Fear and festivity in Malé on the eve of May Day protest

With additional reporting by Ismail Humaam Hamid and Zaheena Rasheed.

The Maldives’ capital city Malé is gearing up for a mass anti-government rally tomorrow. The day will kick off with prayers at dawn and at noon. Protesters have been told to wear comfortable shoes and clothes for the official demonstration, which will start from the Artificial Beach at 3:30pm.

Supporters from Maldives’ remote atolls are continuing to arrive by the thousands, and the opposition has set hashtags #EkehFaheh15 (OneFive15) and #AniyaaverikanNinmman (To end tyranny) for the day, and started circulating leaflets on how to reduce the effects of pepper spray and tear gas.

Supporters say they are determined to “end the government’s tyranny” and free imprisoned ex president Mohamed Nasheed and former defence minister Mohamed Nazim.

Meanwhile, tourism minister Ahmed Adeeb has accused the opposition of plotting to overthrow President Abdulla Yameen’s government as the police continued riot control exercises on Malé’s streets.

“We expect the security forces to confront us, but we have no fear,” a smiling Khadeeja Ibrahim, 49, told Minivan News outside the main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) offices at noon today.

She was among a group of MDP members who were about to deliver tens of thousands of petitions calling for Nasheed’s freedom to the president’s office. The police turned them back.

Across town, Ibrahim Nadheem, 26, who works in a grocery shop and is studying to become a Quran teacher said Nasheed “brought me hope, he had a vision for the youth, that we should grow up to be skilled and educated citizens.”

Nadheem’s face is disfigured by a broken nose after a police officer punched him during a protest in 2012.

At the airport, Mohamed Zubair, who suffered serious head injuries in a brutal police crackdown in February 2012, says he is ready to sacrifice again for Nasheed’s freedom. “Today I am hopeful.”

Nasheed and Nazim’s imprisonment has united former bitter rivals, the Adhaalath Party, the Jumhooree Party and the MDP, who now say President Yameen is out to silence all dissent.

The opposition called for the demonstration when Yameen turned down repeated calls for dialogue despite months of nationwide protests. The president made a record number of public appearances this week and has appealed to the armed forces to defend his administration.

Among government employees, paranoia and fear is high. Employees at the state-owned electricity company, STELCO, the Maldives Ports Limited (MPL) and the immigration department say their superiors have threatened them with dismissal if they are seen at the protests.

“We are all afraid, I can’t go. I don’t want to lose my job, I have to pay rent and take care of my family,” one 43-year-old man, who works in STELCO, told Minivan News.

The MPL has meanwhile arranged a BBQ at 1:30pm and a dinner for all of its employees tomorrow, in a move opposition supporting workers say is aimed at keeping them away from the protest.

“We’ve also been told if anyone of us is seen at the protests, we will be dismissed immediately,” an employee who wished to remain anonymous said.

The home ministry this week said it has received reports that dozens of island council members are traveling to Malé on state expenses to take part in the protests, and has asked the anti-corruption watchdog to take action.

The department of judicial administration has also demanded island offices to provide information on magistrates and judicial sector employees who have traveled to the capital this week.

Meanwhile, a website set up for the Mayday protest was hacked and a photo of president Yameen and the PPM logo was put up with the words: “Go back to your homes if you want peaceful Maldives.”

On social media, opposition supporters called for revolution.

Elsewhere, supporters shared advice on how to mitigate the effects of pepper spray and tear gas and how to act in the event of a charge by the police.

Some proposed home made plastic masks for for pepper spray.

The police have also raised concerns over violence, saying they have received reports protesters will harm police officers and attack the residences of cabinet ministers. Tonight, they issued a statement telling protesters to suspend activities for the hour between the dusk and evening prayers and said the demonstration must end by midnight.

Adhaalath Party (AP) president Sheikh Imran Abdulla said last night that protesters will perform the evening prayers on the street after a special prayer at sunset, advising protesters to bring prayer mats.

The police have released several photos and videos of protest control trainings this week.

The AP, which has claimed responsibility for organising the protest, must bear legal costs for any unlawful activities that may take place before or after protests, the police said.

Some opposition supporters fears of attacks by gangs, who are allegedly controlled by tourism minister Adeeb. Gangsters have attacked protesters in recent months with knives and vandalised their equipment.

Individuals who said they will not attend the protests cited concern over a possible confrontation between police and protesters.

“I am not happy with the idea of protesting, it creates too much conflict. The end result will not be good,” said 49-year-old Maryam Waheedha.

A fisherman who wished to remain anonymous “for the safety of his family” told Minivan News that he was unhappy with the government, but did not like to protest.

“I used to make 3,000 rufiyaa a week from two baskets of fish before Yameen came to power. But now I am not able to make that in a month even with a ton of fish,” he claimed.

Pro-government supporters denounced the opposition as power-hungry, but said they expect tomorrow’s turnout to be high.

Mohamed Waheed, 36, said; “We will not go to the protest, we will be sleeping on May 1. I do think there will be a good turn out at the protest, big enough to pressure the government.”


Opposition, police raise fears of violence on May Day

The opposition and police have raised fears of violence at a mass antigovernment protest on May Day, as a political crisis triggered by the jailing of ex president Mohamed Nasheed deepens.

The religious conservative Adhaalath Party has accused government ministers of planning to release convicts on Friday to incite violence as a pretext to crack down on protesters.

The police meanwhile told opposition leaders they have received reports that the demonstration will not be peaceful, and have ramped up riot training exercises for its special forces this week.

Tensions are high in Malé with the opposition Maldivians against brutality coalition vowing to bring 25,000 people out on to the capital’s streets demanding Nasheed and ex defence minister Mohamed Nazim’s release. But president Abdulla Yameen has labeled the opposition’s demands unconstitutional and has said he will not negotiate or resign on May Day.

Adhaalath Party president Sheikh Abdulla Imran speaking at a rally in Malé’s suburb Vilimalé accused Tourism Minister Ahmed Adeeb of seeking the release of 200 dangerous criminals to “shed blood” on May Day.

“Adeeb has sent a 200 strong list of the most dangerous and vile criminals to the courts seeking their release, in order to confront protesters,” said Imran.

The sheikh has also previously accused Adeeb of corruption and illicit connections with gangs.

Speaking to Minivan News Adeeb dismissed the allegations, saying the opposition must ask state institutions to investigate any allegations of wrong doing.

“I don’t think they will be able to do much on May Day,” he said.

The tourism minister had previously challenged the opposition to a confrontation on May Day, saying that the government “will not tolerate any bloodshed of or even a scrape on any young person, police officers or military officers.”

“Even if its May 1, June 1 or that grand February 27, if you dare to confront us, come, this government stands ready,” Adeeb said.

Over 10,000 opposition supporters took to the streets of Malé on February 27 following Nasheed’s arrest, but the rally was unexpectedly called off at 6pm when the police threatened a crackdown.

Police are meanwhile continuing riot trainings for its Specialist Operations unit at Feydhoo Finolhu Island.

The police held separate meetings with the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) and the Jumhooree Party (JP) yesterday, according to a statement.

Superintendent of police Abdulla Shareef told MDP chairperson Ali Waheed that opposition politicians were inciting violence at daily protests and threatening the country’s independence and sovereignty. He said the police will take actions against any acts that violate rights.

The MDP and JP however assured the police the protest would be peaceful and will respect the law, the statement said.


SAARC to dark: Violent social divide in Addu as uncertainty grips southern-most atoll

One of society’s biggest fear factors is uncertainty, and in Addu it appears to be fueling a violent social divide in the isolated MDP stronghold – the second most heavily populated area in the Maldives after Male’ and the scene of the SAARC Summit in November 2011.

On Saturday several members of the international press flew to the southern-most atoll to investigate claims of firey protests, beatings and unjustified arrests. While the torched remains of every police building and most courts between Gan and hithadhoo are proof that destruction of public property – and many legal records – has taken place, the back-and-forth ‘whodunnit’ accusations color fears of revolution with a strong shade of small-town politics.

“The police’s personal property, their computers, was burned inside the stations,” observed Alif Fahumy Ahmed. “This isn’t necessarily political.”

On Wednesday night police stations and court houses in six southern atolls were torched after police violently cracked down on a Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) march in the capital Male, in which thousands marched in support of ousted president Mohamed Nasheed.

Nasheed’s decision to order the detention of Chief Judge of the Criminal Court on January 16, in an attempt to push forward judicial reform, prompted three weeks of opposition-led protests with a nightly attendance of 200-400 people, culminating on Tuesday in what many have called a military coup.

While the southern protests were said to be the work of MDP supporters, in Addu, which claims a majority MDP population, people have begun slicing and dicing the duty.

“Maldivians are a very innocent people, but this violence was brought by MDP,” said Ani Luthfy, who yesterday organised a ‘protest for safety’ in Addu, with the rapidly-formed and ‘non-political’ Addu Alliance.

The placards that greeted journalists included “Ex-President was not coerced into stepping down” and “Violence and conflicts won’t help resolve our ecomonic problems”.

“Addu MDP [Councillor] Hussein Shahid gave 30 young people alcohol and when they were drunk he led them out to do the burning,” he alleged, adding that MDP activists have acted like “hooligans”.

Police meanwhile yesterday reported the arrest of MP Moosa Rasheed, Addu City Hithadhoo Medhu Dhaairaa. His arrest reportedly followed an investigation into a spate of attacks in Addu City that occurred on February 8, following a brutal police crackdown on protesters in Male’. Police say that he was arrested lawfully, under a warrant issued by the court and in consideration of various evidence including video footage and eyewitness accounts that connected him to that night’s incidents.

According to police yesterday, tensions escalated in the islands after rumours of serious injury and the death of former President Mohamed Nasheed at the hands of security forces on Wednesday reached the islands.

Luthfy said, “we have a motto: live and let others live.” He said the alliance would continue to protest until Addu was “100 percent safe”, a point in time he defined as “When the police have taken all MDP who are in hiding.”

Meanwhile Muaz Saleem, a prominent MDP supporter on Hithadhoo, said the group “was just going in front of Gan police station to express our concerns” on Wednesday.

“Who knows if police may have started [the fire]? They left before people went in, where was the tear gas? We strongly believe the opposition encouraged people to start the violence, it was a plan. ”

A former member of Hithadhoo council, who requested anonymity and did not wish to discuss his resignation last year, suggested the opposite. “The funniest thing is that the mayor [MDP member abdullah sodig] hasn’t issued a statement about this,” he said, estimating the damage at Rf200-300 million (US$13-20 million).

Sodig has been in hiding since he was attacked Wednesday evening.

The former council member confirmed that many have followed Sodig’s lead. “Because of this protest most people are on a wanted list, ” he explained, suggesting that to some extent the list was justified: “There are CCTV camera tapes with evidence.”

Amid speculation, police have taken action. MDP supporters said they have been targeted by police and military forces, who were deployed to Addu after Wednesday. They claim the “hit list” has been drawn up by members of opposition parties Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) and Dhivehi Rayyithunge Prty (DRP), and that those individuals are assisting security forces to beat and arrest MDP members – often without evidence.

One 22 yr old man, who claims not to have participated in any recent gathering, said he was handcuffed and pepper sprayed in his eyes and genital area along with 40 other people. ” because of the violence, they said, I was a terrorist. They said we had dstroyed everything.” he added that some members of the detained group were told to take off their shirts and were taken to a separate area of the burned Gan police station “to be beaten. I could hear the shouting, and cries.”

Minivan News received unconfirmed reports that the Elections Commission’s SMS service – which allows people to send their national ID number and find out what party they are registered to – was being abused by groups of police aided by opposition supporters, to ‘hunt down’ MDP members.

While sources claim the attacks are directed at MDP, their stories suggest that the security forces are not operating with a political-or evidence-based motive.

Two young men interviewed, one of whom sported a bruised right eye, denied being part of any political party. Another said he wasn’t even part of the protest. Yet none would give names “because it might not be good, they said if I talked about what I saw they would come back.”

Muaz Haleem’s wife said the violation of her right to privacy at home, and the lack of an explanation, are her biggest concerns.

She reports seeing several policemen run into her home with raised batons yelling an unfamiliar name. “I said it was the wrong house, wrong name. But they pushed me down and said, ‘now we want Muaz ‘ and began beating him and dragging him out of the house.”

“I asked about the court order, and they said, ‘What court order? You guys burned down the court house. What rights do you want?'”

She explained that her neighbors have been far from helpful – in fact, they were part of the problem.

“Most people on the other side of the road are PPM (Gayoom’s Progressive Party of the Maldives). Mr Hamid was out there directing the whole thing, pointing at the house and everything.”

The family of Mohamed Saeed, whose detention has been extended by 15 days, said they too had not been informed of Saeed’s arrest, and that their neighbors are only cautiously supportive.

“They ask for news, but they are afraid to help because they could also be taken,” his wife explained.

Saeed is one of approximately 80 men who are still being held in the remains of Gan police station, reportedly in terrible conditions.

“He has asked to go to the hospital but they say they have no vehicle,” his brother in law said.

Others, such as Haleem, appear to have been detained on an aggressive whim, in retaliation for the destruction of police property.

“They gave me a cup for tea and then struck it down. They just dumped people in the courtyard of the station amid the broken glass and burnt debris, and pushed me down to the ground for sleeping,” he said. Haleem currently has a swollen left wrist and cuts where he claims the handcuffs were squeezed closed.

While Haleem believes the security forces are targeting MDP members, he suggests that their motive is more personal than political.

“It looks like there is a massive financial factor,” he said. “We have had the trust of the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) for ages in this country, but under Nasheed individual police have shown they are motivated by something. I don’t have proof, but that’s what I strongly believe.”

He further explained that “The opposition has fewer numbers, but now that they have the security forces with them, they can act.”

Meanwhile most who claim to support the current government are consistently saying “It’s not the opposition, and they’re not beating people. The police have just asked the public for assistance,” explained a former councillor.

No members of opposition parties have been reported beaten, arrested, or detained.

Meanwhile, the arrival of the Human Rights Commission of Maldives (HRCM) has triggered some over-excitement. One MDP member yesterday informed the author that the police had lied to HRCM about the whereabouts of a detainee, and that HRCM was arguing with police over the matter.

HRCM’s delegation in Addu later stated that the detainee had been released from the hospital by the time HRCM had gone to look for him, and that he is now at home.

As high level delegations hold conference with President Dr Waheed and former president Nasheed, and HRCM surveys police operations in Addu along with the Police Integrity Commission (PIC), police and military appear only watchful. Still, the tense mood is palpable.

“We are not safe because we don’t know when again it will start,” said one man outside Feydhoo’s smoldering court house.

Ahmed said he had no confidence that the political issues in Male will be quickly resolved: “Things in Addu have calmed at the moment, but they may continue once HRCM and the reporters leave.”

It remain to be seen whether similar violence and revenge attacks will grip Male’, once the international community departs and visiting foreign journalists run out of stories.

The 'Addu Alliance' greeted foreign journalists, in support of Dr Waheed's government.