Describing a beating at Maafushi Jail, musician Abdulla Easa said: “Sometimes I felt I was floating, suspended in mid air, going from one officer’s boots to the other.”
Easa was tortured simply for refusing to stand in queue for flatbread.
Prisoner testimonies indicate torture and ill treatment has been widespread and systematic in Maldivian jails.
Officers tortured inmates “just for fun,” said Easa. “For example, when they went out for a swim, they would call out to anyone they liked, “you come.” They would make us kneel down, they would bury you half in the sand, burn you with cigarettes.”
Former journalist Abdulla ‘Fahala’ Saeed, said he saw security officers rip both the clothes and the skin off of one man when they pulled him out after burying him in the sand.
“One morning, a person named ‘Kelaa’ Areef was taken to the beach and half buried in the sand so he could not move at all. At some time he started reciting the Shahadha, saying that he was going to die, then one of the officers said, ‘He is now ‘dhonvefa’ [heated up] Time to take him out’.”
Then two of them held him under his arms and pulled him out, ripping off his clothes and ripping his skin [on sharp coral sand]. He was all bloody. He was unconscious. Then they threw him in the cell.”
Both Easa and Saeed have claimed they saw people die in jail from the torture they receieved.
But to date, no survivors or families of victims in the Maldives have received any redress or compensation, and there has been no effort at reconciliation at the national level.
Ten years have passed since the Maldives signed the UN Convention Against Torture.
The Torture Victims Association say survivors have no confidence in a “politicised and incompetent judiciary” and are waiting on judicial reform to pursue justice.
Human Rights Commission of the Maldives (HRCM) member Jeehan Mahmoud said difficulties in substantiating claims of torture and a state tendency to protect the accused over the victim have constrained efforts at redress.
However, the recently ratified Anti Torture Act – which heavily penalises torture and assures compensation for victims – is a “big encouragement” to end such practices, she said.
Proving that an individual officer committed acts of torture beyond reasonable doubt may be difficult, but state institutions must he held accountable, Jeehan said, adding that the Maldives needs a reconciliation effort to end a culture of impunity and ensure non recurrence.
The TVA has collected 125 statements of torture, and submitted 25 cases to the HRCM on February 6, 2012 – the day before the controversial resignation of President Mohamed Nasheed, himself a well-publicised victim of torture during his time as a pro-democracy activist.
President of TVA Ahmed Naseem said survivors do not believe they will get justice with the present judiciary.
“After all they went through, all the humiliation they suffered, if the courts say this is nonsense, then they will be in a worse situation than before. They will go nuts. We cannot take chances. We cannot afford to humiliate them,” said Naseem.
“People still have nightmares, people’s lives have been destroyed, families have been broken. We cannot let these people down. So we have to wait,” he added.
Naseem suggested enough evidence existed to hold state institutions accountable. The former National Security Services had a punishment book or ‘Adhabu Foi’ which contained details of state sanctioned torture, he said.
But with the return of former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s party to power, there is no longer any political will to address the past, Naseem said. “The culprits are in government now.”
Vice President Dr Mohamed Jameel Ahmed, during a UN Human Rights Council in 2012, admitted to a history of torture, but said: “As a government we believe we have an independent judiciary. We leave it to the victims to invoke these instances before a court of law.”
The government cannot afford compensation for victims, said Dr Jameel – then Home Minister.
The UNHRC has urged the Maldives to set up an Independent Commission of Inquiry to conduct criminal investigations and ensure compensation for all victims of torture.
In defense of the accused
The Maldives Police Services is the only institution in the country with a forensics laboratory, but the HRCM is unable to use forensics services when the police is the institution that stands accused of torture, Jeehan said.
The state hires and pays lawyer fees on behalf of the accused, and refuses to take disciplinary measures such as suspension until investigations are complete.
“The system does not work to protect the victim. Even simple steps, such as suspending the accused until investigations are complete could show the government’s commitment to end torture and brutality.”
The state’s defense of the accused deters witnesses from the accused institution from coming forward, Jeehan continued.
“They are not protected from bullying within the institution either. Documents are lost – and witness statements by all officers match up word to word. The only evidence then are the statements by civilians who saw brutality. With this imbalance, getting redress is a difficult task.”
Former Police Integrity Commission (PIC) President Shahindha Ismail has also said the Maldives Police Services tends to protect its employees when they are accused of brutality.
“There have been cases where evidence has been tampered with. This shows the police, as an institution, does not want to end this culture of brutality. It appears to promote it instead,” she said.
Shahindha also said limited resources and limited powers hamper the state’s independent institutions, noting that the PIC cannot take direct disciplinary action against a police officer accused of human rights violations.
“There is no political will to end torture. Despite a hiatus in police brutality from period 2009- 2011, the culture of brutality was never erased within the institution,” she said.
Shahindha has called on the government to purge employees accused of torture.
Jeehan said state institutions must recognise victims of torture and offer them compensation, noting that failure to prove torture in the courtroom only exacerbates impunity and a lack of confidence in institutions.
The state must begin public interest litigation on behalf of multiple victims of torture and start a reconciliation effort, she said.
“With civil compensation, even though individuals may not be held accountable, the state institution will be held accountable. It would constitute some form of recognition for the victim, that the act of violence indeed did happen.”
She called for reconciliation mechanisms that allow both perpetrators and victims to deal with the past, as well as acknowledging the suffering caused on a national level.
“It allows society to move on, provides political stability and social coherence. It is a platform that allows society to resolve differences and hold discussions.”
“The younger generations still do not know what had happened in their history – it will provide them with answers. Social coherence cannot exist with all of these unresolved questions,” said Jeehan
Shahindha said judicial reform and political will is required for victims to receive justice.
“This may take a long time. Time for mature politics to be established in the country. Until then, the victims remain victims, caged in their trauma. They cannot be termed survivors until they receive redress.”
The UN Special Rapporteur for Independence of Judges and Lawyers Gabriela Knaul in a 2013 report said unless serious human rights violations of Maldives’ authoritarian past are addressed, there could be more instability and unrest in the country.
“Impunity affects democracy, the rule of law, and the enjoyment of human rights in a radical way, and undermines the people’s trust in state institutions,” read the report.
“States bear a responsibility not only to investigate violations of human rights, but also to ensure the right of victims to know the truth, to provide adequate reparation and to take all reasonable steps to ensure non-recurrence of the said violations. Addressing past violations could help the Maldives move forward and develop the justice system intended in the Constitution of 2008.”