Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Black Friday: flashback to a crackdown

Four years ago on this day I was standing on the Republican Square, among thousands of people gathered, to demand democracy, freedom and justice. We have come a long road since then, we have achieved much, but the amended constitution in itself will not provide us with freedom. We have more work to do to save our country from greed, violence, intolerance and injustice. On 13 August 2004, I left the Republican Square around 2.00 pm, having spent a large part of the previous night and Friday morning there. I left because I wanted to write an article to update concerned people abroad on the events unfolding in Male'. News of the crackdown came just as I was finishing the article. Had I been there on the square at that time, I may have been arrested, beaten and tortured by the brutal National Security Service. I was lucky. I was also fortunate enough to send the article to Maldives Culture, minutes before the internet service was shut down in a desperate attempt to salvage the regime of Gayoom. My article, published anonymously in Maldives Culture, provides a detailed eyewitness account of what happened on Black Friday in 2004.

What started as a vigil at the Republican Square in Male' at dusk on Thursday turned into a mass gathering of people demanding for democratic reform, release of detained political prisoners, resignation of cabinet ministers and resignation of President Gayyoom himself. However, in a nasty twist in this tale, NSS used tear gas to quel the protest, the riot police beat the gathered protestors and arrested a number of reformists.

A group of pro-reform activists gathered at the Republican Square in protest against the detaining of five reform activists. They were mainly maintaining a vigil for Mr Mohamed Yoosuf (Fulhu) who was detained inside Shaheed Hussain Adam Building, where Police Headquarters is located. The building faces the Republican Square.

Fulhu was released on Thursday evening but the people demanded the release of four other activists who were detained in Dhoonidhoo detention centre near Male'. Ahmed Adam and Abdul Rasheed were arrested after the police raided their photocopy shop on 9th August. Firshan Ahmed Zahir and Hussain Rasheed were arrested on 10th August, reportedly after they responded to an intimidation by a police officer by saying police had no right to act like that.

By early morning of Friday, a large crowd had gathered near the Republican Square demanding the four detainees to be transferred to Male' and released.

The government tried to negotiate with the people, by talking to some pro-reform MPs. The government then gave in to the demands of the people and brought the four prisoners to Male' and released them.

When a government spokesman announced this, the crowd reminded that there were more political prisoners detained. They called for the release of Naushad Waheed, and the people detained regarding Sandhaanu; Ahmed Didi, Mohamed Zaki and Fathimath Nisreen.

The government spokespeople then tried to calm the crowd by addressing them through loudspeakers. When Ilyas Ibrahim, Minister of Transport, tried to calm the crowd, they called him a thief. They reminded him that he had taken millions of dollars from Fisheries Projects Implementation Department (FPID).

Brigadier Moosa Jaleel was also among the people who tried to calm the crowd in vain. People's Special Majlis member Gasim Ibrahim also tried to calm the crowd but the people were getting restless and his voice was not heard above the voice of the reformers.

People's Special Majlis member for Male', Ibrahim Ismail (Ibra) then told the crowd that the government was considering the demands of the people. He called for patience. Ibra, who was standing in front of the NSS Headquarters, then proceeded to the flag-mast in Republican Square, where a large flag is hoisted. To calm the crowd, NSS allowed their loudspeaker system to be taken there.

Ibra once again called for non-violence, peace and patience. He asked the crowd what their demands were, and they responded by calling for the release of Naushad Waheed and the Sandhaanu prisoners, and the resignation of a number of cabinet ministers. Ibra assured the crowd that the people's demands were conveyed to the government and that he will try to mediate and achieve a solution.

Brigadier Moosa Jaleel from NSS also assured the people that their demands were being sent to the government and the people will be told about the decisions of the government.

A number of pro-reform activists then started addressing the crowd through the loudspeaker system. They included Ismail Asif, Zuhaira and Fulhu. The crowd continued voicing their demands including the resignation of State Minister for Defence Anbaree Abdul Sattar, Commissioner of Police Adam Zahir and Gayyoom himself.

The crowd were determined not to resort to violence but their peaceful protest was continuously disrupted by mob groups hired by Trade Minister Abdullah Yameen, who is a brother of Gayyoom. Those were the same groups that tried to disrupt the peaceful gatherings at Lonuziyaaraiykolhu at Male'.

At one time, a group came towards the flag-mast and the platform there, and tried to pull down the flag. The protesting crowd shouted their firm opinion that the Maldivian flag in the Republican Square should not be pulled down. After a brief verbal fight, the mob backed off.

The GSM mobile phone service was also stopped during the protest but was resumed after the crowd called for the service to be resumed.

Contrary to some reports, Naushad Waheed and Sandhaanu prisoners have not been released. The government had announced that they were considering the demands of the public to release them. However, Naushad Waheed, who is detained in Male' at the time, joined the crowd and detailed the torture he and fellow prisoners went through in jail.

Sandhaanu prisoner Ahmed Didi also joined the crowd and started addressing them. Didi said he heard about the unrest in Male' and came to Police Headquarters and asked them what he should do and that he was willing to stay in a cell. He said they told him to join the crowd. He explained the torture he and fellow prisoners went through and the reasons for the publishing of the Internet newsletter Sandhaanu.

Didi addressed the crowd several times. As dawn arrived, the crowd stayed in the Republican Square, firm in their resolve to bring democracy to Maldives.

Fathimath Nisreen, the girl who was imprisoned for her alleged participation in publishing Sandhaanu, also addressed the gathered people. She denied that she had any involvement in publishing Sandhaanu and said the reason for her jail sentence is calling Gayyoom 'a Pharaoh'. Nisreen also highlighted that the constitution of the Maldives gives arrested people the right to get legal assistance from lawyers but that she and other Sandhaanu prisoners were denied their right for legal consultation. She also challenged police investigator Abdulla Riyaz to come into the crowd and give a single evidence for her alleged participation in Sandhaanu. Nisreen's jail sentence of ten years was halved recently and she was banished to an island in Faafu Atoll, but she was in Male' when this protest started.

While Nisreen was speaking, NSS tried to disrupt the gathering by using a dirty trick. A group of uniformed NSS servicemen climbed the platform and the crowd shouted at them to go back. They stayed and the some of the gathered people started to run towards them. Using this commotion as a distraction, the Yameen-sponsored mob climbed the platform and hijacked it.

They could not stay there long and backed off once again. The mob went running around in another part of the Republican Square chanting their support for Gayyoom.

Another trick on the part of NSS was played by Chief of Staff Major General Mohamed Zahir, who tried to grab the loudspeaker system after pretending to address the crowd. However, he could not succeed and had to flee the scene from an increasingly restless crowd.

When the time for Friday prayers came, the crowd tried to perform the prayer in the Republican Square so that the crowd will not be dispersed. Sheikh Fareed was to lead the prayers.

The NSS kept reminding the people to go away from the scene. NSS Headquarters is also situated next the Republican Square. A cabinet meeting was supposedly going on inside the NSS Headquarters to discuss the demands of the public. The reform activists urged the crowd to stand their ground, and stay firm in their protest.

The mob once again came to assist the crumbling regime of Gayyoom. This time they started threatening Sheikh Fareed so that he and some supporters had to leave the area. The prayers could not be performed in the Republican Square. As the men went for prayers in the nearby Islamic Centre, the women guarded the microphones and loudspeakers. Even though the reformist crowd outnumbered the mob, they were committed to continue their protest without resolving to violence.

The mob consists of groups that usually represent sports teams in the country such as BG and Maziya. The members of 'Galolhu Kanmathi' are also part of this mob. Yameen and his buddies have supposedly paid huge sums for the mob. Madih and Shah Ismail, two people who control the BG group, were seen in the area during noon and after instructing the mob to threaten Sheikh Fareed, 'the bosses' were seen leaving the area.

Also leading the mob activities is Ali Suzeyn, coach of Victory Sports Club football team. Suzeyn is also a member of 'Galolhu Kanmathi' and joined the Gayyoom's BBC-bashing in 2003 after BBC aired reports of Gayyoom's totalitarian rule in Maldives.

After the prayers, Ahmed Didi once again started addressing the crowd. Calls for the resignation of Gayyoom is increasing. The government still refused to announce anything concerning the demands of the people.

Even though the NSS had assured the protesters that they will not shoot at the crowd and nobody will be arrested concerning the event, it was a completely different tale at the 2.00 p.m. news on TVM. The government said only a small crowd had gathered and caused disharmony at the Republican Square, the people who caused this had been noted and that action will be taken against them.

The helpless situation prompted the regime to use a very dirty trick in its sleeve. It encouraged a very young group of people to come and throw bottles and such stuff towards the Police Headquarters. The protesters tried to calm this group but they could not. It is believed that this group is part of the mob paid by Yameen. Using this commotion as an excuse, the riot police pounced on the protesters, beat them brutally with truncheons and arrested a number of protesters. Most of the protesters who were taken in were those who tried to calm down the young group.

Women were also beaten with truncheons and they sustained severe injuries. Ambulances are rushing to the hospital with casualties.

Tear gas was used at about 3.00 p.m. Now the sounds of sirens fill the capital city and the people are once again faced with uncertainty and fear from the brutal regime of Maumoon Abdul Gayyoom.


Anonymous said...

great post ..unfortunately I wasn't in Male' on that day.Its ironic that on the 4th anniversary of the gathering we have managed to elect opposition member as the Speaker of the parliament.after 30 years maumoon isn't able to just get what he wants and has to respect and abide a constitution that serves its people first.

Anonymous said...

a very close encounter...i did experience some of those too..

i was few feets away from the knife attack to the police guys by a partey. thts was the only act of a lonely one.

anways we are greatful for that day.. though the police did beat over 80 guys. we acheived a lot.