Police crackdown on February 8 “brutal”, “without warning”: HRCM

A police crackdown on a Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) march across Male’ on February 8 that left dozens of demonstrators injured was “brutal” and “without prior warning,” the Human Rights Commission of Maldives (HRCM) concluded in an investigative report (Dhivehi) made public yesterday.

Based on its findings, the HRCM recommended that the Maldives Police Service (MPS) and Police Integrity Commission (PIC) should investigate the “disproportionate” use of force in violation of police regulations authorising use of less-lethal weapons. Legal action should be taken against the officers responsible for any such offences, the commission concluded.

“This commission notes that the human rights of a number of people were violated as a result of police using disproportionate force in violation of the constitution, the Police Act and regulations, and international conventions the Maldives is signatory to in dispersing a gathering of MDP supporters at the MMA [Maldives Monetary Authority] area on 8 February 2012 ,” the HRCM report concluded.

“The commission believes that those who carried out these acts must bear responsibility.”

On February 8, thousands of MDP supporters took to the streets after former President Mohamed Nasheed declared that his resignation the previous day was “under duress” in a “coup d’etat” instigated by mutinying Special Operations (SO) police officers.

The HRCM report on the human rights violations that occurred on February 8 was compiled based on interviews with senior MDP leaders who participated in the walk, police commanders, senior military officers, eyewitnesses, victims of police brutality and media personnel as well as photo and video evidence.

An injured protester

While 32 people filed complaints with the commission concerning varying degrees of injuries sustained in the crackdown, 20 people submitted medical documents of their treatment of injuries.

Among the injuries caused by the police baton charge, the HRCM report noted that several people were bruised and battered, one person fractured a bone in his leg, one person was left with a broken arm and six people sustained head wounds.

Two fingers on the left hand of one demonstrator were crushed, the report noted, and the victim had to undergo treatment at the operating theatre.

The former ruling party meanwhile informed HRCM that the march across Male’ was spontaneous and that the party had not planned to stage any protests on the day.

According to the MDP, participants of the walk were sitting down at the MMA area when the police charged without warning and caused serious injuries, noting that most people were attacked from behind.

Senior members of the party told the commission that police were asked to let MDP supporters continue their march along the outer ring road of Boduthakurufaanumagu.

MDP claimed that police refused to transport victims of the alleged brutality to the hospital and that former President Nasheed’s military bodyguards left the area before the baton charge.

“Emotionally charged”

In interviews with senior police officers and commanders in the field on February 8, the HRCM was told that police intelligence had learned that the MDP supporters were planning to “confront” police officers.

Participants of the MDP walk “attempted to cause damage” to the Family and Child Protection Unit building and Galolhu police station, the officers claimed, at which point they determined that the gathering was not peaceful.

Police did not allow the march to continue because participants could have entered the Republic Square or green zone, where gatherings are prohibited under freedom of assembly regulations.

Police further claimed that protesters hit police shields and that armed gangs “under the influence of drugs” were part of the crowd.

While protesters did not cross the police line, the senior officers said that rocks were thrown at the police. About 30 riot police and plain-clothed officers from other departments were in the area at the time, police said.

While police conceded that “a large number of civilians were injured by police officers” on February 8, senior officers interviewed by the HRCM revealed that the riot police were not acting on commands.

The violence occurred “because individual police officers were too emotionally charged at the time,” the senior officers said.

“And when civilians were getting injured by individual police officers, [they said] senior police officers went to the area and attempted to gather all police officers in one place,” the report stated.

The senior police officers further claimed that police were “very psychologically weakened” due to the events of February 7.

Following the crackdown, police admitted that “use of force” forms were not filled out and an “after action review report” was not drafted as was required under normal procedure.

Meanwhile, the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) informed HRCM that about 15 soldiers were active in the area during the crackdown, but claimed that military personnel did not witness police brutality.

When the protesters reached the MMA junction, they began striking the MNDF riot shields and throwing water bottles. They were then pushed back about 20 feet, where they sat down, the MNDF explained.

Contrary to the HRCM’s findings, the MNDF claimed that police advised the protesters to disperse and issued warnings before advancing with riot shields.

Military personnel used coloured smoke “to minimize damage and for ease of controlling those gathered,” the MNDF informed the commission.

Concluding observations

Opposition-aligned private broadcaster Raajje TV meanwhile provided video footage to HRCM showing the arrest of MDP MPs ‘Reeko’ Moosa Manik, Mariya Ahmed Didi, Imthiyaz Fahmy and Ibrahim Rasheed.

MDP Chairperson 'Reeko' Moosa Manik

An HRCM team that visited Dhoonidhoo detention centre observed “bruises all over the body” of one of the MPs, while her eyes were bloodied and swollen.

The commission noted in its concluding observations that police officers “acted very harshly” towards the politicians “in ways that could cause physical and psychological harm” even though they showed “no resistance.”

While the Raajje TV cameraman was shooting the arrest of MDP Chairperson Reeko Moosa Manik, HRCM was told that two plain-clothed officers “pushed and shoved” Raajje TV reporters to the Republic Square and severed the camera cable, ending the station’s live feed.

However, in its concluding observation, the commission reprimanded the private broadcaster for their coverage of the events, which “incited fear and hatred among citizens, instilled a spirit of vengeance and caused serious damage to private and public property.”

Conversely, the commission noted that reporters from private broadcasters DhiTV and Villa TV – alleged by the MDP to have incited hatred against the administration of former President Nasheed and promoted the “coup d’etat” – were “threatened and intimidated” by MDP supporters and were consequently prevented from covering the march.

The HRCM also noted that students at Immadhudeen School during the afternoon session were adversely affected by the MDP supporters gathering outside the party’s Haruge camp on the afternoon of February 8. The party’s gathering area was ransacked by rogue riot police and army officers prior to President Nasheed’s resignation.

The commission contended that MDP supporters were loud and used obscene language outside Haruge, which was reclaimed by supporters led by President Nasheed to the area after the MDP national council meeting earlier in the day.

Citing article 72(b)(1) of the Police Act, which prohibits “commission of an act that could obstruct the execution of any of the police powers and discretions, or plotting to commit such an act, or participate in the commission of such an act, or call for or encourage or assist others to commit such an act,” the HRCM claimed that MDP supporters who participated in the walk “obstructed the performance of police duties.”

Moreover, the commission noted that patients and staff at hospitals ADK and IGMH faced “serious difficulties and inconveniences” due to MDP supporters gathering outside both hospitals following the police crackdown.

However, the BBC reported “a baton charge by police on crowds gathered outside one of the main hospitals.”

“People scattered as officers sprinted towards them silhouetted against the lights of passing traffic,” the BBC’s Andrew North reported from Male’. “Inside the hospital, dozens of Mr Nasheed’s supporters are still being treated for injuries, following earlier scuffles in the main square. Among them is Reeko Moosa Maniku, chairman of Mr Nasheed’s Maldives Democratic Party – who was with the former president when the clashes broke out. With a large head bandage and his shirt bloodied, he regained consciousness as we arrived. The police said they would kill me, he told us, as they beat me. Another MP was still unconscious in another ward.”

The crackdown

While riot police baton charged the front of the protest march on February 8, Minivan News observed riot police officers charging the crowd from a narrow alley leading to the MMA area.

The Special Operations officers used obscene language, pointed to and chased after individual MDP activists and severely beat unarmed civilians.

Parts of the attack from the rear were filmed by Al Jazeera, which reported on February 8 that “police and military charged, beating demonstrators as they ran – women, the elderly, dozens left nursing their wounds.”

Amid the clashes, a group of opposition demonstrators infiltrated the crowds, attacking MDP supporters, according to witnesses.

Former President Nasheed was reported among the injured, and received head injuries during the clashes. He was briefly taken under police custody before being released back into the crowd.

Minivan News also observed several youth with head injuries queuing up for x-rays in the waiting area outside the reception area at IGMH.

One young woman who had gone to IGMH with her sister was being treated for a head wound. A gauze wrapped around her head was spotted with blood, and she claimed the wound was still bleeding as she went in for an X-ray.

“The police were just standing there and suddenly we were being beaten with batons and pepper spray was thrown in our face. They threw us to the ground and kept beating us,” she said.

Explaining that she, her sister and most women had joined the party’s “walk around Male” because they understood it was not a violent protest, the young woman said she had never seen indiscriminate beating of men and women on Male’ under Mohamed Nasheed.

“It was just supposed to be a peaceful walk. That’s why we went, and why more women than usual went. But there was no warning of the attack, no announcements, we were all beaten even after we began retreating. My sister was almost trampled,” she said. “I just think it’s disgusting that the police could beat so many unarmed women.”