Arson, rubber bullets, batons and pepper spray: MDP protests continue

Violence escalated during ousted Maldivian Democratic Party’s (MDP) protests on Wednesday night in Malé, with the party alleging police used rubber bullets and pepper spray, beat protesters with batons, and used excessive force to disperse the party’s four-day long protests. Police have denied the allegations.

Meanwhile, police barricades and a car belonging to Minister of Human Rights and Gender Dhiyana Saeed, were set on fire in Malé while a police station was torched in Noonu Atoll Holhudhoo Island.

Police have said they believe the arson attacks were connected to MDP’s protests, but the party denies the allegations.

A Sun Online journalist was also hit on the head with a battery thrown by a protester and a Raajje TV cameraman alleged police assaulted him during MDP’s protests. The Maldives Broadcasting Commission (MBC) has raised concern over both incidents.

The MDP has held regular marches calling for early elections, alleging President Mohamed Nasheed was ousted in a coup d’état on February 7.

Protests will not end until new President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan’s government is brought to an end, MDP has said, and has called on the public to display a yellow flag in their homes to show their support for the party and have urged islanders to come and join ongoing protests in Malé.

However, police have said they “no longer believe MDP’s protests to be peaceful” and said that the purpose of the protests seem to be “heckling police and obstructing police duty instead of demonstrating for early elections.”

In response, the MDP in a statement said police solicited gang members and government supporters to create unrest on Wednesday night in order to cast the party’s protests as violent.

Protesters remain gathered at the junction of Chaandhanee and Orchid streets at the time of press.

“Excessive Force”

The police used excessive force to disperse protests on Wednesday night, MDP has claimed in a statement. “Police in full riot gear have attacked unarmed protesters with batons and boots and pepper-sprayed protesters at close range. Furthermore, police are extremely verbally abusive towards journalists and protesters. Eye witnesses have said police used rubber bullets to disperse the protests last night resulting in severe injuries,” the party said.

Police allowed government supporters and gang members behind police lines to throw stones at protesters and set fire to police barricades in order to “create violence to disrupt protests,” the MDP alleges.

But police have denied allegations, claiming it was the protesters who threw pavement bricks, water bottles and batteries at the police.

“Five policemen were injured,” police Spokesperson Hassan Haneef said. “I would also like to note protesters had gathered a pile of bricks to throw at the police. They also set barricades on fire.”

When asked if the arson attacks were connected to MDP’s protests, Haneef said “we have suspicions as the MDP is constantly calling on the public to cause injury to the police.”

The police station on Holhudhoo Island was torched at 2:30 am, while Saeed’s car was torched at 4:00 am. All the furniture, three bicycles and motorcycles were damaged beyond repair in the police station while the car’s windshields, trunk and backseat were destroyed in the fire. A pavement brick and empty petrol can were found in the car, police said.

Reporters Attacked

Private television station Raajje TV’s cameraman Ahmed Shanoon suffered injury to his collarbone in a police attack, MDP claims.

MDP spokesperson Imthiyaz Fahmy also said he was “saddened and concerned” by the injury caused to Sun Online reporter Murshid Abdul Hakeem. A battery thrown during the protest hit Hakeem on the head.

Two journalists were briefly detained on Monday evening. Raajje TV journalist Asward Ibrahim Waheed said police rushed at and surrounded him as he attempted to obtain footage of police beating a protester.

Police then grabbed his neck, twisted his arm and threw him to the ground, Waheed said. Raajje TV has said police have targeted and assaulted the station’s journalists.

Further, DhiTV presenter Ahmed Ameeth was mobbed by protesters on Tuesday evening.

No journalists from Minivan News were injured covering the protest, despite a report published in local newspaper Haveeru. However a photographer from Minivan Daily – an unaffiliated publication – was reportedly hit by a police baton.

The Maldives Broadcasting Commission (MBC) in a statement today has appealed to the security forces “to allow broadcast media to operate with independence.”

The Maldivian Journalists Association (MJA) did not comment on the Monday arrests, but released a statement on Tuesday calling on journalists to avoid confrontation with the police by adhering to their code of ethics. However, the MJA did condemn the mobbing of the DhiTV presenter in a statement on Wednesday.

Heckling Police

A police statement said protesters had constantly tried to break through police barricades into areas where protesting is banned and said protesters were extremely verbally abusive towards the police.

“Although protesters claim to be calling for an early election, the protest has changed into one to heckle police and obstruct police duty,” the statement said, adding that police did not have a legal say on the issue of elections.

It also raised concern over the allegations of police brutality and denial of rights to detainees and protesters and called on the public to file complaints with the relevant human rights mechanisms instead of “accusing police of unproven allegations.”

Nine people were arrested on Wednesday, the police said.

MDP claims over 80 people have been arrested during the four day protest and 40 continue to remain in police custody.

U.S. Ambassador Patricia Butenis on Wednesday said she was “alarmed” by recent reports of police violence and said intimidation of protesters and attacks on journalists “threaten Maldivians’ freedom of expression and right to information and only contributes to instability.”

Amnesty International has previously condemned police’s “use of excessive force” in dismantling MDP protests.