Additional reporting by Mariyath Mohamed, Neil Merrett.
Thousands of supporters of former President Mohamed Nasheed marched through the streets of Male’ on Friday night, clashing with security forces until the early hours of the Saturday morning.
Minivan News observed a column of at least 5000 demonstrators marching through the city shortly before 10:00pm. The demonstrators were accompanied by three pickup trucks playing party songs and a recorded speech by Nasheed.
The former President has been inside the Indian High Commission since Wednesday afternoon after he sought refuge from a court warrant ordering police to present him before the Hulhumale’ Magistrate Court.
Nasheed and his party have maintained that the charges – of illegally detaining Chief Criminal Court Judge Abdulla Mohamed prior to his controversial resignation on February 7, 2012 – are a politically-motivated attempt to prevent him from contesting presidential elections scheduled for later this year.
Protesters reached the restricted area near President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik’s residence and were were blocked by a line of Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) officers.
Protesters shook a bus that had been parked in front of MNDF until the driver stepped out, and then pushed it through the MNDF lines. The protesters were were pushed back after the MNDF line formed up again. At this point, demonstrators were witnessed throwing objects at the officers.
Special Operations riot police arrived on the scene from a side street, conducting a baton charge without warning. Minivan News heard one masked riot policeman yell at the MNDF line: “If you’re not going to hit anybody why don’t you just go home?”
Police conducted baton charges into the crowd and detained a number of people, including Nasheed’s representative on the Commission of National Inquiry (CoNI) Ahmed Saeed, former Home Minister Hassan Afeef, and former Defence Minister Ameen Faisal.
Police Sub-Inspector Hassan Haneef confirmed 55 people were arrested including four women and one minor. Seven police were injured “severely”, he added.
At one stage, Minivan News heard a dozen discharges of what sounded like some kind of firearm, prompting a number of demonstrators to panic and disperse.
Riot police had been deployed with rubber bullet guns, however Haneef said these were not used.
“We responded with proportionate force given the situation,” he said.
Around 11:00pm on the road in front of the Salsa Royal restaurant, Minivan News observed a small group of supporters from a government-aligned political party urging police to “beat and kill” MDP supporters.
A female Minivan News journalist wearing press identification was hit on the back twice with a police baton, after the group called on police to “kill the Minivan bitch”.
As the protest escalated, senior MDP officials began leading protesters away from police lines. One group of women were yelling “We don’t want to go. We will die only once. We will fight.”
Minivan News observed one man on the ground, apparently unconscious.
Shortly before midnight, police used an irritant of some kind to disperse protesters, who were pushed back to the main street Majeedee Magu and regrouped at the southern end of the tourist strip.
Minivan News spoke to a resident of a nearby building, a woman in her early 60s, who said she had been sprayed directly in the face with pepper spray. She claimed that police had attempted to force their way into her house before she managed to close the door.
A middle-aged female relative of the woman from the same house told Minivan News, “She only panicked and tried to close the door when police attempt tried to barge in. I yelled at police to get out, and that they couldn’t just force their way into a private residence. Police then pepper-sprayed her while yelling ‘shut up, we can get in to any place we want’. They used much more vulgar language, of course.”
Shortly before midnight, the majority of the demonstrators who had gathered ahead of police lines on Chandhanee Magu moved back along the capital’s main strip of Majeedhee Magu to regroup and continue chants heckling the police and government.
Meanwhile, outside the Indian High Commission building at the centre of the week’s main political developments, there was near silence save for a small numbers of police at various checkpoints and groups of tourists making for their hotels.
The peace lasted for a few minutes until demonstrators began to arrive back on Sosun Magu on approach to the parliament building. Protesters began shining laser pointers at a small number of gathered officers guarding the street leading up to parliament, while a group of young men carried off police barricades and threatened some uniformed officers.
A small number of glass bottles and other missiles were thrown at police before riot officers reappeared and charged, pushing demonstrators and curious onlookers back up Sosun Magu. Minivan News observed a group of individuals hurling glass and bricks at officers in the build up to the baton charges.
Down an alleyway, Minivan News observed six or seven riot officers dragging a man on his back towards Sosun Magu before carrying him off to be arrested.
Protesters who had been forced back down the road were later observed by Minivan News returning to the area to collect their sandals, discarded when riot officers began baton charges to clear the area.
As the scene moved further down Sosun Magu, officers were heckled from balconies, many crowded with five or six people shouting at officers below.
Meanwhile, some residents, watching from their doorsteps on ground level were warned by police to remain in their buildings and avoid coming out onto the streets.
At around 12:45am, a 32-year-old woman was admitted to ADK hospital after riot police arrested her in a side street from Orchid Magu. The woman’s family alleged officers had hit her with batons on her neck and hands.
The girl was identified as Zeenath Zaki, the niece of former Home Minister Hassan Afeef who was arrested during the protests.
“At the moment she is okay, however doctors are keeping her in hospital while they carry out their investigation,” said the woman’s younger brother, Aalim Zaki.
Doctors had originally wanted to carry out a CT scan, however the woman had refused,” Aalim said.
“The ADK doctors have told us that once they conclude their investigation she will be discharged from hospital,” Aalim said.
Police Spokesperson Hassan Haneef said that the woman had been in the protest when police entered the crowd and that minimum force had been used to detain her.
“At the time, the situation was not like a normal protest. People were throwing stones at police officers and so we went by procedure and charged into the protest,” he said.
“At the time, we used minimum force. She was arrested and was shouting and crying before she became unconscious. At that point, we took her to ADK hospital,” Haneef said.
Haneef said allegations that police had put a substance into the woman’s mouth were “totally untrue”.
A small group of protesters including members of her family came to the ADK hospital shortly after she was admitted, as rumours spread that a protester had been seriously hurt.
Minivan News observed that a group of police Special Operation (SO) officers were also present.
Around 15 minutes later, a large group of male and female protesters came into the hospital and demanded to know what had happened to the woman.
Speaking to Minivan News, a member of family said that Zeenath had suffered an epileptic seizure while she was taken to police custody.
“She used to get fits when she was young. But she has not had a fit for a very long time after she took medication. But last night when she was in police custody, she had a fit. It is likely that the cause of the fit was due to police beatings,” the family member alleged.
In a statement, police claimed “groups of people led by members of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) and supporters of President Nasheed have attempted to create unrest within the society both day and night. They have been attempting to create disorder and chaos amongst the society,” police stated.
“[This group] under the claim of freedom of expression and assembly have taken to the streets and are repeatedly seen indulging in unlawful activities, including throwing objects towards the police, forcing their way through police lines, obstructing police duty and inflicting damage on police property such as police barricades.
“It has also been noticed that some media outlets covering the protests are giving absolutely false information about police actions to public, thereby creating hatred and anger towards the police service. As the circumstances remain such, these protests cannot by any way be described as peaceful protests or protests carried out within the boundaries of the law,” the police statement concluded.
None of the demonstrators arrested had been released at time of press.
Sub-Inspector Haneef said “all allegations raised in the media concerning police using excessive force would be investigated internally.”
No officers were believed to have used excessive force at time of press, he said.
EU, Commonwealth issue statements
The UN, US, UK and now the EU and the Commonwealth have joined India in urging restraint on both sides, and “inclusive” elections in September.
Yesterday, EU High Representative Catherine Ashton said she was following the latest developments “with concern” and “called on all parties to refrain from actions or statements which are liable to inflame the political climate in the country.”
“I underline the urgent need to resume dialogue between the parties, so as to ensure that the presidential elections set for September 2013 are credible, transparent, inclusive and fully representative of the wishes of all Maldivians, and so that the reforms identified by the Commission of National Inquiry in August 2012 can be rapidly implemented,” she said in a statement.
The Commonwealth stated that Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma had contacted President Waheed and “stressed the national importance of inclusive and credible presidential elections.”
“This requires that chosen candidates of political parties are able to contest the elections freely on a level playing field,” the Commonwealth stated.
In response to the international statements, the Maldives’ Foreign Ministry issued a statement emphasising that the political situation remained “calm and normal”, “and does not warrant other countries and international organisations to issue statements characterising the situation in any other light.”
The Foreign Ministry insisted that the judiciary and prosecutor general were independent, and said the court case against Nasheed “would have thus proceeded, and be where it is today, even if Mr Nasheed remained as president.”
“The government also has full faith in the ability of the Independent Elections Commission to decide the eligibility of various candidates contesting the elections and in organising the electoral process in accordance with the Constitution and the laws of the Maldives,” the government added.
“Public statements by other countries and international organisations that favour a particular candidate are seen by the people of the Maldives as attempts to influence the outcome of the elections in the Maldives,” the ministry said.