inside as hot as the inside of an oven on full blast. Under the moon, damp air from the sea wrapped itself around the shed, chilling the atmosphere within. Entrapped inside, in solitary confinement since November 1990, was a young man of 23 years. On 17 May 1991, exactly 24 years ago today, he turned 24.

Mohamed Nasheed, from G. Kenereege, Male’, had spent the previous year and a half inside the confines of the small shed. For 18 months his existence had been strictly controlled and designed to cause maximum pain and humiliation. He was allowed one shower a week. Everything he did had to be done inside the confines of the shed. His water was rationed – one litre every 24 hours for all his needs: drinking; cleaning; and ablutions.

The only ‘break’ from the relentless routine came when he was taken out for ‘interrogations’. Prior to each, he was allowed a bath and given a clean shirt to wear. All the sessions were videotaped. Instead of being asked questions, however, he was provided with a list of offences to which he was to ‘confess’: attempts to overthrow the government; inciting violence through distribution of subversive literature; concealing information on alleged anti-government terror plots; immorality; and un-Islamic behaviour.

His refusal to ‘confess’ resulted in a litany of punishments: his food was laced – sometimes with crushed glass, sometimes with laxatives, sometimes both at once. The laxatives caused diarrhoea; the glass cut him from within. It was a bloody combination, intended to cause optimum harm. At other times he was kept chained inside the shed; his water rations cut from one litre to half a litre every 24 hours. Once he was chained to a chair outside for 12 consecutive days, exposed to the elements; be it the merciless tropical sun or the ceaseless monsoon rains. He spent 14 days tied to a loud, throbbing electric generator, breathing in its fumes. For an entire week, he was subjected to sleep deprivation; allowed only 10-15 minutes’ sleep a night.

After 18 months of such inhumane treatment, on 8 April 1992, about a month before his 25th birthday, Nasheed was brought before a summary court and sentenced to three years and six months in prison. This time he was held captive on the island of Gaamaadhoo. Due to external pressure—mainly from the British government and Amnesty International—and changes in the domestic political landscape, Nasheed was released in June 1993, two years and four months before the end of his sentence.

By then he had spent another birthday, the third in a row, in jail. He was suffering from severe back pain, the result of police beatings in custody. He was bleeding internally, the result of food laced with crushed glass he had been forced to eat. He had just turned 26.

Journalism is a crime

Nasheed’s crime had been journalism. In the dictatorship of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom (1978-2008), where the State and its cronies tightly controlled all media output, Nasheed’s was the first voice that refused to be sweet-talked, bought, coerced, or threatened into silence.

On 24 January 1990, at the age of 22, Nasheed published the first issue of, Sangu, the first magazine to be openly critical of the regime in 12 years. It was banned almost immediately. Nasheed responded by publishing the very article, which the government had objected to most, in Sri Lanka’s The Island newspaper. For this, Nasheed was put under house arrest, the first of many times in which he would be deprived of his freedom. He doggedly persisted on his chosen path as a public watchdog, willingly meeting with foreign reporters in his house, including correspondents from the BBC and ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) who, with Nasheed’s contributions, reported on the burgeoning political corruption and oppression in the Maldives. His 18 months of torture in Dhoonidhoo began the day after ABC broadcast its report.

There was more journalism, more writing, more threats, and more jail time to come. The next prison term was in November 1994 when he spent two weeks in solitary confinement for having written about yet more political arrests and repression by Gayoom. In February 1995 he spent another two weeks in prison where it was made clear to him that unless he stopped writing, he would be back behind bars yet again. Faced with the stark choice, he relinquished political journalism, and concentrated on writing longer, historical works.

In 1996 Nasheed published his first book, Dhagandu Dhahana, an account of the domestic affairs that culminated in Maldives becoming a British protectorate in 1887. Despite the book’s focus on history, he was ordered to have it removed from the shelves. He refused. Gayoom’s response was to charge him in relation to an article published two years previously, in November 1994. It was back to jail for another three months, then house arrest for a long period while his appeal was being considered, followed by another three months in jail. For the fourth time he was in captivity for his birthday. He had turned 29.

Free again in 1997, he stayed home to look after his first-born and write. His wife, Laila Ali, was the breadwinner. Writing under a pseudonym, he published Hithaa Hithuge Gulhun (A Connection of Hearts), a non-political novel. It became a best-seller.

Into politics

Nasheed’s first foray into politics was not pre-planned but initiated by Gayoom’s archrival, Ilyas Ibrahim, in October 1999, ahead of scheduled parliamentary elections. Hearing about a meeting between the two men, Gayoom had Nasheed’s house raided. Police took his computer along with several unpublished manuscripts. They were never returned. By then Nasheed had made up his mind to run for one of two seats as a Male’ Member of Parliament. He was successful. Two years later, after many efforts at reform as an MP, he was back in jail.

This time, the charge was theft. Among the documents police found when they raided his home in October 1999 was an old school notebook belonging to former President Ibrahim Nasir’s son. Nasheed picked it up from dumpster outside the Nasir residence which the government had emptied of all contents. Having been in school with the younger Nasir, the notebook, destined for the bin, was of sentimental value to Nasheed. Nevertheless, charged with theft—a Hadd crime in Shari’a—Nasheed was stripped of his parliament seat and sentenced to two years banishment to An’golhitheemu, an island with a population of just 30. After six months in virtual isolation on the island, he was transferred to house arrest. With pressure from Amnesty International, Reporters Sans Frontiers, the International Parliamentary Union (IPU), and other international bodies, he was free again after three months. By now it was August 2002, and Nasheed was 35.

A year of relative calm and more writing followed. Nasheed published two more books, Enme Jaleel, a historical novel, and Dhan’dikoshi, a genealogy of leading families in Male’. In English, he wrote two more, A Historical Overview of Dhivehi Polity 1800-1900, and Maldives in Armour: Internal Feuding and Anglo-Dhivehi Relations 1800-1900.

Trouble, and more jail time, was not far away. On 20 September 2003, the National Security Services (NSS), killed Evan Naseem, a young prisoner in Maafushi jail. Nasheed was instrumental in exposing Evan Naseem’s death for the murder that it was. He beseeched the examining doctor to deviate from what was then a standard procedure of signing prisoners’ death certificates without examining the body first. Naseem’s battered and bruised body, once examined by the doctor and seen by his family and the public, brought most of the public’s endurance of Gayoom’s regime to an end; and lit the fire of the Maldivian democracy movement that refuses to die to this day.

Much of what happened between then and now is well documented. The Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) was declared as an entity in exile in Sri Lanka on 10 November 2003; Nasheed and several other close associates, in danger of losing their lives, sought asylum in the UK; and party leaders, members and activists continued their highly effective non-violent civil resistance actions in Male’. There were several heavy and brutal crackdowns, including the event now known as Black Friday on 12-13 August 2004 when the now infamous SO police brutally cracked down on thousands of protesters injuring hundreds and arresting 200.

Nasheed returned to the Maldives not long after, on 30 April 2005. Within a month—during which time he turned 38—he was back in Dhoonidhoo jail with several other MDP members and activists. This turned out to be a brief overnight stay, but it was not long before he was back in jail, dragged into custody from the Republic Square on 12 August 2005 where he was leading a mass gathering to mark the first anniversary of Black Friday. He remained in prison for about a week, then brought to court to face a battery of charges from inciting hatred against government and ‘creating fear in people’s hearts.’

Nasheed was back in jail—in solitary confinement—for the 80 days in which the ‘trial’ was held. It was followed by 324 days under house arrest. Mounting external pressure forced the government to withdraw the charges against Nasheed and release him on 21 September 2006. Another birthday had passed in captivity.

The freedom was short lived. Six months later, the people of Male’ were confronted with another dead body—another prisoner last seen alive in police custody. The body of Hussein Solah, carrying marks of torture was seen in the sea, near the remand prison where the police had held him. Large crowds gathered near the cemetery to view Solah’s body. Police dispersed the crowd brutally. They singled Nasheed out, pushed, shoved and beat him up, then dragged him into jail for another night. Released the next day, he left abroad to seek treatment.

Sweet but short

In November 2008 Nasheed became the first democratically elected leader of the Maldives. Both he, and the Maldivian people, experienced true freedom from tyranny for the first time in decades. Freedom of expression and assembly flourished. It was safe to speak, to criticise, to write, to draw, to feel, to debate, to dissent.

But, just like the many short-lived moments of liberty in Nasheed’s own history, this freedom for both him and the people was short lived. The beginning of its end came with the coup on 12 February 2012. In the year and nine months that followed, caretaker ‘President’ Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik, genuflecting deeply, held the door open for the Gayoom family to return: to occupy the seats of power; shut the door on civil and political rights of the people; and to lock Nasheed away in prison. The new regime did not waste much time. Nasheed was back in Dhoonidhoo in October 2012, and again in March 2013. He was released on both occasions, pending a ‘trial’. On 13 March 2015, after what the entire world sees as a sham trial–charged and found guilty of ‘terrorism’ for the custody of a corrupt judge during his presidency–the regime threw Nasheed into jail yet again. This time to serve a 13-year sentence.

Today Mohamed Nasheed turns 48. It is the fifth birthday he marks in jail, 24 long years since he marked his first, 24th, birthday in jail back in 1991. And just as his fortunes have changed, so has the country’s. Counting the days behind bars today are many dissidents, critics and writers. Protesters as old as 70, and children under 18, are being brutally assaulted, pepper sprayed, arrested and tortured. Opposition leaders are being detained solely for being opposition leaders.

Once again, it is not safe to criticise the government; it is no longer allowed to freely assemble to peacefully protest without prior permission from the authorities; journalism is, once more, a crime. Journalist and writer Ahmed Rilwan was abducted in August 2014 and has been ‘disappeared’. Several prominent social media critics were dragged into jail, picked up from anti-governments protests like baitfish in a drag net. Dozens of Twitter users were detained for days and held in inhumane conditions. Some have been released, others like Shafeeu and blogger, Yameen Rasheed, remain in custody for no other reason except for their dissenting voices.

The trajectory of Nasheed’s life and that of the Maldivian democracy movement are closely intertwined. Every birthday he marks in jail marks another year in which the country’s struggle for democracy remains under captivity. Without Nasheed’s freedom, there would be no freedom for the majority agitating for a government of the people by the people–they are bound together, like ‘a connection of hearts’.

    Bingaa: a case for intellectual leadership on Maldivian affairs

    Standoff

    by Robert Carr

    As I write, former Maldives National University Chancellor, scholar and 2013 MDP Vice-Presidential candidate Dr Mustafa Lutfi has been arrested following May Day 2015. In his book School Curriculum and Education of Maldives, which is based on his doctoral thesis, Lutfi critiques the various forces that have shaped the country’s education system. It was a book he gifted to Maldives National University Library in 2011. Adding to literature on the Maldives’ recent political history is Aishath Velezinee’s book The Failed Silent Coup: In Defeat They Reached for the Gun. The author offers a first-hand account of (alleged) corruption during her time as a member of the Maldives Judicial Services Commission from 2009 to 2011, circumstances that ultimately led her to become a whistleblower. Velezinee says, like Lufti, she offered to donate her book to the University library. However, her offer was turned down.

    The relationship between intellectual activity and democracy ought to be one that enhances the public sphere. But how can scholarship contribute to this goal and flourish in a social and political environment that discourages rigorous, informed debate? In this essay I explore the idea that deficient or suppressed intellectual activity diminishes the quality of democracy; and, that a lack of critical inquiry equates to increased mobility for state operators when their policies are unchecked by engaged analytical minds. Although not exhaustive, I convey a literature review of scholarly and non-scholarly articles to articulate potential future directions for research on the political history of the Maldives. Peer-reviewed research is severely lacking in this area. Yet scholarship offers significant potential in terms of unpacking the consequences of political authority and informing responses to it.

    Media narrative & international representations of the Maldives

    Media have attempted to fill the knowledge gap vacated by scholarship. The narrative adopted by international media about the policies and practices of the second Gayoom regime (2013-today) is typically twofold. The first is captured in the depiction of the regime offered by Amal Clooney who, writing in The Guardian, opens with: “It may be famous for the pristine holiday beaches of its Indian Ocean coastline but the Maldives has taken a dark authoritarian turn.” The bundled imagery channels international readers’ existing knowledge of global tourist branding, suggesting simply: yesterday the Maldives was pristine, peaceful and sunny; today it is dark, evil and despotic.

    The media narrative then tends to depict outrage at this “turn” and portrays the Maldives as democratically deficient. As Jose Ramos-Horta and Benedict Rogers’ write in The Guardian in relation to Nasheed’s sentencing: “On Friday night the final nails were hammered into the coffin of democracy in the Maldives.” It is thus not surprising that for many commentators the recent history of the tropical island state symbolizes a betrayal of values regarded by the international community to be inviolable such as democracy, transparency and human rights. In media discourse the country is also increasingly associated with a lack of press freedom and as a recruiting ground for Islamic State militants. These factors lend to a growing perception that the Maldives is tinkering on being a failed state and lend weight to advisory warnings to foreign tourists.

    To draw on a local phrase, the bingaa (Dhivehi for ‘foundation slate’) of the ruling regime appears in international media coverage to comprise force, fear, money, intrigue, hard-line hostility to the opinions of foreign dignitaries, and a militaristic defense of sovereignty in place of heeding international condemnation of judicial and other shortcomings in due process. On this point it is worth mentioning how another media text – The Island President – may have contributed to these portrayals as a mode of “backgrounding”. Responding in The Guardian to the incarceration of former Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed, his lawyer Amal Clooney refers to The Island President, which introduces viewers to some crucial political history regarding the first Gayoom regime (1978-2008). Clooney says Nasheed’s “remarkable story is chronicled in the acclaimed documentary”.

    However, as an explanation of Nasheed’s imprisonment for 13 years on “terrorism” charges in the current political climate, his legal case needs to be put into greater context. As a case study, scholars are yet to unpack the internationally acclaimed film as a media/discursive text, the geo-political circumstances in which its subjects gained international notoriety, its success as a vehicle for the reproduction of ideologies and beliefs, and the extent to which it has shaped diplomatic and other commentators’ views on the subject of Maldivian politics.

    Knowledge capacities & organization of the state

    Grievances highlighted by both last week’s May Day protests and Nasheed’s imprisonment have revealed the need for greater understandings of the strategic, discursive and institutionalized hold on political power by the second Gayoom presidential regime. Ideally this would begin with an exploration of similar processes pertaining to the first Gayoom presidential regime and through identifying continuities and departures in each of these approaches to government. Moreover, through rigorous research and critique scholars can identify processes delivering opportunities including “Corruption, closed-door decisions, ‘jobs-for-the-boys’, pork-barrelling, being ignored by your [elected representatives], and, among other scurvy possibilities, shifting the fruits of the many to the few.”

    The political currency of unchallenged historical knowledge concerning Maldivian statehood is significant. To exemplify these implications, the gap in scrutiny has had measurable impacts on the conduct of political life, embodied in the unqualified privilege – by international standards, that is – acquired by the three Criminal Court judges who heard Nasheed’s terrorism trial. None of the judges have law degrees. This deficiency has a functional role for the second Gayoom regime whose uncompromising policy platform requires generating electoral buy-in for reviving a quasi patron-client system that casts privilege on supporters, power to the wealthy and exile to detractors.

    We can see how the function of knowledge deficiency plays out in the regime’s politicking; last week Maldives Foreign Minister Dunya Maumoon described the Presidency of Nasheed as “the single most brutal, dictatorial and violent period of rule in contemporary Maldivian history.” Being up close and personal to the subject matter her entire life – as daughter of 30-year autocratic ruler Maumoon Gayoom – Dunya’s grasp on Maldivian history may be, in her perspective, correct. And therein lies the problem. The role of scholars here is to critique her objectivity and assess the propaganda value of these statements. Moreover, any claims democratic governments make about history requires inquisitive dissection and fact-checking.

    The myths, linguistic capital and political folklore surrounding political elites requires critical analysis and contextualisation. This includes unpacking how myth, image and symbols lend to cultivating power as well as popular tropes concerning the leaders themselves – take, for instance, the implications of networked information flows viz-a-viz ‘Anni’s lucky number’ (being 4) for the democracy movement, or why the Progressive Party of the Maldives chose the colour pink (some say because of the national pink rose). Furthermore this includes analysing literary overtures accompanying the first Gayoom regime such as Royston Ellis’ A Man for All Islands: A Biography of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. There are also two self-authored books by Maumoon Gayoom, The Maldives: A Nation in Peril (1998) and Paradise Drowning (2008) – both showcasing the former president’s orations on environmental challenges facing the Maldives.

    Interestingly, while scholarly contributions to public debate are limited, intellectuals have been mobilized within the bureaucratic power structure of the Maldives under the current government. One outcome of the 2013 elections that delivered Yameen Abdul Gayoom the presidency is the delegation of Ministries to at least four highly educated political actors whose names are preceded by the title ‘Dr’. Critics suggest these appointments lend an air of prestige and respectability to a government losing the ideas contest. It may also capture a lingering deference to formality and titles within the Maldives’ political hierarchy, which is as much a cultural as it is an historical phenomenon. Collectively these Ministers have doctoral expertise in marine offshore aquiculture, civil engineering, and sharia law. My own consultations revealed that greater expertise is sought in foreign affairs, legal and judicial matters, public service, public policy, transparency, public health, communications, media and advocacy.

    Intellectual vanguard

    Without more methodical critique of the past, Maldivian democracy will continue to endure a wilderness of intrigue. Maldivians have expressed desires for greater knowledge about their country’s politics, parties and leaders. Many stated they want the country to have a firmer grip on its dealings with the international community, especially “big” countries like India, the US and China. Questions concerning the lack of knowledge and political biography are entwined with global trends and the necessity to respond to international actors. Knowing more about topics like foreign policy and what makes good public policy is about making an investment into national development, regional stability and social cohesiveness.

    All but a handful of related and semi-related studies explore the politics of tourism (the Maldives’ “golden goose”), international relations, regional security strategy, legal interpretations of Maldivian politics, and the implications of economic transition and sustainability for the country. A proactive intellectual vanguard is crucial as much for consensus building as it is to initiating change. The importance of intellectuals as contributors to political change is emphasized in Gramsci’s efforts to accentuate the centrality of the “war of position” (the contest of ideas, values, the cultivation of collective memory and the formation of an “historic bloc”), to be waged in conjunction with a “war of maneuver” (waged through force and economic means). (Gramsci of course was referring to “organic intellectuals” – producers of knowledge articulating a cause from within – but I’ll leave that for another time.)

    Yet there remain few peer-reviewed accounts of the contemporary political history of the Maldives and crucially histories ‘from below’ incorporating the impacts of civil society, institutions, cultural life and religion on democracy. One exception is the ongoing series of critical essays published via Dhivehisitee: Life and Times of Radicalisation & Regression Maldives authored mainly by Maldivian Dr Azra Naseem, who, while publishing in a non-academic outlet, is among the most critically engaged with the subject matter. Furthermore, Maldivian scholar Dr Athualla Rasheed has written several academic journal articles, but only with noticeable caution does he define President Nasheed’s resignation/ousting as the ‘pre and post-coup periods’.

    And it is a hesitance worth unpacking. President Nasheed stepped down from power in February 2012 following what international commentators, like Clooney, have labeled a “coup” at military gunpoint. By contrast Nasheed’s successor and political opponents have defined this episode in smoother terms as a legal “transfer of power”, a position supported by the Commonwealth-backed Commission of National Inquiry (CoNI). Despite this, evidenced by public discourse is that continuing tension over how to define this moment lays at the heart of the struggle for democratic reform in the Maldives today. For Maldivian analysts, permitting ambiguity to define this moment is understandable and symptomatic of the pressures faced by autocratic subjects to refrain from ‘rocking the boat’.

    By contrast international scholarly commentators have been at liberty to describe the event as a coup in solidarity with Maldivian democracy activists. For instance, in their essay on Dhivehisitee, Professor John Foran and PhD researcher Summer Gray (September 2013) issue little restraint utilizing the term “coup”. They support this view in Counterpunch, stating: “Two independent legal evaluations of the CoNI Report both unequivocally found the Report deficient”. Notwithstanding their extensive citation of supporting empirical materials, there is significant room to get the ball rolling towards producing some foundational peer-reviewed analysis on the subject matter.

    Harnessing future knowledges

    Through knowledge creation, research and a commitment to learning commentators may draw firmer conclusions about the history, and perhaps the future, of Maldivian democracy. This is particularly with regards to the various ways in which – as many commentators suggest – the second Gayoom regime has consolidated power, limited dissent, stacked the judiciary, maintained a contested human rights record, goaded opposition supporters into violent confrontations and mobilized security forces in response to May Day protests.

    Enter: J.J. Robinson’s forthcoming book The Maldives: Islamic Republic, Tropical Autocracy (to be released in October in the UK and November in the US) which observes the thrusts of Maldivian democracy from the author’s perspective as former editor of Minivan News. Robinson describes the book as “a journalistic account of the Maldivian democracy experiment” with a particular focus on the role of judiciary, and makes the case that “the unconstitutional reappointment of Gayoom’s pet judiciary in August 2010 was the thing that really scuttled any hope of a stable democratic outcome.” Robinson’s account is to be the first ‘embedded’ narration of political change in contemporary Maldives (that is, at least by a non-national).

    This contribution to public knowledge is set to be powerful, up close and engaging, and an example of why more of analytical knowledge is needed regarding the political history of the Maldives. Critique, ideas, knowledge creation, debate and intellectual leadership are vital for informing political change in the Maldives as well as international responses to the country’s looming political crisis.

    While international media, the US, EU and India continue to convey outrage at the re-emergence of autocratic tendencies in the Maldives, little if anything is being delivered by the international community in terms of investments into capacity building intellectual culture and leadership. This is a shortcoming of international aid programs despite some countries like Australia facilitating education sector improvements since the days of the Nasheed administration.

    Meanwhile, Velezinee, who began her PhD candidature at Erasmus University in 2015, says she hopes the Maldives “moves towards scholarly debates with a view to establishing the rule of law and a democratic culture.” The difficulty, she points out, is that “the subject matter means it is taboo for any public institution in the Maldives to be viewed implicitly or explicitly to act as a conduit towards learning about these events in any way, shape or form.” Velezinee adds: “Currently, all debate is left to politics and politicians, and the only ‘scholars’ engaging appear to be religious scholars with their own interests. We have to change the language of political debates.”

    Optimistically, Maldivian researchers are dispersed all over the world. Away from home they are slowly beginning to piece together their political history. Perhaps the time has come to harness this network and undertake a more proactive dialogue between scholars interested in developing a political biography of the Maldives.


    Non-peer reviewed academic resources of note

    Colton, Elizabeth, ‘The Elite of the Maldives: Sociopolitical Organisation and Change’ (PhD Thesis), London School of Economics and Political Science, University of London, 1995. URL: http://etheses.lse.ac.uk/1396/

    Jorys, Shirley, ‘Muslim by Law – A Right of a Violation of Rights? A Study About the Maldives’ (Thesis), 2005. URL: http://ebookbrowse.com/shirley-jorys-dissertation-muslim-by-law-pdf-d214056909

    Mohamed, Mizna, ‘Changing reef values: an inquiry into the use, management and governances of reef resources in island communities of the Maldives’ (PhD Thesis), University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand, October 2012.

    Zahir, Azim, ‘Islam and Democracy: The Maldives Case Study’ (Masters Thesis), Master of Human Rights, University of Sydney, 2011.


    Dr Robert Carr produced the Maldives National University Political Science Curriculum. He is a researcher at University of Western Sydney. Tweet: @robcarr09

    Photo of standoff between pro-democracy supporters and the Maldives Police Service on 1 May, by Dhahau Naseem

      Mayday-Mayday-Mayday! Maldives

      When dictatorship is a fact, revolution becomes a right – Victor Hugo

      Boats-hapsnw

      by Azra Naseem

      By many accounts, the atmosphere in Male’ is both festive and fearful right now. And so it would be. Today, supporters of democracy in the Maldives and those who want to prolong the increasingly autocratic regime of Abdullah Yameen Abdul Gayoom are going head to head. Both sides are ready to give it their all, whatever happens, whatever it takes.

      For democracy

      There is little doubt that the country is heavily divided. On the side of democracy supporters are at least 48% of the electorate who voted for Mohamed Nasheed in the 2013 election stolen by Yameen Abdul Gayoom through the Supreme Court. Added to this are a majority of the 23% who in 2013 voted for Qasim Ibrahim, the tourism tycoon who helped fund Yameen’s win and is now being persecuted by him. Also among the democracy supporters are those aligned with the religious Adhaalath Party who voted either for Qasim Ibrahim or Yameen. One of their leading figures, Sheikh Imran Abdullah, so zealously effective against Nasheed in the 2013 presidential campaign, is also now campaigning against this government. All in all, Yameen–and the autocratic values that he represents–has the support of less than 25% of the electorate, if that. A conservative estimate would, therefore, put the percentage of the Maldivian electorate against the government at around 65%. A higher figure is likely to be more accurate.

      A large share of these people will be out on the streets of the capital Male’ today for what is likely to be the biggest demonstration in the history of the country.

      People have come on boatloads from across the 1200 island archipelago. ‘We have travelled on different ships, but we are now all on the same boat’, observed one such protester on social media. They will all be congregating in Male’ at 3:45 in the afternoon, under the hot tropical sun. They want to rise up against the government that has refused to listen to any of their multitude of woes and worries: murders that have not been solved; abductions that have not been investigated; corruption that has been encouraged; islands that have been sold to shady businesses; lagoons that have been signed away for centuries; atolls handed to foreign governments for unknown purposes; medical care that has been negligent; basic services that have been inadequate; streets that have become too dangerous to walk; children who have not been protected; living that has become too expensive to afford; freedoms that have been severely curtailed; promises that have been unfulfilled; and lives that have become too joyless and filled with fear to enjoy. They want a government that would listen; a government of the people, for the people. And they are ready, in their tens of thousands, to come out on the street and demand all this, all theirs by right.

      Against democracy

      ‘I do not want to rule with force,’ President Abdullah Yameen Abdul Gayoom has said. But short of using his own fists, he has done nothing but. All three powers of the State are entirely in his hand, though he continues to insist they are not. Some of the claims are laughable, such as his insistence that the judiciary is independent from his influence. The entire world has seen and said otherwise after the courts prosecuted and jailed opposition leader Mohamed Nasheed in the manner it did. With Yameen’s Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) holding an absolute majority, the parliament is his toy, too. As is the Prosecutor Generals’ Office, almost all independent commissions, and also the country’s armed forces.

      With clear evidence of the partiality of these institutions laid bare on a daily basis, Yameen’s claims of not exercising undue influence makes him frequently look like Iraq’s Comical Ali: Maldives’ own Comical Abdulla.

      The government has been preparing for the protest by banning civil servants from attending the rally, by firing pro-democracy staff in government-run institutions, and by producing and repeating the narrative that to protest is to destroy the country’s peace–as if there can be peace when a majority of the people are refusing to be ruled against their will. None of it is working. Desperate, it has wheeled out religious clerics to say it is against Islam to rise up against an elected leader. Sadly for the government, a majority of Maldivian clerics–having helped instigate the February 2012 coup which brought down the country’s first democratically elected–government, has little credibility left in this department.

      In the meantime, Yameen’s right hand man, the financially rich but morally bankrupt Tourism Minister Ahmed Adeeb, has tried to heat things up further, challenging the protesters to ‘bring it on!’ He has said the government is ready to take on anyone that disagrees with it. There is fear, as well as compelling room for conviction, among democracy supporters that Adeeb–’bro’ to hundreds of gangsters–would not hesitate to bring the ‘boys’ out on the streets today. The plan would be, as has been executed many times before, to get his thugs to pretend they are part of the protest, and commit acts of violence in response to which the SO can unleash their own violence against the peaceful thousands marching for their rights.

      The security forces

      Police

      The Maldives Police Service has become one of the country’s least respected institutions. With a Police Commissioner of little education and even less knowledge of policing at the helm–appointed solely for his loyalty to Yameen–the force has become even more disliked than it was after the 7 February which a group of them facilitated. Since Hussein Waheed became Commissioner, the police have been deployed to do a lot of Yameen’s dirty work–framing political opponents, freeing criminal allies, and brutalising democracy activists. Members of the Special Operations police (SO)–supposedly an ‘elite’ group–have become such lackeys of the president that they are even attending to the president’s superstitions, carrying out ‘top secret’ midnight operations to cut down trees that were supposedly cursed against the government.

      The only people looking forward to the protests as much as, or even more, than the protesters themselves today are the police. From everything they have said and done since today’s protests were announced, they have been preparing for this day. In the last week there have been almost daily press briefings all of which have included threats, intimidation and announcements of new measures to curb the right to freedom of assembly. They have all but imposed visa requirements on people travelling to Male’ from other islands for the protests, demanding they have accommodation, food and other arrangements pre-booked before travelling. They have instigated stop and search operations targeted at boats en route to Male’; paraded troops with imitation guns, banned batons, and gas canisters to perform ‘training exercises’; and they have used ‘intelligence reports’ to arbitrarily arrest leading opposition activists. They have arbitrarily banned the media from certain areas; and banned protests ‘between two prayer times’ — as if there is any time that’s not between one of the five daily prayers. They have warned that caution must be exercised near mosques and schools – as if there is any area on the two square kilometres of Male’ that is not near a mosque or a school. They have said no sound systems can be used after 11:00p.m and that it must all end at sharp midnight. They have declared the protest, yet to begin, ‘not peaceful’. They have announced a strategy of zero tolerance. Any infringement of the growing list of illegally actions, at anytime during the protest, by anyone, and ‘we will crackdown’, they have said.

      Strength in unity

      Not everyone who supports democracy, wants to protest the unjust incarceration of Nasheed, and rise up against the current government, can join the march today. There are many valid reasons to hold people back–mothers who cannot leave their children; the unwell; people who believe they simply cannot risk their livelihoods; people who cannot be in Male’ for various reasons; and more. But, no matter how hard the government and the police would like to believe otherwise, fear is the last reason holding any democracy supporter back from the streets of Male’ today. Together, the people are stronger than any government, no matter how brutal.


      For live updates of the protest visit: www.maydayprotest.com

      Photo 1 by @hapsnow: Another boatful of people arriving in Male’ this morning. 
      Photo 2: Police ‘training’ for today’s protests