US Ambassador “alarmed” by reports of violence as MDP protests continue

US Ambassador to Sri Lanka and the Maldives Patricia Butenis has said she is “alarmed” by reports of police violence during the opposition Maldives Democratic Party’s (MDP) continued protests in Malé.   Butenis claimed intimidation of protesters and attacks on journalists “threaten Maldivians’ freedom of expression and right to information, and only contributes to instability.”

MDP members have meanwhile continued their street protests for a fourth consecutive day. The MDP alleges former President Mohamed Nasheed was ousted in a coup d’etat on February 7, and have held regular protests calling for fresh elections.

Although protests have generally remained peaceful, Monday night saw violent clashes between police and protesters. Over 50 protesters have been arrested since Sunday (July 8), but only 12 remain in police custody at present. Two journalists were also arrested on Monday evening, but released after a few hours in detention.  Private broadcaster DhiTV has meanwhile alleged that one of its presenters was attacked by MDP supporters on Tuesday (July 10) afternoon, whilst the Maldives Journalist Association (MJA) appealed for media representatives to refrain from taking part in opposition protests.

“We call on journalists and the police to behave professionally as they carry out their respective, crucial functions,” Butenis told reporters at a press conference this morning.

Raajje TV has denied accusations its journalists had been directly involved in the protests, claiming that staff had conversely received “various forms of harassment and verbal abuse from the Maldives Police Service” as they attempted to cover the MDP protests held this week.

Butenis also expressed concern over the knife attack which nearly killed blogger Hilath Rasheed. He claims he was attacked because he advocated secularism.

Butenis said the government must protect protesters’ rights to demonstrate peacefully, and urged protesters to work with the state’s human rights protection mechanisms by filing police brutality allegations with the Human Rights Commission (HRCM) and the Police Integrity Commission (PIC).

Butenis also welcomed the reconstitution of the Commission of National Inquiry (CNI) to include a foreign judge and a member to represent former President Nasheed.  The CNI, which was set up by President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan to investigate the controversial transfer of power, was reconstituted following international concerns over its impartiality.

The CNI report will inform the decision on whether and when to have early elections, Butenis said, adding that the US government will keep working with President Waheed’s administration in the meantime.

The US government will continue to keep a close watch on the progress of the CNI and the now-stalled all-party talks, she said. In her meetings with President Waheed and former presidents Nasheed and Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, Butenis said she emphasised the importance of the all-party talks and the CNI as a peaceful way forward.

The US government has previously pledged US$500,000 to provide technical support to the Elections Commission (EC) in order to ensure that the next presidential polls meet international standards. The US will also provide a US$20,000 grant to restore pre-Islamic artifacts in the National Museum, which were destroyed by a mob that broke into the building amid February 7’s political turmoil.

A further US$ 7million is currently in use to increase resilience of Dhidhoo and Hinnavaru Islands to climate change. The Ambassador visited Dhidhoo Island yesterday (July 10) to monitor a project to provide sustainable source of drinking water to the island’s 4000 inhabitants.

“It goes without saying that climate change is a major threat to the Maldives, so we’re partnering with the Maldivian government to create solutions that protect its islands,” Butenis said.

She will retire from her position as the US Ambassador to the Maldives and Sri Lanka in August.