Four female detainees arrested on March 19 have accused police of sexual harassment, in audio and written statements obtained by Minivan News. Police officers allegedly tore women’s clothes during arrest and ordered female detainees to strip and squat multiple times at Dhoonidhoo Island detention center, according to the statements.
“I was ordered to strip naked and then told to squat three times. I told them I don’t use drugs. But they told me to squat to see if there was a lighter or foil inside my anus,” Yusra Hussein, 22, said.
“Two policewomen held me by the neck of my dress. They tore my dress. They wanted to take it off me. They wanted to undress me. They told me ‘We will undress you. We will beat you up,’” Areesha Ali said, describing her arrest.
According to Article 33 of the Police Powers Act, police can only conduct intimate or strip searches if officers have reasonable grounds to believe a detainee may cause physical injury to themselves or others, or is concealing drugs.
The four women were arrested on Malé’s Sosun Magu during a Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) organised demonstration to obstruct Majlis’ opening session on March 19. Police arrested 99 people during the protests. The women claimed to be peaceful protestors, but said they were charged with breaking through police barricades. There was no mention of drug offences or concealed weaponry.
Aishath Aniya of the MDP’s Women’s Spirit, who was also arrested on the same day, told Minivan News that strip searches were only conducted on women detainees. The MDP estimates 17 women were arrested on March 19. MDP women have been at the forefront of several protests in the past month.
“These women came out to protest. They have no police records. They were not intoxicated. There is no connection between strip searches and protesting. There is no other name for this but sexual harassment,” Aniya told Minivan News.
Police Spokesperson Hassan Haneef denied sexual harassment claims and said all search procedures were conducted according to the law. He said the women had been arrested for inciting violence, and advised detainees to lodge grievances with the police, the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives (HRCM) and the Police Integrity Commission (PIC).
Harassment, verbal abuse and strip search
Women were exposed and clothes were torn off to varying degrees during arrest, the four women claimed. At Dhoonidhoo detention centre, women were asked to strip and squat. In some cases, the police are said to have checked under breasts and touched genitalia. At 2:00am on March 20, police officers wanted to conduct a second strip search, but stopped only when Aniya told the police they had no authority to conduct a second search, the statements claim.
MDP activist Yusra Hussein said police officers approached her as she stood outside the MDP office on Sosun Magu.
“Three police officers held me from behind under my arm pits. I told them they were hurting me and that I would go peacefully with them. I did not resist arrest. I only resisted when they started hurting me. My dress had lifted in the process, I was uncovered. I was very embarrassed,” she said.
Two boys passing by called on the police to cover Yusra, but they were arrested as well, she said. “When I started to resist, the police pepper-sprayed me, dragged me on the ground, and twisted one of my breasts,” she said.
“I don’t know what happened after the pepper-spray. I woke up in the police ambulance. A police officer was pressing hard on my chest. I found it very hard to breathe. I was hand-cuffed. I started thrashing, my leg hit a policeman. They cuffed my legs as well. I told them I was in pain. But they said ‘You dog, we will kill you today.’ They were very verbally abusive. They insulted my mother and father,” Yusra said.
Areesha Ali also alleged physical and verbal abuse during arrest. In addition to having her dress torn, she said her two daughters were also exposed and arrested when they tried to intervene.
“They [police] dragged my children on the street, their clothes were in disarray, they were exposed. The police hit us with batons, with their shields, with their boots,” she said. “They pepper-sprayed me. My eyes were shut. But I could hear what they said to my daughter. They said, ‘We don’t know if this is a man or a woman. Let’s get her onto the black bus and undress her to see if she’s a man or not.’ This is the kind of abuse they said. What right do they have?”
“I will never forgive them. They are inhuman, they are traitors. I would take them to court, but who is at the court? They are traitors as well. How can we get justice? If they keep beating people, more and more will come out with us,” she added.
Once at Dhoonidhoo, third detainee Fathimath Minna* said the police “told me they were going to do a body check. They asked me to take off my top and bra, which they inspected. They then asked me to take of my jeans and underwear, and I did so. They asked me to do three sit ups.”
Strip searches were conducted by female police officers. All women were also asked for a urine sample.
Aishath Aniya said, “The police officers were standing in front of the toilet. They did not allow any privacy. Afterwards, police officers told me to take off my shirt and bra. And then asked me to take my jeans off. Strip searches were done on all women. One woman detained with me said police checked under her breasts and touched her genitalia while she was squatting.”
The MDP will lodge complaints with the HRCM and PIC, Aniya said. The party is now collecting statements from all female detainees.
“We were exercising out right to peaceful protest,” Aniya said. “But we were treated like criminals. I think the point of strip-searching to that extent was to demean us, to lower our morale to make sure we don’t come out on the streets again.”
Women at the forefront
Women have been on the front line in MDP’s political movement to bring early elections, since the party’s candidate, former President Mohamed Nasheed was deposed in what the party calls a bloodless coup.
Amnesty International on March 1 condemned attacks on a group of women in Addu Atoll by the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF). The human rights organization said 20 women were charged by soldiers who wielded batons and used pepper spray, pushed them around, and kicked them on their legs and ribs.
“Detailed testimonies from the [group of 20 women] revealed no evidence of the [female] protesters being involved in any act of violence,” the statement read.
The MNDF and police used salt water cannons to break up a gathering of nearly 100 female supporters of MDP on March 6, outside President Office. They were delivering letters requesting the resignation of President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan. HRCM said the police and MNDF had used more force than necessary.
* Name changed on request