Maldives Police Service: a government tool for restricting freedom of assembly

by Azra Naseem

Everybody knows. Without the Maldives Police Service, the coup d’état of 7 February would not have been possible.

It is there, in Ismail Shafeeu’s premature speculation published as the CoNI Timeline. Police refused to obey orders, mutinied, took over state institutions and incited public disorder to an extent that led to the illegal demise of the country’s first democratically elected government. And, thanks to the Inside Man–MC Hameed the former intelligence chief turned whistle-blower–it’s also there in the Ameen-Aslam Coup Report, with details of which officer did exactly what.

From the very beginning, coup planners recognised how important police support was for the successful execution of their plan. The Coup Report says, for instance, that some of its masterminds met in a private apartment in Male’ at a date unknown in September 2011.

In this meeting, the Warrant Officer grade 1 stated that the only way to oust President Mohamed Nasheed from power would be for approximately 500 police and military personnel to come out and protest in Republic Square.

Now that things have gone according to plan, it is becoming clear that the police have been assigned just as crucial a role in sustaining the new regime as they had in installing it.

The new role of the police was first put on full display on 8 February. The violence that some members of the Maldives Police Service perpetrated against the Maldivian public that day was not  spontaneous behaviour by a security force physically and mentally pushed to their limits as some would have it. Rather, it was the initial display of the new form and powers MPS has assumed since the so-called ‘Unity Government’ came to power.

As the short and passionate documentary below by Emmenge explores, this was a deliberate reactivation of the culture of brutality that characterised Maldivian security forces prior to the short-lived transition to democracy.

The appointments of Mohamed Nazim as Defence Minister, Abdulla Riyaz as Police Commissioner and Mohamed Fayaz as State Minister for Home Affairs were not simply a means of rewarding them for their roles in forcing President Nasheed to resign. It also conveyed an important message to the public: the nation’s security forces are now under control of the new government, and their primary purpose is to protect the government from dissent and save it from those objecting to be governed by it.

From the time key figures in the MPS successfully conspired to bring down the government, the police have primarily functioned as a tool with which the government suppresses dissent, helping it achieve with force the consent people will not voluntarily give.

In the past five months, the police have played their new role with vigour and enthusiasm. The riot police, often masked, without any identification badges, and frequently in plainclothes, have made it almost impossible for anti-government protesters to assemble freely. Almost every protest ends in a violent confrontation. The police attack protesters on the streets with pepper spray, tear gas and batons. Their use of all kinds of crowd-control paraphernalia has been gratuitious and excessive. When the violence alone is not sufficient, they twist the long arm of the law, and obtain arrest warrants for activists on ridiculous grounds such as ‘sorcery and witchcraft.’ They claim ownership of public land on which protests take place, and then arrest protesters for ‘trespassing’ or on allegations of ‘criminal activity’ on the said land.

Police are aided in their violent oppression of dissent by all organs of the State as well as by civil society and the media. This is also part of the plan. The Human Rights Commission, weak and ineffective during three years of democracy, has become almost irrelevant in the post-coup Maldives. Transparency Maldives, previously an important voice in democratic reform has grown weak, afflicted by divided loyalties and conflicting personal interests among some of its top members. It has been further weakened by its decision to enter into alliance with two other NGOs to form the “Third Voice” which, while claiming to offer a third way towards approaching the current political conflict, has remained voiceless in the face of police violence and other human rights violations.

The involvement of Democracy House in Third Voice, the NGO run by lawyer Mohamed Nasheed, a key player in the events of 7 February, has not inspired the general public with confidence in the new NGO alliance and its domination of the civil society voice.

The security forces are drawing strength from the weakness of the civil society just as they are from the media’s dogged partiality in covering the protests. Many of the mainstream media outlets–and state media institutions–in the country are pro-government, and tow the government’s lead in depicting peaceful protesters as ‘terrorists’, ‘thugs’ and criminals. If they do not, they themselves become targets of police violence. This helps justify, at least in the minds of the general public looking for a justification, the brutal police violence against protesters.

As time goes by, the police are encroaching further and further on the civil and political rights of citizens. Last Friday, for instance, even as Home Minister Mohamed Jameel Ahmed told the United Nations Human Rights Committee that Maldives had made ‘significant gains’ in freedom of assembly, the police were displaying a new tactic in their repertoire of tools for restricting that very right: the targeting of key MDP activists, specifically their key women activists for arbitrary detention.

As Dr Jameel defended the government’s human right’s record at the United Nations, an event watched live by thousands online and on Raajje TV in Male’, Maldivians were also watching the following on YouTube.

This was the arrest of Aminth Shauna, leader of the MDP Youth Wing and a key figure in President Nasheed’s government, who by all accounts, has a similar passion  for the environment and human rights as the president she served under. With her is Mayan Mohamed, a famous footballer and an important MDP insider. They were taken to Dhoonidhoo prison and held without charge for 24 hours, the maximum detention period allowed.

As they were being released, Hisaan Hussein, MDP’s Legal Director was taken into police custody.

Hisaan was released just before her twenty-four-hour detention period was over.  This MDP statement provides more names of the party’s prominent women activists arrested by the MPS recently.

Earlier, on March 19, they arrested MDP Women’s Wing Spokesperson Aishath Aniya, one of the key figures in leading women’s protests against the government of Dr Waheed. In June they  arrested Aishath Jennifer, another key voice in MDP and the anti-coup movement,  for ‘using black magic and sorcery’. On the 20 June, they summoned Maria Didi, who is at the very nucleaus of MDP, to the police headquarters for questioning on the pretext she had incited violence1.

Many of these women are also privy to important information related to the events on and around 7 February, and are crucial witnesses in the ongoing CoNI investigations.

Is intimidation the reason for their detentions?

Although singling out key MDP women activists is only gathering pace now, anti-coup women protesters in general were a target of police violence from the very beginning of their re-discovered role as oppressors of dissent.

Like everywhere else touched by the fever of revolution and democratic reform this decade, women have emerged as crucial to leading and sustaining the anti-coup movement in the Maldives. And, like everywhere else–as in Egypt and in the Occupy Movement in the United States for example–women quickly became targets of gendered violence by the security forces.

Reports soon emerged from the protests in Male’ of women’s breast being groped and supporting pictures emerged of veiled women’s clothes being torn by the police, leaving their aura exposed to the public. Women have been subjected to strip searches, urine tests, and extreme verbal abuse by the police. Amnesty International found that:

While in detention they were forced to undergo naked body checks on the spurious suspicion of concealing drugs in their genitals. They were forced to strip and squat several times while in prison…

The government of Maldives must ensure that these allegations are investigated and that those found to be responsible are brought to justice.

One woman arrested by MPS while protesting told Amnesty International:

…Two women police officers who detained her on 19 March beat her and dragged her along the floor. They grabbed her breasts and twisted them while handcuffing her. She said they took her to the police station and only released her after she convinced them she had not taken part in the protest rallies.

Just as the State aids the police in their violence against the people by helping construct an image of the protesters as terrorists, various social and religious institutions support them in their singling out of women for ‘special treatment.’ Religious leaders have described women participating in demonstrations as ‘unIslamic’ while prominent politicians and social figures have compared women protesting on the streets with women selling their bodies on the streets.

The misogyny inherent in Islamism has been discussed at length in this controversial article by Egyptian commentator Mona Eltahawy. Much of the same attitudes are revered among some of the religious movements that have spread across the Maldives in the last decade. Their denigration of political activism by women, equating it with ‘Western hedonism’ and even whoredom, helps those looking to justify police behaviour perceive the woman being violated as somehow ‘deserving’ of the violence.

With the singling out of prominent MDP women for intimidation and arbitrary detention has emerged a worrying new trend in which the courts, too, are assuming for themselves new powers—based on the new powers the police have assumed for themselves. That is, the police have claimed for themselves the authority to arbitrarily arrest specifically selected political dissidents engaged in legitimate protest and have begun a practise of holding them on the island of Dhoonidhoo for a twenty hour hour period before returning them to court for release. Based on this new police power, the courts have in turn assumed the power to set conditions for such a detainee’s release–although it has no legitimate power to do so.

When releasing Aminth Shauna, for example, the court made it a condition of her liberty that she does not participate in political protests for a period of three weeks. Her telephone was confiscated, without a court order as far as she knew. Presiding over the release of Shauna was Judge Abdulla Mohamed, or Ablo Ghaazee, the criminal former Chief Judge of the Criminal Court  in whose defence the coup was supposedly brought about.

Quite clearly, Ablo Ghaazee’s presence at the proceedings was intended to provoke. What is not clear is the legal basis for the court’s authority to make such a ruling. Surely any restrictions on civil and political rights granted to citizens by the Constitution can only be introduced through the Majlis?

In just five months, the new Maldivian government has changed the role of the police, and the institution’s relationship with the public. Had the government wanted divisions between the public and the police to heal after their mutiny on 7 February, it would most certainly not have appointed as the force’s leaders the very same men who made the police rebellion possible and actively encouraged it. Instead, the government sought to create mistrust between anticoup protesters and the police by putting these men in charge, and giving them the freedom to use the police as a tool of oppression.

The Maldives Police Service, with its current leaders, is one of the biggest impediments to democracy in the Maldives. It has been so since some of its leading officers joined the 23 December Coalition to bring down the government, and since their command was handed over to the men who made the downfall of the Maldivian democracy possible. If order is to be restored, the Maldives Police Service has to change its leaders and return to its real duties: to protect and serve the public.

Show 1 footnote

  1. For a moving account of some of that day’s events, and how they show a Maldives so far removed from its traditions of peace and tranquility, read Latheefa Ahmed Verrall’s Beauty and Truth

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