Protests slow at start of third week

Opposition protests in the capital city of Male’ appear to be deflating as they stretch into their third week of late-night stand-offs with riot police.

While opposition-led crowds continue to congregate outside the Maldives Monetary Authority (MMA) building, some bearing posters reading: “No one knows where the judge is” and “We want democracy”, the action has been pushed back towards the fish market by the sudden construction of a ferry terminal by Male’ City Council in the area used for the nightly gathering.

Minivan News understands that fishermen sleeping on the docked boats opposite the MMA had complained to the council about the nightly clashes between police and opposition demonstrators.

Protesters also appear to be voluntarily dispersing at earlier hours. Speaking last night to Minivan News, protest regulars said “a few speeches” were made near the fish market, but that they had drawn to a close well before midnight. Whereas last week opposition supporters had waited until midnight before advancing on police forces, last night the gathering had thinned out by 11:30pm with no reported confrontation with authorities.

Members of opposition parties have protested the “unlawful” detention of Criminal Court Chief Judge Abdulla Mohamed since he was arrested by the military on January 16, after he attempted to block his own police summons. He is currently being detained at a military training facility in Girifushi, his whereabouts and wellbeing established during a visit two weeks ago by the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives (HRCM).

In response, the government applied for international legal assistance to resolve its stand-off with the judiciary, which it claims is unsuited to its duties and dysfunctional. Among its grievances are the former Supreme Court’s 2010 decision to tenure itself, allegations of corruption within the courts, and the Civil Court’s 2011 ruling against the Judicial Service Commission’s (JSC) investigation of the judge.

While meetings and statements are made by day, opposition protesters have agitated by night, injuring several policemen as well as journalists. A targeted attack outside state television station Maldives National Broadcasting Corporation (MNBC) left one videographer with a broken hand. The Maldives Journalist Association (MJA) as well as the government have condemned the attacks, and security forces are maintaining surveillance of the station. Government homes and property have also been vandalised during the exchanges.

Violence is unusual for Male’, despite the often heated political rhetoric at such gatherings. Both opposition and ruling party activists have accused the other side of deploying paid thugs to create unrest and disrupt the other’s gatherings, while local gangs are known to be employed by various political figures, accepting payments for scare tactics.

Over the weekend Dhiyana Saeed, formerly SAARC Secretary General, called for President Mohamed Nasheed to be impeached. Last evening she was removed from Republic Square by police officials for protesting in an unauthorised area. It was the second time in four days that Saeed had attempted to protest in that area and had refused to comply with police orders.

Police officials emphasised that Saeed “was not arrested, and has been released from police charge.”

Saeed did not respond to phone calls at time of press.

Although protest activities appear moderately subdued, a habit seems to be developing. When asked if there were further plans for achieving their goal, one protester near the fish market simply said, “we will continue the protest here, every night.”

Still, as midnight approached most citizens in the area headed off on their motorbikes while others walked home.

Meanwhile, activities at the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) camp near MNBC, last week a protest target, have also calmed.

While ruling  party supporters awaited the arrival of an estimated 40 opposition members who were supposedly approaching the area, a film was screened in which four young people’s relationship was used to illustrate that MDP members could not be bought by the opposition Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), viewers explained.

When police forces established road blocks around the area at midnight, half of the crowd gathered outside the camp dispersed from the area, sensing trouble. As a group of opposition protesters appeared at one end of the blockade, onlookers cautioned Minivan News to be wary of thrown objects. However no confrontation developed and the protesters quickly moved on.

MDP members watching the film outside the party camp meanwhile peered down the road from their stationary bikes to observe any possible commotion, shrugged their shoulders when nothing occurred, joked amongst themselves and returned to watching the movie.

The protests – which have typically consisting of 200-400 people – now represent one of the longest running demonstrations over a single issue since the new government was elected in 2008.

Howver the opposition-led demonstrations are effectively an extension of last year’s anti-government protest to defend Islam, none have drawn crowds comparable to those who appeared at the December 23 rally.