1st May 2015 saw the largest anti-government protests in Maldivian history, with nearly 20,000 protesters filling the main thoroughfare in Malé. I was among the nearly 200 democratic protesters arrested that day, in the largest police crackdown in over a decade.
I was released after being held for 21 days without trial. But several May Day political detainees continue to languish in prison even today, without trial.
This is the second part of a short series of articles about my observations in Dhoonidhoo prison. Read the first part here.
It was a little after five in the morning, and we were gathered in a prison yard after a long night of interminable waits.
Each of us held in our hand a rolled up straw mat, and a pillow case containing a plastic plate, soap, toothbrush, and a tiny threadbare towel.
I was taken to Block 6.
The front of the cell block was surrounded by an 8 foot high corrugated tin fence that blocked off any view. A small doorway on one side of the fence led into a tiny, enclosed yard. From the yard, we walked into a narrow corridor – separated by a wire fence – that led to the cells.
There were four cells in all, numbered A to D.
Each cell measured about 18 ft X 22 ft and appeared to have been furnished with poultry in mind; there were no cots, or beds, or fans, or cupboards or desks or chairs.
It was just a stark, empty cell with green walls and green ceiling, and a painted grey floor. There was a barred doorway, with a horizontal opening through the bars just wide enough to push a plate of food through.
Above the doorway, on either side, were two large, square windows with thick metal bars.
At the back of the cell were two lavatories with stainless steel toilets, and two bathroom stalls – with no showers or fittings of any kind. A five foot high partition wall and doors were all the privacy that was afforded.
The toilets had no lids or flushing mechanism, and two black plastic buckets were provided in all for the whole cell.
The cells appeared to have a capacity of twelve to fifteen, at most. But that morning, when I walked into cell 6-A, there were 25 others already in there – all of them political detainees taken from the May Day rally.
There wasn’t enough room for everyone to spread out their straw mats.
Some of the detainees quietly adjusted their mats, overlapping one another, to make room for me along one side. Others who arrived with me spread their mats along the center, covering almost all the available floor space.
In all, there were 193 political detainees locked up in Dhoonidhoo that first night and over hundred of them were locked up with me, in the four cells of Block 6.
It would soon be sunrise. I was tired after a long night of getting arrested and then being pushed around like paper work by the police. I spread out my mat, emptied the contents of my pillowcase, and slipped it over my pillow. Then I just lay back and tried to drown out the din of conversation around me, and closed my eyes.
I woke up suddenly to the sound of someone tapping on my knee.
Breakfast had arrived.
My cell mates were huddled near the doorway, clutching their plates and mugs. Outside, two catering guys were serving them food through the bars, under the watchful gaze of a prison duty officer.
The food was brought in a wheelbarrow, loaded with three plastic buckets containing roshi, dry mas huni, and mugu riha. One man was serving food on the plates. The other poured tea for the inmates from a large kettle that sat on a small, plastic stool.
They gave each of us two bottles of packaged drinking water.
I noticed many of my fellow cell-mates were senior men. On my right was a short gentleman with white hair and small white beard, who I was pleasantly surprised to discover was a professional musician. A lead guitarist, in fact. On my left was a clean-shaven, mild mannered gentleman who looked like your average friendly neighbour.
There appeared to be exactly one person out of 26 who had any sort of past criminal record – a loud, brash, young man with a mop of bushy hair and small bushy beard, who was also a habitual jailbird.
This was a good thing.
For those of us who were seeing the inside of a prison for the first time, and didn’t know anything about this mysterious place, it was super useful to have a knowledgeable insider who instructed us on what to expect, and how to get things done, and how to bide time.
There was nothing to do after breakfast but wait. We knew we had to be presented before a judge within 24 hours for a remand hearing – but many of us hadn’t yet gotten the opportunity to make a phone call to family or a lawyer.
The detainees sat around after food, talking about what came next.
Some of us would be released, they all seemed to agree, without being taken to court. In any case, most of us would be released by the court, others surmised. After all, a vast majority of us didn’t have criminal records or any previous run-ins with the law.
However, the unprecedented heavy-handedness of the May Day crackdown gave me some pause. Perhaps, I thought, they would want to make examples of us to discourage further protests.
Perhaps they’ll keep us in here about two days, I thought. Heck, they might go crazy and even keep us in here for five days!
Those who were more familiar with the court system disagreed. Nah. They don’t give protesters five days. Don’t worry. Except a handful of known troublemakers, you will all be released.
To be fair, nobody expected what came next.
The prison guard came and instructed everyone to get ready to be taken to Malé for our remand hearing.
I asked him for my phone call. He just shrugged and said that they were working on it – but that it might not happen the same day. I knew they were overwhelmed and simply didn’t have the capacity to deal with this many inmates. But nevertheless, I had to remind him that I wasn’t asking him for a favour, but demanding a legal right.
I took a bath, using the half a bar of soap they’d supplied, and waited.
Shortly after lunch, they called my name. We were taken out to the yard, handcuffed from behind, and led to the jetty where a ferry was waiting to take us to Malé.
Upon arrival in Malé, they loaded us into large police vans. There seemed to be an awful lot of security on the way to the court – with the entire zone barricaded off.
The policeman behind the wheels was either an awful driver, or too just good for the jalopy that we were packed in; Speeding through narrow lanes, stepping on the gas and then applying sudden brakes out of the blue. In any case, he deposited us, still largely intact to the court.
Stepping outside the van required a bit of thought.
I knew the media was present. Do I look crushed and sad under the weight of all the regime oppression? Do I look cheerful and thus give the wrong impression that all was right, and that we were being treated well?
Defiance, I thought. Defiance was good. Do not give them the satisfaction.
Besides, I still hadn’t spoken to my family since I was arrested – and didn’t want to upset them. I am certain others in the vehicle had similar thoughts.
We were rushed to the ground floor waiting area of the court, which was packed with May Day detainees. On the noticeboard on the ground floor, there was a poster that read, “Corruption… No Cure”. (Spot-on observation, I thought)
We were then led upstairs to the second floor, past another packed waiting area, and into a tiny adjacent room with even more chairs in it. We were locked inside there, still handcuffed.
When I was called outside, I spotted Nazim Sattar, from the MDP legal team (also President Nasheed’s brother). I was aware that the MDP had been arranging lawyers for the detainees. Even though I hadn’t had the opportunity to request for one, I asked him nevertheless if the party had arranged any lawyers for me. Surprisingly, he said yes – and pointed out to me my lawyer, Moosa Siraj.
I got about exactly twenty seconds to talk to my lawyer before we entered the courtroom.
About five of us were led inside at once; I noticed I was the only one with a lawyer present.
The judge initiated the proceedings. Two policemen took the stands and swore upon Allah to speak the whole truth and nothing but the truth, then immediately proceeded to read out a whole bunch of lies.
Apparently, I was being charged with attacking the police during the May Day rally, and throwing rocks and bottles and other projectiles at them.
My lawyer – based on the 20 seconds of conversation I had with him – told the court that I had a good alibi. He also had my police record with him, and pointed out that it was spotless.
The court couldn’t care less – and remanded us all to an unprecedented fifteen days in police custody.
The entire farce lasted less than 7 minutes.
Apart from a dozen or so detainees who weren’t taken to court on time and were thus released, everyone was remanded that day for fifteen days. Everyone, that is, except for this one guy – our cell mate, the jail bird – who was given six months.
Apparently, when he heard that he had been given 15 days, he made a hilarious retort to the judge: “Thank you for the Reload!” – implying that the judge had been topped up like a prepaid phone. (It was funny because it was true!)
As we were waiting downstairs, I was feeling hot and very uncomfortable in the clothes I’d been wearing almost a whole day. I hadn’t yet spoken to my family. I had just been given 15 days in prison.
But I wasn’t going to allow them to win. As we were led towards the van, I smiled widely at the photographers present there.
I would have given a celebratory victory sign too, but I was handcuffed from behind. 🙁
The process of transferring us back from the court was an unqualified mess. The prison staff at Dhoonidhoo were completely stretched to breaking point, and had zero systems in place to manage that many detainees.
There were existing prisoners to deal with, and there were detainees returning from the court, and detainees who needed to complete medical formalities, and detainees demanding to be fed, and even more new detainees were arriving from Malé – and there simply was no mechanism to manage any of these.
It was both hilarious and pitiful to watch. We were seated outside the little medical station – and given food. We were marched in two different directions, and ultimately taken to our cells.
Back in the cell, the atmosphere wasn’t quite as upbeat. Nobody had counted on this – and many were downright upset – worried about their families, their jobs, and quite unprepared for this reality.
We drew a calendar on the wall with a pencil someone found – and marked it till the 17th May – our next remand hearing.
15 days was a lot, we agreed. But we would get through it.
After repeated insistence, later that night – a duty officer appeared and called out my name. I was finally getting the phone call!
I was taken back to the ‘investigation rooms’ where they had set up a table, with audio recording equipment and video cameras. There was a monitor and a phone on the desk. The guy dialed the number and asked me to pick up the receiver near me, while he listened in on the other end. He (genuinely-) helpfully suggested that I request for shower gel and other supplies.
I am not sure how much of the Adduan dialect he picked up, but here’s basically how the conversation went
“So I’ve been remanded for 15 days..”
“It didn’t matter that I had a lawyer, they weren’t listening”
“Please inform office”
“We already did”
“Is mom back from India?”
“Yes, she arrived this morning – and is very upset”
“Can you send me some stuff. A change of clothes. Boxers. Shower gel.. and can I also please have some books?”
I had barely enough time to say those, when the guy prompted me to hang up – and started a countdown with his fingers.
I remember I didn’t get to say everything I had wanted. But for future reference: if someone in your family gets kidnapped by Maldives Police Service, the below items are what they would primarily need:
- Shirts – 2 nos
- Trousers – 1 pair (Won’t be wearing them much – except on court dates and lawyer visits!)
- Boxer shorts – 3 nos (Real shorts are forbidden in Dhoonidhoo… because reasons)
- Small towel – 2 nos (indispensable when you have to wipe sweat off your brow every five minutes)
- Large shower gel and shampoo in clear containers (Need to shower multiple times a day)
- Toothpaste in clear tube (That Close-Up gel stuff really works)
Note: do NOT send too much stuff, because there aren’t any shelves or cupboards to keep them in.
After the phone call to my family, I felt much better. But there was a long night ahead. And I noticed that I was struggling to sleep.
I often suffer from a lack of sleep even in the best of times – and here I was in an almost unbearably hot, crowded, poorly ventilated cell with total strangers. I was going to miss a flight to Colombo I had scheduled for the 4th. I was going to miss an important lunch with a dignitary I had scheduled for the 8th. I hadn’t been able to inform any of them about the change in plans.
Weary and cliched as it sounds, at that moment, I remembered Invictus – a poem that I have often previously turned to when I needed some courage.
I started softly reciting it to myself:
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul…
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed…
But try as I may, I couldn’t recollect the words that came next. I just couldn’t remember the third stanza. My mind had gone blank from exhaustion.
It wasn’t all bad though.
I had previously dealt with periods of insomnia by downloading an app on my phone, to play back the ambient sound of sea waves and rain to help me relax.
Locked up in there, I didn’t have a phone, or music or Internet – or any reading material. I was lonely and exhausted. I was tired and weary. But that night, lying in that sweltering prison cell, I realized I could hear the sound of actual waves.
The waves were crashing on the shore just about 30 feet from the rear wall of my cell. I closed my eyes, and listened intently..
At the time, I had no idea what the coming days would bring – nor any remote inkling of just how deep an impact the experience would ultimately have on me.
That night, I just closed my eyes, let the weariness take over. With the sound of gentle waves caressing my ears, I fell asleep.