The Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) and the Maldivian Democracy Network (MDN) jointly reiterated their call on the government of Maldives to make substantial changes to the laws on assembly and association at a press conference held yesterday (August 17).
“The people of Maldives are not allowed to express or assemble freely, which is a fundamental right they are taking away from them,” argued Shahinda Ismail, Executive Director of MDN.
Changes need to be made in order to meet the country’s constitutional guarantees of fundamental rights and legal obligations under international human rights law, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Maldives is party, read a press release from FORUM-ASIA.
One of the main issues raised at the press conference was the freedom of association law. According to this law, protests cannot take place near schools, mosques, or hospitals, Shahinda told Minivan News.
Malé – the capital of the Maldives – is home to approximately 150,000 residents in 6 square kilometers of land, making it among the most densely populated capitals of the world. Therefore, facilities like schools and mosques are abundant.
“When you really look at Malé, there’s a mosque on every block,” Shahinda argued, “there is hardly any space left for people to demonstrate.”
“The restrictions on protesting must be made in consideration with the geography of the landscape,” she added.
Restriction not regulation
Another point highlighted at the conference was the wide range of powers given to police in controlling demonstrations.
“The problem we see is it doesn’t provide for police to protect demonstrators. It doesn’t regulate the right, it curbs the right [to demonstrate],” Shahinda stated.
“There must be a provision where police engage with demonstrators and try to bring order before deciding to disperse,” she added.
Furthermore, Shahinda the highlighted vague phrases in the legislation, which she fears are open to numerous interpretations.
“The word ‘reasonable’ used many times. It’s very subjective and we don’t feel it’s appropriate to use in the law.”
Another line could be interpreted as restricting right to assembly solely to police, added Shahinda.
“It’s just one line, a sub-section off a sub-section,” she notes, “but it can be interpreted in a number of ways.”
“The right to freedom of assembly doesn’t not stand alone, it has to come with freedom expression and association,” Shahinda warned.
Shahinda went on to connect the issues raised to the recent disappearance and feared abduction of Minivan News journalist Ahmed Rilwan Abdulla.
“The problems that people face in freedom of expression – Rilwan is at the height of it,” said Shahinda.
“We opened the press conference raising concern and calling on authorities to speed up the investigation, and we ended on the same note.”
Systemic Failures: Transparency Maldives
Earlier this month, a press release from local NGO Transparency Maldives (TM) revealed they are currently working to reform the Associations Act in order to create a more enabling environment for civil society.
“Governance, transparency and functioning of CBO’s [community based organisations] will improve if the systemic issues in the regulatory framework are addressed,” TM announced.
Christopher Roberts, TM’s consultant on freedom of association, released a set of comments and recommendations discussing the international best practices of freedom of association legislation and to share his experience of freedom of association in transitional democracies.
The report addresses several legal issues with the 2003 Associations Act of the Maldives.
“The definition of associations provided by article 39(a) of the act is circular and inadequate,” states Christopher Roberts, legal expert on freedom of association.
“The law should instead adopt the definition used at the international level,” argued Roberts.
Multiple arrests and pepper spraying marked the fifth consecutive night of protests on Tuesday evening, as supporters of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) demonstrated near the Supreme Court in Male’.
Both regular police officers and Special Operations branches of the Maldives Police Service (MPS) were present at yesterday’s demonstrations, as well as Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) officers who were manning barricades.
The Supreme Court has been the focus of protests after its order to indefinitely delay the second round of the presidential elections forced the Elections Commission (EC) to concede that the September 28 run-off could not go ahead.
Thirty female protesters gathered near the Supreme Court in the early evening and were met by Special Operations police in riot gear and MNDF officers. MDP MP Eva Abdulla and former Education Minister Shifa Mohamed were among those detained by police during the demonstration.
By 11:00pm approximately a thousand protesters had gathered near the FDI Station on Fareedhee Magu – the closest protesters can go to the Supreme Court building, as the area remains cordoned off by police and military forces.
Following a series of speeches by MDP MPs – including Eva Abdulla who was released from police custody in time to address the crowd – the demonstrators altered their strategy. Instead of remaining in a single location, the protesters divided their numbers between multiple locations on the north side of the capital.
Hundreds peacefully walked the back roads behind the Supreme Court calling for elections, and were met by MNDF officers in riot gear guarding the alleys leading to government buildings. A group of protesters were met by approximately 30 Special Operations police in riot gear near Republic Square, which prompted the crowd to continue their march.
After regrouping near the FDI building the protesters staged another march down Chandanee Magu, to Majeedhee Magu, and back up Orchid Magu – all main thoroughfares in the capital city. Groups of onlookers were seen gathered in front of private businesses and homes, some of whom joined the protest.
The seemingly spontaneous marches were to intended to disorient the smaller numbers of Special Operations police, an MDP activist and former government official told Minivan News during the demonstration.
Minivan News observed MNDF in riot gear blocking protesters from approaching government buildings, however they deferred to police once fresh squads arrived at the various intersections.
Standard police officer’s – ‘blues’ – were observers using pepper spray on protesters, while Special Operations officers sent in snatch teams to pluck people from the crowd once numbers had dwindled to around 400.
Although the police website reported 10 people arrested, Minivan News witnessed up to 20 people taken into police custody before the protest ended around 2:30am.
Following criticism of police arrest procedures at the Parliamentary Privileges Subcommittee yesterday, the police today released a series of statements stating that strip-searching, testing for drugs and handcuffing were legal, and “not inhumane.”
The MDP has alleged arbitrary and frequent use of pepper spray, beating, strip-searching, frisking, handcuffing and drug tests of their supporters arrested at protests.
Arrests “not inhumane”
In a statement today, the police said they were authorised to frisk and strip-searches under Articles 32-36 of the the Police Powers Act. The articles state that police are authorised to frisk and carry out strip searches if the police have reasonable grounds to believe the detainee may hold an object to harm themselves or another, or an object for intoxication, or an object to commit an illegal object.
In a separate statement today, the police said that handcuffing is not an “inhumane act” saying the police are authorised under Article 57 of the police powers act to handcuff detainees while they are being transported.
The police said they are also authorised to ask for urine samples to do drug tests if there were reasonable grounds to suspect the detainee was intoxicated, even if the individual was not detained on suspicion of drug use.
Prosecutor General Ahmed Muizz meanwhile told the Parliamentary Privileges Committee that police could only carry out drug tests if the detainee was arrested for suspected drug abuse, or if police had reasonable grounds to suspect detainees arrested on different charges have used drugs.
Police carried out a drug test on Haveeru journalist during one of this week’s earlier protests, and requested a urine sample from MP Ali Azim.
Police also expressed concern about media taking photographs of the operations.
“Who is taking these photos? She’s snapping pictures of everything we do,” one SO officer objected to a colleague.
“Let her take photos, what can she do with them, right?” the second officer remarked.
“We should just take her in,” said a third.
The Supreme Court has yet to make a decision on Gasim Ibrahim’s bid to annul the first round of results after he placed third, despite the court concluding the hearings last week.
Earlier this week, court media officials offered assurances that the case was being worked on “around the clock”.
Speaking at a Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) event on the island of Maafushi yesterday, presidential candidate Abdulla Yameen suggested that street protests would not influence the outcome.
“The Maldives will obey the rulings of the judicial courts. Street rulings will not work in the Maldives,” local media reported Yameen as saying.
Five individuals were arrested during yesterday’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) protests against the Supreme Court, reports local media.
Police arrested four people from the demonstration held near the Supreme Court yesterday afternoon and one individual was arrested last night during the MDP’s protest against the court’s injunction to indefinitely delay the presidential election’s runoff.
A police media official would not disclose to CNM whether the five arrested individuals remain in police custody.
The Maldives Police Service (MPS) told CNM that “major changes” regarding the “disclosure of information” have been enacted – on the advice of the Prosecutor General’s Office.
Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) held a peaceful street protest on Friday (March 22) against the Supreme Court following two controversial rulings against parliament.
Starting from Usfasgandhu, roughly 400 protesters led by former President Mohamed Nasheed took part in the demonstration calling for authorities to refrain from undermining parliament.
Local media reported that the protesters stopped near the Supreme Court to voice their opinions, further calling for the Supreme Court bench to be abolished and the resignation of President Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik.
On March 14, Supreme Court declared two decisions made by parliament last year as unconstitutional.
According to the court ruling, parliament’s decision to remove Civil Service Commission President Mohamed Fahmy Hassan over allegations of sexual harassment and to conduct no-confidence votes through secret ballot violated the Maldives constitution.
Former President Mohamed Nasheed has called on parliament to create an interim, caretaker administration “which can lead the country towards a genuinely free and fair presidential election in which all candidates are able to freely compete.”
Almost a thousand Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) demonstrators marched around Male’ this afternoon, the first such protest in Male’ for several months. Minivan News observed only a light police presence and no confrontations with authorities, aside from one protester who threw money in the face of a police officer.
The demonstration follows a week in which senior members of the defence and military gave evidence to a parliamentary inquiry alleging the transfer of power on February 7 “had all the hallmarks of a coup d’etat.”
Those members included Brigadier General Ibrahim Didi, Commander of Male’ area on February 7, Police Head of Intelligence Chief Superintendent Mohamed Hameed, Chief of Defense Force Major General Moosa Jaleel, Head of Military Intelligence Brigadier General Ahmed Nilaam, Chief Superintendent of Police Mohamed Jinah and Commissioner of Police Ahmed Faseeh. All six have since resigned or been suspended from duty.
Notably, many of those summoned told the committee they had given the same information to the Commonwealth-backed Commission of National Inquiry (CNI), but claimed their input was not reflected in its findings: no coup, no mutiny, and no resignation of the President under duress.
President Mohamed Waheed in a letter to Parliament Speaker Abdulla Shahid has previously said cabinet members, government officials, and members of the security forces would “shun” the committee, alleging it was operating outside its mandate.
“Legal experts and the Parliament’s Counsel General have also said the Committee is reviewing the CoNI report outside of its mandate. So the government will not partake in anything unlawful,” government spokesperson Ahmed Thaufeeg told local newspaper Haveeru.
The MDP has meanwhile compiled and distributed an English summary of the extensive Dhivehi minutes of the testimonies released this week.
“As per the CoNI’s terms of reference, after the publication of its report, the document was transmitted to key national institutions for their review and necessary action. This included the People’s Majlis (the Parliament) which received the report and transmitted it to the parliament’s oversight committees for scrutiny on the same day. It was sent to the executive oversight committee on September 18 2012,” the MDP noted.
“The testimonies of all the main witnesses summoned to the committee demonstrate a remarkable degree of consensus about what happened in early 2012, and a common understanding of the legality of the change in government,” the party said in an accompanying statement.
“All witnesses stated, unequivocally, that the change in government bore all the hallmarks of a coup d’etat. All named the same individuals as being central to the coup – with foremost among these the current commissioner of police and the current minister of defence.
“All made clear that following a meeting between opposition leaders and the-then Vice President, Mohamed Waheed, in the weeks preceded 7th February, those planning the coup swore their loyalty to him and thereafter he was fully implicated in the plot.
“All saw widespread evidence of collusion between elements of the police and army loyal to former President Gayoom and the main leaders of the coup. All had seen evidence that the plot to remove President Nasheed included the possibility that he would be assassinated if he did not leave willingly. And all claimed that the evidence and testimony they presented to the CoNI was either ignored or misrepresented.”
Deteriorating relations with India
In a separate statement, former President Nasheed expressed concern at the “deplorable manner” in which the government acted towards the Indian government, and its “treatment of the Indian people with contempt and disrespect.”
“Maldivians and Indians watched on in horror, as Waheed systematically destroyed the close relationship between our nations. It is imperative that friendly relations between Male’ and New Delhi are restored,” Nasheed said.
“Time and again, we have seen their petty, juvenile and counter-productive diplomacy strain relations with important and trusted friends. This has had a direct and detrimental impact on the Maldivian people.
“The restoration of good relations with India will only be possible with a legitimate government in Male’,” Nasheed added.
Nasheed’s comments follow reports this week that the Indian government had declined a request for an official visit by Foreign Minister Dr Abdul Samad Abdulla, who was seeking to set up a official visit for President Waheed.
“With elections expected in the next three to six months, [the Indian Prime Minister’s Office] was wary about Waheed or his foreign minister wrongly projecting a meeting for domestic political gains in the name of rapprochement with India,” the Indian Express reported.
These included government departments withholding the passports and restricting the travel of Indian nationals, failing to renew visas in a timely fashion, charging disproportionately high fines for failure to renew visas, exploiting Indian workers, and failing to investigate threat calls to Indian diplomats.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that money was thrown at an MNDF officer. Money was thrown at a police officer, who did not react.
Religious NGO “Muslimunge Gulhun” yesterday told local media that it is organising a demonstration calling on the state to implement and enact the death penalty.
The demonstration, to be called ‘Thanfeez’ – translated as “implement – is scheduled to be held at 4:oopm on Friday (October 19) at the Artificial Beach area of Male’.
The demonstration will mainly focus on advocating for the death penalty, which organisers believe will to bring an end to murders occurring in the Maldives, according to a press briefing held at Muslimunge Gulhun head office. The NGO further stated that the demonstrations would also be used to advocate for the penalties of other crimes to be aligned with Islamic Sharia.
Minivan News was unable to locate contact details for the NGO, while Minister of Islamic Affairs Sheikh Shaheem Ali Saeed and State Minister for Islamic Affairs Mohamed Didi were not responding to calls at the time of press.
However, one event organiser, Ajnadh Ali, is quoted in local media as saying that participants of the demonstration were expected to range from religious scholars to young people with a love for Islam. He further claimed that the demonstration was being planned by people that did not directly represent any specific organisation.
Organiser Sheikh Azmath Jameel stated, “The country has come to the state it is at now because the penalties laid out in Islamic Sharia have not been implemented. I call on every Muslim to join this demonstration.”
Ali Nazeer, another of the event’s organisers, spoke against opening up issues like death penalty to public debate, adding any such discussions should not be entertained in fear of how the international community may react to the implementation of Islamic Sharia.
Although death sentences are issued by courts in the Maldives, traditionally those sentences are commuted to life imprisonment under the power vested in the President.
From January 2001 to December 2010, a total of 14 people were sentenced to death by the courts. None of these sentences have been carried out.
The last person to be executed in the Maldives after receiving a death sentence was in 1953 during the first republican President Mohamed Ameen. Hakim Didi was charged with attempting to assassinate President Ameen using black magic.
However, the government of President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan has announced its intention to submit a bill to parliament to facilitate the implementation of the death penalty.
A second night of violent protests in the capital city ended with the arrest of several demonstrators after petrol bombs were thrown at police in the early hours of this morning.
Protesters gathered last night near the Tsunami Monument in Boduthakurufaanu Magu and marched towards the intersection of Male’s main road of Majeedhee Magu and the tourist street of Chandhanee Magu; the same location as Sunday morning’s sit-down protest.
Protesters demanded the government lower the cost of living and called on President Mohamed Nasheed to resign, claiming people were increasingly unable to afford basic commodities following the government’s effective devaluation of the rufiya.
Police blockaded the area to vehicles and maintained a presence, but unlike Sunday used no tear gas or force on the crowd.
Riot police at the scene were bombared with petrol bombs, stones, water bottles, chilli sauce, “and a hammer”, according to police Sub-Inspector Ahmed Shiyam.
“The protesters were trying to incite police. Some police were injured but not seriously,” he said.
Police yesterday issued a statement claiming that the the first round of violent protests was premeditated after discovering a ready supply of rocks stashed near the intersection.
During last night’s protests, “police received information that petrol bombs were being made in the toilet area of a nearby mosque. Police attended the mosque and found petrol bombs and equipment used to make them.”
Police water cannon and tear gas were deployed in the area, but were not used. A number of violent protesters into custody who were later identified as known gang members. No MPs were arrested.
“We saw two journalists injured by a stone, although not seriously,” Shiyam said.
Senior political figures at the protest included dismissed DRP Deputy Leader Umar Naseer, and DRP MPs Ahmed Mahlouf, Ahmed Nihan. Jumhoory Party (JP) leader MP ‘Burma’ Gasim Ibrahim, and DRP leader MP Ahmed Thasmeen Ali visited the scene at around 1:00am.
Gasim addressed the crowd but did not stay long, while Thasmeen joined the protesters.
Spokesperson for the DRP, Irahim ‘Mavota’ Shareef, confirmed to Minivan News that the protest was authorised by the DRP Council – significant, as Umar Naseer was dismissed from the party last year for leading similar protests on behalf of the opposition without approval.
Meanwhile, Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) parliamentary group leader and MP ‘Reeko’ Moosa Manik led a group of around 100 MDP activists in an apparent attempt to clash with the DRP supporters, but were quickly cut off from the demonstration by riot police.
Both crowds threw objects at each other, with Moosa’s crowd yelling that they did not believe that living costs had risen.
After warning protesters several times to leave the area, police dispersed the crowd by slowly moving into the intersection. The protest was finally dispersed around 3am early this morning.
Speaking to Minivan News, DRP MP and leader of the party’s youth wing Ahmed Mahlouf claimed that last night’s crowds were larger than the previous protest – particularly the number of young people present.
“The crowds are much greater than last night and I am confident that the turnout will be even bigger tomorrow night,” he said.
The protests would be begin at the artificial beach area every night at 8:45pm ahead of a “huge” protest scheduled for Friday, Mahlouf said.
He acknowledged that the protests had descended into levels of violence that “could not be accepted” with some groups of people throwing stones and cans of petrol at police that at one point also threating to set a shop on fire.
“There is some suspicion that the MDP may have paid these individuals to do this. There were so many stones and petrol bottles thrown at police as well as hitting stores,” he said.
“We cannot accept these levels of violence and as protestors we just want to raise our voices and get our point across about high prices. Even last night we were asking police to arrest these people, though this difficult to do in large groups of people.”
The protests have been claimed by some opposition politicians to have been organised by, and represent, youth groups in the country rather than a single partisan interest.
Amidst plans by organisers for further protests throughout the week, Mahlouf said his party would nonetheless be having a meeting today to decide whether to talk with police about possible means to reduce potentially violent confrontations.
“A lot of these techniques were used by the MDP before they came into power,” he claimed. “I do not want to see a repeat of that.”
However, the MP claimed that a number of senior MDP activists had also joined the protests and spoke out concerning government economic policy, including some friends of President Mohamed Nasheed.
“We know people aren’t with them any more and that they don’t believe what he [President Nasheed] says,” he said. “Even in the MDP leadership elections where he supported the appointment of both Ibrahim Zaki and Mohamed Aslam, the party has voted against him.”
MDP spokesperson Ahmed Haleem Zaki claimed that the intervention of opposition groups like the DRP in the protests formed part of wider plans to create “drama” that distracted from a failure to pass so-called anti-gang legislation in the Majlis this week.
“Today parliament is supposed to be considering passing a bill that would give more power to police to arrest gang members,” he said. “This is a political problem where we have an important bill needing to be passed and the opposition parties do not want it to go through.
Haleem did confirm that fellow MDP MP ‘Reeko’ Moosa Manik had turned up with some supporters during the protest, but said he was not himself responsible for instigating violence.
“Moosa was hit by stones and was then taken to hospital, but I can’t confirm if he was seriously injured or not,” he said.
Haleem claimed that Moosa intended to try to call for an end to violent confrontations and denied that his presence may have exacerbated confrontations at the protest site.
“We do not want violence as we are the [country’s] ruling party. Moosa was there to support police and ask protests to go home peacefully,” he claimed.
When questioned over whether MDP supporters were amongst the young people protesting, Haleem said that the party accepted that the cost of living was a major issue and that the last two years had thrown up a number of difficulties for the government in balancing the nation’s finances.
“However, we had the previous government who treated Maldivian money as if it was their own family fortune for many years,” he said. “They left the economy in such a situation that the government has been forced to take drastic measures. People know that the cost of living is high all over the world from China, to the US and the UK.”
According to Haleem, opposition parties had sought to use the protests to court drama and political instability in order to try and garner negative press coverage of President Nasheed through major news networks like CNN and Al Jazeera.
“I think [Nasheed] is very popular right now and that is why the opposition want drama,” he said. “[The opposition] thought they could compare the protests to mass movements in Egypt’s Tahrir Square – a site linked to the fall of former Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak – but people are not stupid and know very well that this isn’t the case. After four or five months we expect the economic situation to have improved.”
Meanwhile, MDP coalition partner the Adhaalath Party, led by State Islamic Minister Sheikh Hussein Rasheed, has issued a press statement in support of the anti-government protests.
The Adhaalath Party said it believed that the youth protest was “a peaceful gathering.”
”Lowerer living expenses is one of the main pledges of this government,” said the party. ”We call on the government to find a wise solution for this issue.”
The Adhaalath Party said that the protest was conducted lawfully and that ”it is not acceptable to use tear gas and batons to disperse a lawful protest.”
The party also expressed concern that police officers and protesters were injured during Sunday night’s protest.
Currency in crisis
The government has struggled to cope with an exacerbating dollar shortage brought on by a high budget deficit – triggered by a spiralling public sector expenditure – in comparison with the foreign currency flowing into the country. Civil service expenditure has increased in real terms by 400 percent since 2002.
Banks subsequently demonstrated reluctance to sell dollars at the pegged rate of Rf 12.85, and high demand for travel, commodities and overseas medical treatment forced most institutions to ration their supply or turn to the flourishing blackmarket.
After a short-lived attempt to crack down on the illegal exchange of dollars, the government floated the rufiya within a 20 percent band, effectively allowing it to be sold at up to Rf 15.42 to the dollar.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF), which has been critical of the government’s growing expenditure despite a large budget deficit, praised the decision as a step towards a mature and sustainable economy.
“Today’s bold step by the authorities represents an important move toward restoring external sustainability,” the IMF said in a statement. “IMF staff support this decision made by the authorities. We remain in close contact and are ready to offer any technical assistance that they may request.”
However, many companies dealing in dollar commodities immediately raised their exchange rates to Rf 15.42, along with the Bank of Maldives.
The government’s move, while broadly unpopular, acknowledges the devaluation of the rufiya in the wake of increased expenditure and its own inability to overcome the political obstacles inherent in reducing spending on the country’s bloated civil service.
Yet as Maldives relies almost entirely on imported goods and fuel, and many ordinary citizens have found themselves harshly affected by short-term spike in prices of up to 20 percent as the rufiya settles.
“We do not really know, based on the breadth of the domestic economy, what the value of the Maldivian rufiyaa is right now,” Economic Development Minister Mahmoud Razee admitted at a recent press conference.
The government has said it hopes the rufiya will stabilise within three months.