Several members of former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM), including some MPs, were arrested last night after forcing a dhoni to take them to Ibrahim Nasir International Airport (INIA) where they intended to take down SAARC banners allegedly featuring Christian and other religious imagery.
“The police received information that people had tried to get to the airport using force,” said Police Sub-Inspector Ahmed Shiyam. “The dhoni owner said he refused to take them but that they attacked him and made him go to the airport,” he said.
The individuals were detained at Dhoonidhoo last night. Some have been released while others are being held in custody.
PPM MP Ahmed Mahloof was released at 1:30am this morning. He said the act was organised by several friends and was not attached to PPM.
“It was not a violent or political act,” Mahloof claimed. “We each paid Rf10 for the airport ferry, maybe the dhoni owner got nervous when the police came because about ten people on the ferry were yelling at him to keep going because they had to get to the airport, so he told the police he had been attacked.
“All we said was that they had violated our right to move freely,” said Mahloof, adding that the interaction between those arrested and the police was peaceful. “The police trust the opposition, as does the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF), because they do not support the President. They told us that we would have to be arrested, and we agreed to cooperate.”
Shiyam said that “with SAARC, the security is very high right now, so we are using a very quick and strong response to this issue.”
Police also took action against Mohamed ‘Wadde’ Waheed, lawyer for former president and current PPM leader Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who was found walking around Dhoonidhoo island without approval after last night’s arrests.
“Being a lawyer he must have known about the procedures to get onto Dhoonidhoo,” said Shiyam.
Wadde, who was discovered to have arrived on the island via speedboat, was sent back to Male’ for interrogation. He was not arrested, but did not respond to Minivan’s inquiries.
The banners at INIA are part of a series created by local company Mooinc Pvt Ltd for the SAARC summit under the theme ‘Building Bridges’. They are also in display in Fuvamulah and Addu City, where the summit is currently being held.
Mooinc Creative Director Ali Saeed said the designs were based on five themes approved by the cabinet to depict the culture and religion of the eight SAARC nations, which cumulatively practice 10 religions.
Under Religious Unity Regulations published by the government in September, it is illegal to propagate any other religion other than Islam, to carry or display in public books on religions other than Islam, and the translation into Dhivehi language such books and writings on other religions. Proselytising by foreigners remains punishable by deportation.
The regulations interpret the Religious Unity Act passed by parliament in 1994, which carries a 2-5 year prison sentence for its violation.
Mahloof confirmed that the group’s goal was to remove the banners at the airport.
“Our constitution makes it very clear that no other religions are to be displayed in our society because we are a 100 percent Muslim society,” he said, claiming that the government’s approval of the banners for the purposes of an international event surpassed necessary diplomatic etiquette.
“I don’t think the other heads of state were expecting to see their religions shown when they came here. They know that we are Muslim. I have had the opportunity to travel abroad and meet with delegates, and I never expected those countries to have mosques if they weren’t officially Muslim just to show support,” said Mahloof.
Mahloof emphasised that members of all religions are welcome in the Maldives. “It’s not that we are opposed to other religions. Their members are very welcome, we would never support the kinds of attacks that take place elsewhere. But I believe other countries respect our decision to be Muslim, and there’s no need to show so much support for other faiths. I’m sure everyone will be respected in turn,” he said.
Mahloof added that tourists have steadily come through the Maldives without complaining about a lack of Buddhist or Christian displays. He said the banners are not a threat, but rather represent a loosening religious structure.
“My concern is this: since Nasheed came to power we have seen slowly the breaking of the pillars of Islam, making holes to open doors for other faiths. Being a Maldivian, and a young person, I wouldn’t want to see other religions here. If other religions were allowed into the Maldives, I’m sure we would see more terrorist attacks and the kind of violence that is happening elsewhere. Already families don’t talk to each other just from the political changes. If Nasheed tries to bring in other religions, things will go from bad to worse.”
Speaking for PPM, Mahloof said there was suspicion that the current government is making private deals to bring in other religions. “But I believe other countries respect our decision,” he reiterated.
The SAARC summit has tempered what Mahloof said is rising frustration among Maldivian people. “PPM made an agreement yesterday not to do anything during SAARC,” he said. “I’m sure after the summit there will be protests and huge crowds in the streets.”
Mahloof, who has been arrested twice, said “we will take the steps we should with the authorities, appearing before the Human Rights Commission and the Police Integrity Commission” to discuss their arrest.