/ Interviews

The name’s Bond: Mohamed Haleem, Sergeant at Arms of the Majlis

Retired First Lt Mohamed Haleem
Former Lieutenant Mohamed Haleem who resigned in protest over what he saw as MNDF’s failure to uphold the Constitution

Once DRP declared its support for Mohamed Nasheed in the election and gave MDP a majority say in the People’s Majlis, it has been under constant attack from the remaining two branches of state power. In the last two months, Members have been arrested & stripped of seats through political exploitation of the judiciary, and government aligned MPs have not just obstructed proceedings but caused physical harm to fellow MPs and vandalised expensive property inside the chambers.

With no protection on offer from existing State security services, the Majlis has opted to have its own security, and for the first time, created the post of Sergeant at Arms tasked with securing the Majlis and its Members. The man they chose, with 56 votes out of 57, is former First Lieutenant of the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF), Mohamed Haleem—Bond Haleem to friends.

Haleem turned forty on 29 September. That night he watched MP Ali Azim being brutally arrested. ‘Eye witnesses say that police kicked him and hit him with batons prior to dragging him to their vehicle,’ Minivan News reported. On 30 September he resigned from the MNDF. ‘I realised I just could not go on. There was just too much going wrong.’ Haleem is polite, a humble man. Talking about his resignation seems a difficult thing for him to do. ‘My whole life is the military. Sifainge is my home.’ He joined in 1989. The strong nationalist rhetoric which followed the 1988, 3 November coup got to him. He was sixteen. ‘It was difficult to leave.’ But he felt compelled to.

‘Things were happening that I cannot agree with,’ Haleem said. He found it frustrating to watch security forces being used to stop peaceful demonstrations and felt it was unacceptable that MNDF just stood by and watched as the Constitution was being ripped apart. On 23 September, he registered his dissatisfaction with the Chief of Defence Major General Ahmed Shiyam. It is important, he said in an SMS to the Chief, that everybody is told of what articles 88, 111, 155 and 268 of the Constitution says. They are related to the election, transfer of power, and the superiority of the Constitution over all institutions and laws. Major General Shiyam never replied.

When Haleem submitted his resignation, Colonel Ali Zuhair, his immediate superior, reacted with anger. ‘Stop whatever it is that you are doing right now and get put immediately.’ Colonel Zuhair, who would less than a month later forcibly evict MP Ali Azim from the Majlis chambers, yelled down the phone. ‘It is one thing to resign. Why did you have to go to the media with it?’ Haleem’s letter was widely shared on social media and was reported on Raajje TV. A fellow serviceman told him his access to Bandeyri Koshi and Kalhuthukkalaa Koshi had been blocked. He did not stop to collect his belongings and went straight home. Major General Shiyam rang him around 10:00 the next morning. ‘Whatever it is that you do next, just make sure I don’t see you at one of those podiums!’

After 23 years and 10 months of service, Haleem set about joining civilian life. He registered a company, Bond Investment Maldives. His plan was to take an MVR200,000 contract to do the engineering work on a floating restaurant project. Haleem is an electrical engineer with a Master’s degree in the subject and plenty of experience. He was at his desk working on the project when he heard the Sergeant at Arms job being announced on the radio. The Majlis announcement on 25 October, gave very little time for action. Applications had to be in by 12:00 on 27 October. The beleaguered Majlis was taking no chances.

Even though Haleem was unfamiliar with what the position of Sergeant at Arms entailed, the salary (MVR32,000) caught his attention. He Googled the term—‘it was exactly what I was looking for.’ He had been concerned about lack of security and protection the State security services were providing the Majlis with, and now he had the opportunity to lead the effort to protect MPs. Most importantly for Haleem, he would be working to uphold the Constitution. He went to the Majlis premises immediately. It was a Friday, but he located a staff member who gave him a copy of the application form. Everything happened so fortuitously, Haleem thinks there was a higher force at work.

‘It really is a miracle. I wanted to remain steadfast in serving the country, and now, I have the chance to do so again.’ There is a catch in his voice when he talks of the MNDF. ‘I have known no other life.’ Despite the emotion, Haleem seems far from soft. ‘I will ensure that MPs get the protection they need as they perform the important function of upholding the Constitution,’ he says with determination.

As Sergeant at Arms, he will be stationed inside Majlis chambers whenever it is in session. If the Speaker calls an unruly member to order three times without being obeyed, the Speaker may gesture to the Sergeant to have the Member removed from the chamber. Haleem will signal members of his staff and, together with them, will proceed in formation to the member’s seat and have him removed from the chamber. It would be done with minimum of fuss, with least possible disturbance to the session.

Minister of Defence Mohamed Nazim, was not pleased with Majlis’ plans to have its own security. Citing Article 105 of the Constitution, he asserted that only State security services has the authority to protect the Majlis. The post is common in former colonies of Great Britain, from where it originated. The United States Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, are all countries where State legislatures have their own Sergeant at Arms.

Haleem says he wanted 216 members of staff. Despite the lavish spending on the Maldives Police Service, and by the Maldives Police Service on buying weapons, the country is bankrupt. With each member of the security staff to be paid roughly MVR10,000, Majlis cannot afford over 200 security staff. ‘We will have 100 members instead,’ says Haleem. There will be SPOs [Special Protection Officers] for each Member who requests the service. They will carry non-lethal weapons, and Haleem will give preference to ex-servicemen during the recruitment process. All staff would be people with combat training. They will guard the member round the clock. Asked if it does not amount to too much securitisation of the People’s Majlis, he said, ‘it is necessary at a time like this, when the Constitution is in peril.’

On 27 October Majlis decided by a majority vote to install Speaker Abdulla Shahid as the interim President, with full presidential powers, on 11 November if there is no elected leader by then. ‘If there is no election, the Speaker will have to assume the power and responsibilities of the President. This is the only way to ensure that we do not fall into a Constitutional void.’ Haleem will do all he can to make sure this happens. ‘That is the oath by which I have lived most of my life. I will do all I can to uphold the Constitution of the Maldives.’

    Ten minutes with Nasheed

    InterviewMohamed Nasheed must be the busiest man in town. For the last 500-odd days Nasheed has been moving non-stop criss-crossing the country, dropping into every other house for a chat, and walking every street of Male’ going from door to door, from morning to night. His energy is truly astounding. ‘How does he do it?’ people wonder aloud. Then they stop wondering and try to keep up, working harder (almost all voluntarily) than they had ever before, for the same purpose as Nasheed: to restore democracy in the Maldives.

    A visiting foreign journalist asked me two days ago if Nasheed can inspire people. Apparently, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom has expressed the opinion that Nasheed cannot be a proper leader because he cannot do so. To be inspired by Nasheed you have to see him at work, and see the commitment he brings to the cause.
    Today began with a round of ten minute one to one interviews with twelve journalists from various media outlets in the country. I am second last on the list of local journalists, before JJ Robinson, the editor of Minivan News.

    Nasheed is multi-tasking. He is listening to questions and answering them, all the while he is signing letters he will send to all 240,000 plus eligible voters in this election. He could have let the signature be printed, but that won’t be him. Each letter has to be signed personally, so he has at least a thousand of them with him whenever he sits down. When he went to Colombo earlier this month to meet Maldivians voting in Sri Lanka, the letters he took with him to sign weighed over three kilos. He used to sign 1000 letters an hour, now it’s up to 1300-1400 an hour. I find it slightly disconcerting, talking to someone while they are doing something else, but his ears are mine for ten minutes.
    ‘If you are elected, how do you plan to deal with the Baaghees [coup-makers]?’ I ask. Nasheed’s insistence on magnanimity as the best solution for the legacy of pain Gayoom’s torture tactics left behind has meant a large number of Maldivians are still waiting for justice. I have talked to hundreds of people about their views on how to deal with Baaghees if they are no longer in government. The word magnanimity was not in their vocabulary. Justice is what people want.

    ‘An MDP government will make sure they are dealt with according to the law. Investigations will be carried out, the Prosecutor General must prosecute on behalf of the State, and judges must give proper verdicts.’ Rule of law, Nasheed says, is the answer.
    ‘But we don’t have an independent judiciary. How can we assure justice for the people without one?’ I asked. Judicial reform will take priority in a Nasheed government. ‘Implemented on a parallel tract [to prosecution of the Baaghees] will be efforts to reform the judiciary.’

    Some key figures in the local legal and political sectors have floated the idea in recent times that judicial reform will require a constitutional amendment. ‘It is not appropriate to play with the Constitution. What we need is a good judiciary, capable and willing to interpret it well,’ Nasheed said. What he said will happen for certain are changes to the Judicial Service Commission, one of the key forces in obstructing judicial reform during Nasheed’s government.
    All contesting parties—(even PPM) have brought out manifestos in recent days. The pledges are very similar. What makes MDP’s different except for being ‘costed and budgeted’? A good manifesto, Nasheed said, comes out of a good consultative process. ‘Manifesto building’, is what he called the process. ‘That’s what MDP did, and that’s why MDP’s manifesto is different from the rest.’
    There is so much I want to ask him, but I have only ten minutes. I know the ten others before me would have asked about all the ‘serious stuff.’ I want to know more about Nasheed, the person.

    After living such a hectic life for the last eighteen months or so, visiting three islands a day on average, how will he cope with the change of pace? ‘I will be just as busy,’ he said. ‘Of course, I won’t be able to travel as much, or meet with as many people. I do like other work,’ he smiles. ‘The work [in government] will be more technical, I really enjoy that, too.’

    Nasheed admits, however, that he will miss the travelling, especially meeting with the people. If elected, he intends to dedicate one day a week to continue the Door to Door policy launched during the current campaign. The most valuable lesson he learned from visiting all those houses, he said, is that ‘nothing is small.’ What someone tells him when he visits them maybe a story about their gutter, their roof, or their sewerage pipe. They may seem trivial, but it is these stories that help reveal the big picture. ‘Look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves.’
    How confident is he of winning the election? His response is the beaming smile that has won him thousands of more supporters over the course of the last year and a half. ‘It’s a forgone conclusion’, he says. ‘All the signs are there, all the evidence is there,’ for an MDP win in Ehburun [One Round].

    ‘Unless’, he adds, ‘something completely outrageous happens.’

    It’s all over too soon. We shake hands, and before I left he wonders aloud why Dhivehi Sitee was the only media outlet to have interviewed him in English. I told him a few others have complained about Dhivehi Sitee not being in Dhivehi. ‘Why is it a bad thing?’ Nasheed asks. ‘It’s just a wider interpretation of what a Dhivehi Sitee can be.’

      Tea with @sharaff, Minister of Coup Archives

      SharaffImmediately after the coup on 7 February 2012, the new rulers cracked down on freedom of assembly and expression. Through violence, arbitrary detentions and the abuse of law, the new government was able to a halt the thousands of anti-coup demonstrators who took to the streets in protest. A lot of repressed democracy activists gravitated towards social media, many went on Twitter, the only place that appears still free for some honest talk by people standing up to government attempts to control speech, expression and thought by controlling information and dissemination disinformation. Not just in the Maldives but across the globe.

      Yesterday I had tea with @sharaff, one of the key enablers of anti-coup and democracy activists fight against the coup government’s attempts to legitimise the illegal overthrow of government  by using evidence gathered by ordinary people on social media. @sharaff is a one-man archive of almost all counter-coup information. He has a collection of all the video footage that exists on the coup. CoNI documents may be ‘Classified’ and hidden away in a vault, but @sharaff’s archive of documents, tweets, leaked information, exposes and records of exposes, is wide open to the public. I wanted to know what motivated him to spend the time, energy and effort in doing all this, becoming the Minister of Archives as some have started calling him.

      Sharafulla Shihab is in his early thirties, and works in tourism, an industry far removed from politics, at least at the non-proprietor level. He was not much interested in politics until then. He did not really care for President Mohamed Nasheed either, and his political discussions almost never ended in favour of MDP. His views changed after the coup. Photography is Sharaf’s passion and, as his pre-coup images show no focus on political happenings. Things changed after the coup.

      On 8 February 2012 Sharaf was near the ADK Hospital on Sosun Magu. Police came down hard on anti-coup demonstrators  that day. Sharaf saw police beating up a pregnant woman outside the hospital. On the same day, he saw President Nasheed being chased by SO Police.

      In the days without law and order that followed, the government tried desperately to establish a particular version of the events of 7 and 8 February: the coup did not happen, Nasheed resigned voluntarily. Sharaff soon began to notice how intense the government’s disinformation campaign was. Sometimes it was covert, at other times blatant. Current Defence Minister Mohamed Nazim told one of the early blunt lies. Outside the military headquarters on 7 February, he announced on a megaphone that he had ordered President Mohamed Nasheed to resign ‘without condition’. Speaking to the media a few days later, he denied it outright. Even though this video exists of him saying it – through a megaphone.

      Raajje TV broadcast a clip juxtaposing the statements and gave it the title, ‘Nazim said that; Nazim also said this.’ Sharaff uploaded the clip on YouTube and has not looked back since. His collection of coup-related footage has now been viewed 200,000 times. Maldivians from all over the world have contacted him to thank him for giving him the chance to keep track of incidents at home.

      Most of the significant events that happened in these times of coup d’état are on the channel, recorded for posterity. This is Sharaff’s main motivation.

      “We grew up not knowing our history. I don’t want that happening again,” Sharaff said. He spoke of Mohamed Amin, the Maldivian president who was lynched by an angry mob in 1953. Speaking to CoNI, Mohamed Nasheed spoke of the important event in Maldivian political history, even more significant after the coup on 7 February. “I was standing under the same mango tree that Amin had stood under just before he was lynched,” he said recounting the last few hours of his presidency to CoNI. He had recently read the book Orchid, the first time many Maldivians were introduced to details of Amin’s brutal death.

      “How little we know of any of what happened before us, in our long history,” Sharaff does not want the same type of State-induced amnesia to occur again.“If we don’t record everything that is happening now, and if we don’t make it as widely available to the public as possible”, he said, “future generations can grow up without knowing what really happened that day.”

      Sharaf’s office is an iPhone and a Mac, and he does it all voluntarily without funds or assistance. He has like-minded friends and fellow activists who encourage him, and the appreciation of researchers and democracy campaigners keep the motivation strong.  If there’s a special programme on, like the recent candidate interviews on MNBC One and the running mate last week on the same channel, he stays home to tape it, and uploads it immediately, or soon after.

      “Sometimes the last thing I want to do is listen to a politician, but I feel that I must, so others can.” Sharaf lives with his wife and a young child. They have become used to, in the last five hundred days or so, to Sharaf spending a lot of time taping things.

      Sharff’s blog, now automated, collects Tweets from various people on trending topics on any given day. He has set things up so that all he has to do is ‘Favourite’ a Tweet and it ends up automatically on his blog, there for all to see; it doesn’t matter whether the author later deletes it, disowns it or dissociates from it. Sharaff can verify what they really said, and when they said it. Several key coup-makers — Mohamed Waheed, Abdulla Riyaz, Mohamed Nazim, for instance—have blocked Sharaff so he cannot keep a record of what they may later regret saying.

      Sharaff was also instrumental in making people aware just how much debt Mohamed Waheed’s running mate Thasmeen was in. Here is some parts of a Twitter conversation between Sharaf and Thasmeen that started sometime around 9:00 pm one evening and ended after 3:00 a.m. the next morning. Several people joined in the conversation, and there was very little of Thasmeen’s dirty debt laundry public did not know by the end of it.

      “It is extremely important that people have all the information they need to make up their own minds about things. I believe in democracy, in freedom of expression, and the right to information. That’s why I do what I do.”