1st May 2015 saw the largest anti-government protests in Maldivian history, with nearly 20,000 protesters filling the main thoroughfare in Malé. It also saw the largest police crackdown in over a decade, with nearly 200 democratic protesters arrested. I was among those arrested, and was held captive for 21 days, including 5 days of house arrest, without trial. Nearly two months later, several protesters continue to remain in prison without trial.
This is the first of a short series of articles about my observations in Dhoonidhoo prison, that I wish to document for posterity
I was arrested a little before nine pm on 1st May, from near the Somerset Hotel in Kenery goalhi.
Just moments earlier, masked riot police had charged into the narrow lane, chasing away anti-regime protesters and resulting in a bit of a stampede.
An old man had fallen on the ground; he appeared to have injured his shoulder badly.
I was standing back observing the scene (and tweeting about it!) when I heard someone bark an order: “Take everyone standing here!”
As it happened, that included me.
Picking up random people. Including me. Arrested 🙁
— Yameen Rasheed (@yaamyn) May 1, 2015
I was taken by the elbow and escorted to a waiting police pickup lorry that was already jam packed with more than a dozen protesters – many of whom were women.
Watching over them, in the rear, was a foul-mouthed, masked riot police officer – who was either a female, or liked to yell expletives in a high pitched voice. I couldn’t tell for sure, because none of them appeared to be wearing name tags that night.
As I was being taken away, a foreign journalist friend saw me and tried to intervene with the police, explaining that I had excellent reasons to be standing there outside his hotel. (I had, in fact, been waiting there for him)
He was told that I would be released the next day – but as it happened, I would be held captive as a political prisoner for the next 21 days.
Transfer to Dhoonidhoo
There was barely enough room in the lorry to stand in, but the (nonspecific-gendered-) police guard in the rear ordered us to ‘SIT DOWN!’, and hurled more expletives when we pointed out that .. well, we couldn’t.
And then, even more protesters were loaded onto the cramped vehicle.
At some point, the vehicle started moving – accelerating and then stopping with sudden jolts, throwing us off balance. It was evident that someone sitting in the front was clearly enjoying our discomfort.
The vehicle deposited us on the other side of Chandanee Magu, near the souvenir shops, where the uniformed SO (“Specialist Operations” police – aka “salaried regime goons”) were resting, leaning against the glass windows in their heavy gear.
We were ordered to kneel down on the pavement, while a female orderly went around noting down our names and national ID card numbers.
Meanwhile, someone came and tied our wrists behind us with cable ties. He’d tied my right wrist too tightly, but I – in stubbornness, perhaps – didn’t complain, or let them derive any pleasure from my pain.
“Amurah nukiyamentherivun! – Disobedience to order!”, barked a voice as the cause of arrest. They rolled some masking tape around my shirt sleeve, and wrote down a number on it with a felt-tip marker pen.
While we were knelt down there, hands tied behind us, the regime SO police sitting in front of us were harassing, threatening and mocking us with expletive-laden sentences.
One of them said we were idiots, for protesting against them in the streets, while “your leaders were sitting comfortably at home”. ‘Funny’, I thought, ‘because here you are on the streets brutalizing the public who pays your salary – while regime figures were.. well, in their rooms doing things’
At some point, I was ordered to get up and march towards another vehicle – that many of us refer to as “the ice cream lorry”.
The rear of the van was a small metal box with no ventilation apart from a tiny window towards the driver’s seat. It was too small to sit up straight in; also, it was extremely hot inside.
When I climbed in, there were already three young male detainees inside – handcuffed from behind and sweating profusely from the unbearable heat, as the engine kept idling.
Every other moment, some uniformed SO goon would come and hurl some filthy words at us, and then close the door, cutting off ventilation. One uniformed guy threatened us with violence, and then slammed the door on us one final time. And then, the vehicle started moving.
Within minutes, I was completely soaked in perspiration and went blind as fat beads of salty sweat trickled into my eyes.
We were taken to the Police Headquarters at Shaheed Hussain Adam building. I remember the moment the rear doors opened, I felt a massive relief.
After processing at HQ, they called out our names one by one, and loaded us onto a police speedboat that would take us to the Dhoonidhoo detention island.
I have to admit, it was a pleasant ride on the speed boat. After the unsolicited sauna treatment in the ice cream lorry, I really enjoyed speeding across the dark seas, leaving a foamy trail behind as I breathed in the fresh night air.
A few minutes ride later, we disembarked from the boat and – still handcuffed from behind – were herded past small groups of policemen playing cards, reclining in string chairs on the beach, or watching TV in what appeared to be an entertainment shed.
Less than a hundred feet from the jetty, there was an open hut with four desks and a printer-photocopier inside that served as a makeshift detainees processing centre.
Seated in plastic chairs around the hut were more than a hundred detainees. They were seated in groups, in the order that they were shipped in.
The detainees were being sent into the hut one at a time. Inside the hut, police were gathering detainee details, collecting and documenting their possessions and sealing them inside large white envelopes. Meanwhile, a police gopher printed out their details and took photocopies, which they then stapled on the envelopes and deposited in a cardboard box.
All this was, of course, a painfully slow process.
It was clearly going to be a long night.
After an hour or so, they served us some bland, sticky gruel that was allegedly noodles. I really didn’t have an appetite. But I wasn’t sure when my next meal would be. So I decided to eat.
The wait was excruciating. Starved of things to do, I began messing with the duty officer; asked him existential questions, made him pick up trash that he was kicking around. But that got old really fast.
Looking around, I saw there were both old men and young children (One nervous little teenager actually asked a policeman if this was going to be on his permanent record. Sigh.)
It was way past midnight when I finally got called in to hand over my possessions. My wallet happened to contain currency notes from different countries, which brought a look of great dismay on the face of the guy sitting across the table.
Money, it turned out, had to be documented – with proper currency and denomination-wise break downs. ‘Good!’, I thought, ‘More work for them!’
I have never seen a man struggle so hard to spell Malaysian ringgit (which came out as ‘renget’). I wish I could remember how he spelled Bhutanese ngultrum.
I was even more entertained by the detainee at the next desk. By the time he emptied his pockets, his desk was covered with wallets, bands, masks, little yellow party flags, yellow t shirts, strings, plastic bags, medicines, papers and several coins.
I was given a photocopied list of my possessions, and told I was done. At this point, I was tired and gladly looking forward to being taken to my cell.
Except… I wasn’t really done. Not even close.
I was escorted away from the hut, and led through a doorway made in a corrugated tin fence. Here I saw an extremely unpleasant sight – a large, dark and dingy metal cage with dozens of men held inside. On the gate of the cage, it said ‘Arrivals’ – and I was led into it and asked to wait.
Suddenly, I missed the comfort of the chair outside. If things had moved glacially outside, this place was even more excruciatingly slow.
It was an extremely depressing place to be. Surrounded by dozens of tired, weary men – with not enough room for everyone to sit or lie down in – and there were more coming into the stinking, mosquito-infested cage than going out.
After what felt like hours, someone called my name and took me to a small building opposite the cage.
Inside, they were doing paper work; printing out arrest chits containing random allegations that they wanted me to sign.
I said I refused to sign anything without my lawyer present in the room (a brave comment for someone who’s never had a run-in with the law and has never had, nor needed, a lawyer)
They didn’t seem to care very much – and asked me to wait outside the adjacent room with a few others. After a short wait, they led us inside for a grope-session (aka ‘body searches’).
From there, we were escorted out to an empty yard with a round plastic table at one end, around which were seated about five uniformed prison guards.
They gave us each a straw mat, a pillow, and a pillow case containing a toothbrush, toothpaste, half a bar of soap, a plastic mug, a plate, and a tiny, threadbare towel.
Along the length of the yard was a single storeyed building with 4 doors, which were allegedly ‘investigation rooms’. We were told to wait outside, on set of dilapidated plastic chairs, bolted together to a wooden frame.
After yet another interminable wait, I reached my turn again.
This was right around 4:40 in the morning – because I heard the call for dawn prayers (I didn’t realize it then, but for the next few weeks, I would come to depend almost entirely on prayer calls in order to tell the time)
I was offered a phone call, but I told the man on duty that it was a rather odd hour to be making phone calls to either family or a lawyer. He said that he understood. He then assured me that I would get another opportunity in the morning, but asked me to sign a document waiving my right to a phone call “at this time”.
I read the document carefully, and made a thumbprint and placed a signature on a piece of paper and walked out.
(Bad decision, as it turned out. I didn’t get my phone call the next day at all. By the time I next spoke to a family member, my court hearing was already over and I had been remanded for a further fifteen days. In the meantime, they told my family that as per their records, I had denied a phone call that was offered to me at 11:30 am..)
It was past five in the morning when, tired and weary, I finally walked into the crowded cell where I would be caged for the next 17 days.