Cabinet has appointed a committee to reform the Maldives Police Service (MPS) after allegations that the institution continues to have a “culture of police torture”.
The committee includes the Attorney General Husnu Suood, Minister of Human Resources, Youth and Sports Hassan Latheef, and Minister of Tourism Arts and Culture, Dr Ahmed Ali Sawad, a human rights lawyer. The Cabinet also elected to appoint Minister of State Principal Collector of Customs Mohamed Aswan as Minister of State for Home Affairs, giving him a mandate to reform the police service.
The decision to form the committee was made following the new government’s first emergency cabinet meeting, held on Saturday shortly after DhiTV aired a story showing six men claiming they had been arrested and tortured in Atolhuvei detention centre. The men, several of whom displayed bruises to the TV station, alleged that police kept them face down, cuffed their hands and feet behind them, tied the cuffs and jumped on them.
The president’s press secretary Mohamed Zuhair said the decision to form the committee was not made “in response to a particular incident”, and was instead an attempt to implement reform after public complaints about the culture of the police force.
“All the cabinet ministers appointed to the committee are lawyers and will listen to any allegations and those made by the police as well,’ he said, adding that the committee would act “as a bridge” by speeding up the resolution of existing complaints.
Clash with PIC
Shahindha Ismail from the Police Integrity Commission (PIC) and former head of the Maldivian Detainee Network said she was unaware of why the committee was set up “because the police integrity commission has a mandate to investigate everything the committee was set up to do. They are duplicating our work.”
The PIC had “more powers by law [than cabinet] to conduct investigations,” she said. “I wish the government would give more thought to letting the PIC carry out its mandate. Right now we are stuck because of our financial difficulties, we have to go to the finance ministry for everything. We’ve sent reports on this to the president, because if the government want us to do our job they have to allow us to do it.”
Shahindha said while no one had made a complaint to the PIC, she “has a slight idea” that cabinet’s response was due to six people who were alleging they had been beaten in custody.
“When police took them to the criminal court to extend their detention periods [two] showed the judge marks and bruises on their bodies, saying they were beaten,” Shahindha said.
“My sense is that the beatings were quite severe because the judge apparently ordered them to be released because he felt they were not safe in the hands of the police – upon their release they contacted the media while they were in hospital.
“The original arrests were related to the physical sexual harrassment of women, and these people are no longer in police custody,” she added.
Shahindha said she had asked police for an official report into the matter “but they have not submitted it.”
Police spokesman Sergeant Ahmed Shiyam said the MPS was not commenting at this stage.
“A culture of torture”?
The government’s decision was surprising not only because it risked duplicating the work of the PIC, but because “these [beatings] appear to happen every day. I don’t know what’s special about this incident, I’m guessing the beatings were very severe,” Shahindha said.
Incidents of police brutality were usually confined to a minority of field officers, she said.
“I wouldn’t call it a culture any more. We find during our investigations that senior police are unware of what goes on in the field as to brutality. The problem is that some of the field officers are still carrying it around. It has reduced quite a lot, but now they do it inside and don’t let people see, unlike during the demonstrations when police used to beat people in broad daylight. Now it happens either in police vehicles or detention centres.”
She was positive about the appointment of Aswan to the new role of State Minister for Home Affairs, “although I would like to know more about the committee’s mandate.”
Zuhair said the committee’s aim was police reform following “public complaints about the culture of the force”, and “nothing to do with police integrity.”
For his part, Aswan said he had only just taken up the new post after being on holiday for two weeks and was still gathering information. The appointment was “sudden”, he said, adding that while he believed his law enforcement experience would be very valuable for his new role, he had “mixed feelings” about leaving his customs portfolio.