Police interrogated and briefly detained leaders of the minority opposition Dhivehi Qaumee Party (DQP) Thursday night, after the President’s Office requested an investigation into “slanderous” statements alleging the government was working under the influence of “Jews” and “Christian priests” to weaken Islam in the Maldives.
DQP council members former Justice Minister Dr Mohamed Jameel Ahmed and ‘Sandhaanu’ Ahmed Ibrahim Didi were summoned for questioning at 8pm Thursday night. Former Attorney General and presidential candidate in 2008, Dr Hassan Saeed, accompanied the pair as their lead lawyer.
Speaking to press outside the police headquarters shortly after 10pm, Dr Jameel contended that the government was trying to silence dissent by arresting those who speak out against corruption and intimidation of the judiciary “with a serious warning of destroying democracy in the Maldives in its infancy”.
“By God’s will, we now have the certainty that will we will put this current President [Mohamed Nasheed] in jail for a long time,” he asserted.
Sandhaanu Didi was meanwhile taken to Dhoonidhoo detention island after midnight and released around 7:00pm on Friday night. DQP had filed a case at the Criminal Court at 3:45pm challenging the legality of the detention and seeking reasons for his arrest.
In July 2007, Didi was sentenced to life imprisonment by the former government for distributing the dissident Sandhaanu newspaper online and allegedly fomenting unrest and revolution. His role in the pro-democracy reform movement was recognised by Amnesty International and the US State Department.
Before entering the police station Thursday night, Didi insisted to reporters that his insinuation of the government’s anti-Islamic agenda was true, holding up a booklet titled ‘President Nasheed’s devious plot to destroy the Islamic faith of Maldivians.’
“We brought Nasheed to power by mistake. Nasheed is a madman,” he claimed, calling on the public to “rise up and defend Islam.”
Meanwhile a group of DQP supporters gathered outside the police headquarters to protest, during which DQP Deputy Leader Abdul Matheen was briefly detained for “disobeying a police order” and released after midnight.
“Suppression of free press”
The police involvement provoked a flurry of strong criticism from opposition parties, which have accused the government of resorting to dictatorial tactics, intimidating political opponents “out of desperation” and undermining freedom of expression.
Both the main opposition Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) – which formed a coalition with DQP last year – and the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) led by former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom have condemned the government’s “suppression of the constitutional right to free expression.”
In a press statement issued today calling on the international community to intervene, PPM condemned the current administration for “harassment and intimidation” of privately-owned media outlets, arguing that such actions have “created an atmosphere of fear and repression in Male’.”
The ‘December 23 coalition’ of eight opposition parties that united to ‘Defend Islam’ also released a statement on Friday calling for the immediate release of the DQP senior member and condemning the “act of cowardice.”
“The December 23 coalition assures all citizens that we will not be deterred by the intimidation from the government but will continue on with renewed vigor in the face of such adversity for our religion and country to ensure that our rights are protected,” the statement read.
A statement by DQP meanwhile explained that Didi was to be charged under section 125 of the penal code drafted in the 1960s, which states “Where a person makes a fabricated statement or repeats a statement whose basis cannot be proven, he shall be punished with house detention for a period between one to six months or fined between Rf25 and Rf200.”
Noting that the provision was “one of the most frequently invoked clauses by the 30-year rule of President Gayoom to suppress press freedom and dissenting views,” DQP argued that the liberal constitution adopted in 2008 and decriminalisation of defamation in 2009 rendered the offence of slander or lying “invalid.”
“Article 69 of the constitution prohibits application and interpretation of fundamental rights under the constitution restrictively,” the statement explained, adding that article 68 requires the interpretation of fundamental rights “in accordance with prevailing practices in democratic countries.”
Meanwhile, following his interrogation Dr Jameel tweeted: “Nasheed is relying on archaic laws to suppress opposition voices but he calls himself a democrat.”
The former Civil Aviation Minister under President Nasheed also alleged that police were continuing to “harass me and I am expecting to be taken illegally at any time.”
According to local media reports, Sandhaanu Didi has been summoned to the police headquarters again at 8.30pm tonight.
“Racist, bigoted and anti-Semitic”
Appearing on opposition-aligned private broadcaster DhiTV last week, Sandhaanu Didi had alleged that the government was “operating under the influence of Christian priests” and had been “attempting to spread irreligious practices and principles in the country.”
In response, the President’s Office issued a statement on Thursday condemning the remarks as “racist, bigoted and anti-Semitic.”
“The DQP is playing politics with religion. They are siding with religious extremists to wage a campaign that is racist, anti-Semitic and deeply unpleasant, in an effort to damage the government. I condemn the DQP, its leader Dr Hassan Saeed, and the council members involved for their disgraceful behaviour” Zuhair said at last week’s press conference, where he announced the government’s decision to ask police to investigate the pair along with DhiTV.
Zuhair added that opposition parties were “stooping to the politics of the gutter… out of political desperation”, pointing to a string of victories in recent by-elections for the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) “and the success of government policies, such as universal free health insurance, which was introduced on January 1.”
“The outburst by the DQP council members is the latest in a torrent of intolerant slurs made by opposition parties in recent weeks, in an apparently co-ordinated effort to undermine the government’s moderate Islamic stance,” the President’s Office statement reads.
On December 23, opposition parties and a coalition of NGOs organised a mass demonstration to ostensibly ‘Defend Islam’ and accuse the government of an hidden agenda for securalisation.
“Slander and bald-faced lies”
In his weekly radio address yesterday, President Nasheed insisted that the government “did not wish for the slightest disruption to freedom of expression” and would not react to criticism with police action.
“However, when deliberate slander is spread about the government to mislead the public – especially the false claim that the government is trying to introduce other religions in the Maldives – in my view, the government has a responsibility to clear its name and refute the allegations,” he explained, reiterating that neither the ruling party nor the government “would ever attempt to bring another religion into the country.”
He added that the government should take action against deliberate falsehoods spread to “create discord between the public and myself, my party or this administration and cloud their view of the government.”
Meanwhile at last week’s press conference, Press Secretary Zuhair noted that the former government carried out an investigation while Dr Hassan Saeed was in the cabinet into MDP’s sources of funding and foreign backers, which cleared the fledgling party of alleged ties to Christian missionaries.
After declaring “unconditional” support for candidate Nasheed ahead of the second round run-off of the October 2008 presidential election, Dr Hassan Saeed said at the closing rally of the campaign that the anti-Islamic allegations were “bald-faced lies.”
“The Maldivian government carried out efforts with funds from the Maldivian treasury, with money from the state budget and using experts from England to see if there was any connection between Mohamed Nasheed or MDP to Christianity,” he revealed.
“They carried out a thorough inquiry. That project looked into whether MDP received funds from foreign parties to spread Christianity. But what did the inquiry the Maldivian government carried out with Maldivian funds show? There is no connection between Mohamed Nasheed or MDP to Christianity.”
Dr Saeed’s running mate in 2008, former Foreign Minister Dr Ahmed Shaheed explained in an interview with Minivan News in June 2011 that the previous administration hired UK security and private investigation firm Sion Resources in 2007 for a surveillance operation dubbed ‘Operation Druid.’
“The [Gayoom] government may have wanted to see what was going on. What these operations did was try to see who was who. And a lot of the operations the government felt were against it came from Salisbury, and I think the government of the day felt justified in engaging a firm to look into what was going on,” Dr Shaheed revealed.
“We’re talking about people who they had deported from the Maldives for proselytisation, people involved in all sort of activities. They felt they needed to check on that, and what came out was a clean bill of health. Nothing untoward was happening, and these people [MDP members working in exile] were by and large bona fide.”
The accusation from the Gayoom campaign that MDP and Salisbury Cathedral were conspiring to blow up the Islamic centre and build a church was “just a mischievous suggestion, a very mischievous suggestion,” Dr Shaheed said.
“Hassan Saeed and I – the last election rally we had, October 7 2008 or thereabouts, the last rally in our campaign against Gayoom, at the time everyone was accusing each other of being non-Muslim, and this accusation that the MDP was non-Muslim was getting very loud,” he continued. “So we came on stage and said we were former government ministers and that we were aware about this allegation against MDP and that Gayoom had hired a firm to look into this allegation, and that their report had confirmed there was no such connection to MDP. Both of us said this on record.”