In the waiting area of the criminal court in Malé, there was a poster that declared, “Corruption… No Cure”. Inside, dozens of handcuffed citizens were being held, including this writer. Outside, policemen were pushing back protesters. After an interminable wait, we were herded into the courtroom in batches of five. In possible deference to the poster downstairs, it took less than five minutes for the court to declare me and four other democratic protesters “a grave threat to society” — and remand us to an unprecedented 15 days of detention.
May 1 saw the largest ever rally in the country. Nearly 20,000 protestors poured into the streets of Malé. One day before, the authorities made a statement declaring the (yet-to-be-held) rally was “not peaceful”. There was heavy deployment of policemen in full riot gear. Dire warnings were issued to protesters arriving from outlying islands. Prison cells in Malé and the neighbouring detention island of Dhoonidhoo (a Gayoom-era torture prison) were emptied in advance. The crackdown resulted in the largest number of political detainees in the past decade.
In all, 193 protestors were taken to Dhoonidhoo, many sporting fresh injury marks — souvenirs from their encounters with the riot police. The detainees included fishermen, students, entrepreneurs, musicians, educators, councillors, and at least one pregnant woman. All of them, the judiciary decided, posed “a grave threat to society”.
The Maldives regime has employed every resource at its disposal to crush democratic dissent, from a rubber-stamp parliament to a rogue police department. But the axe it has most effectively used to chop down democratic ambitions has been the judiciary.
The judge who handed us generous 15-day detentions had earlier sat on the bench that convicted former President Mohamed Nasheed — our only democratic president — on bogus “terrorism” charges. The trial has drawn condemnation from international bodies, from Amnesty International to the UN. Local observers like the Maldivian Democracy Network found that it “violated the Maldivian constitution, laws, regulations and international treaties”.
The Abdulla Yameen regime has embarked on a policy of intimidation to quell the Maldives’ democratic aspirations.
The Maldives has dropped to 112 this year on the RSF Press Freedom Index, lower than during the pre-2008 dictatorship.
At the time of writing, I have completed 21 days under arrest without trial. Among the others arrested were deputy leader of the Jumhooree Party Ameen Ibrahim and MP Ahmed Easa. State-controlled companies issued circulars prohibiting employees — in violation of the constitution — from taking part in the May Day protests. Social media critics found themselves slapped with bogus charges, such as “throwing rocks at the police”, which carry up to six months’ imprisonment. Opposition-aligned TV stations have gone up in flames. Prominent liberal blogger and journalist Ahmed Rilwan has been missing since August 2014. The instability has fostered religious extremism; hundreds of Maldivians have joined the IS.
Several countries took the Maldives’ judiciary to task at the Universal Periodic Review session in Geneva earlier this month. India, perhaps the most crucial of all nations, also made a strongly worded appeal to safeguard the “space for legitimate political dissent”. In April, the EU debated a motion condemning the situation, asking for targeted asset freezes and travel bans on regime members. However, the resolution finally adopted dropped such crucial measures. Once again, the international community has issued condemnations but fallen short on the action required. The day after the EU resolution was adopted, the regime engaged in unprecedented mass arrests, locking up the entire opposition leadership.
But the democratic aspirations of the Maldivian people could not be silenced. In Dhoonidhoo, inmates rent the night air with chants for democracy and calls to “Free President Nasheed!” The sooner the international community, especially India, joins their call and adopts stronger measures, the better the chances of salvaging the Maldives’ tattered democracy.
The writer is a Maldives-based political commentator