This is the third instalment in the Dhoonidhoo Diaries series where I pen down my experiences in Dhoonidhoo prison where I was incarcerated following an unprecedented regime crackdown on the May Day rally. Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.
Nearly 200 democratic protesters were arrested on 1st May 2015 by the Maldives’ authoritarian regime. I was released after 21 days of detention without trial, but several political prisoners, including opposition leader Sheikh Imran of the Adhaalath Party continue to remain in prison without trial even today.
Similarly, President Nasheed remains under house arrest on bogus ‘terrorism’ charges, and several other opposition leaders are either in exile or have been forced to capitulate to the regime.
Day 3 – Heat. And Human Rights Commission
It was still dark when someone tapped on my feet.
“It’s prayer time”, he said. I opened my eyes and looked around, and sure enough there were at least two cell mates in their prayer postures.
I am not a super-observant Muslim in my daily life, and I do not recollect waking up to pray that morning. However, over the remainder of my time in prison, I found that regular prayers were incredibly stress relieving and helped me get through the day.
We were gathered near the thick metal bars, looking outside at a tiny enclosed yard surrounded by an 8 foot high corrugated tin fence. Above the fence, I could see only tree tops and the rafters of a large, abandoned building in the distance.
Sometime after breakfast, we learned that Human Rights Commission members were present on the island; they had come to assess the May Day detainee situation.
However, the members were denied access to our cell-block where over a hundred of us were cooped up in appalling conditions.
Instead, the police allowed them to call about four detainees outside and talk to them.
How could the Maldives Police Service place such arbitrary restrictions on an independent constitutional authority like the Human Rights Commission?
Welcome to Maldives.
Day 4 – Hunger Strike
At some point on the fourth day, the police removed the obstruction blocking the tiny rear window, allowing air to circulate for the first time.
This made a massive difference. It was still quite hot – I would still need to wipe the sweat off my brow every few minutes with a towel – and yet, it was not quite as intolerable as before.
I would learn later that detainees in another cell had carried out a hunger strike demanding the obstructions be removed, and the prison authorities had complied.
However, the police harassment continued.
The MDP legal team had arrived to meet us, and I was among the first to be taken outside to meet my lawyer. By then it was already a little after 5 PM. (And the visiting hours end at six!)
I learned from my lawyers that the team had arrived around noon, but were kept waiting for several hours even though the formalities usually took only a few minutes.
Police wouldn’t share with them the list of May Day detainees. Furthermore, the lawyers were also only allowed to meet one person at a time, making it impossible for them to meet all the detainees.
(It would also emerge later that the police were actually calling up some inmates’ families and telling them that the MDP legal team wasn’t interested in representing the detainees – and offered to help make alternate arrangements! Possibly one the most pathetic things I’ve ever heard)
On this day, according to the traditional dhivehi monsoon calendar, Burunu, the second nakaiy of Hulhangu came to an end, paving the way for Kethi, the third nakaiy.
Somehow, this bit of information popped into my head and I cheered up immensely as the promised dark clouds of Kethi darkened the skies that morning.
There was also lightning and heavy rain, which was a massive relief for the inmates in the sweltering holes.
Lunch was noodles and reef fish and curry. The fish, it appeared, had gone bad.
My sisters came to visit that day. They told me that my mom had been near the barricades outside the courthouse on the day I was taken there – and had gotten pepper sprayed. (Go mom!)
On the way back to my cell, I saw Sheikh Imran seated outside with his lawyer Husnu Suood. I wasn’t particularly pleased to see the man, considering his role in the coup that ushered in the authoritarian regime.
But nevertheless, he smiled at me. I nodded back.
I returned to my cell.
I climbed up the partition wall dividing the bathroom stalls, and looked out of the tiny window.
Through the rainy mist and stormy seas, I could see Malé.
One of our cell mates was a rather effeminate gentleman – who I shall call Ali Amir*. He was a young but frail, epileptic man with some clear developmental disabilities, which made him behave much like a child.
For some reason, he was upset that day, pulled a long face and refused to eat.
In a show of camaraderie, the cell mates started a lighthearted protest chanting demands that he shower and eat. The adjacent cells too joined in the chants, ultimately cheering him up.
He showered and ate.
Right to remain silent
In the afternoon, we were taken to the the “investigation room” to record our statements.
We were seated on rows of plastic chairs in the open yard outside the investigation room, and lawyer Nazim Sattar came and spoke to the detainees, and gave them instructions.
In a rather entertaining moment, a prison duty officer came and asked Nazim to shush, insisting that he could only speak to his own clients. Nazim clarified that everyone there was basically his client, as his team was representing all the detainees – working in shifts.
The guy then went on to order others to ‘sit properly’. It felt like being back in school.
I was called into the room, and asked for my statement. Upon my lawyer’s advice, I chose to remain silent. So did most other detainees.
Later that day there was a disruption in the water supply – and the water taps in our cells dried up.
Something was wrong with the island’s water plant.
After some time passed by without any water, we started complaining loudly. The duty officers – clearly under stress – told us that they didn’t know when the supply would be restored.
One harried looking officer later showed up with four 2-litre bottles of water and asked us to “please manage”.
Four bottles. Eight litres. For over twenty inmates to shower, carry out ablutions, and flush toilets.
But as political prisoners under arbitrary detention, we had to register our protest. We arranged to go on a hunger strike that night if water supply wasn’t back to normal.
Luckily for them, the water supply was restored just minutes before dinner arrived that night.
That night, my cell mates split into two teams and we had a song contest. One of the younger cellmates had a seemingly endless repertoire of dhivehi songs.
I couldn’t sing, nor did I know the words to a single song – but I joined in nevertheless.
It was a vital part of surviving prison and killing boredom.
Fellow detainee Basit, the pickup driver who was taken away the previous night for interrogation was brought back.
He had allegedly driven his pickup lorry past police barricades on May Day, and was brutally attacked by police. He had visible injuries all over his face, head and back – and couldn’t get up without assistance. He walked with a pronounced limp.
We learned from him that he and his wife – who was in the passenger seat – were both being charged with terrorism.
That afternoon, we rolled up all our stuff in the straw mats and cleared the floor. Then we mixed some detergent with water and washed the cell. (This would become one of our favourite past times in prison)
On that note: somebody in charge of supplies at the Maldives Police Service is clearly cutting some corners and pocketing the cash. The prisons are all supplied with a fake detergent powder – something called a SO KLLN (with two L’s)
I suspect the same guy also orders the fake Oreos that sometimes arrived with the morning tea.
Five detainees – most of whom were senior in age – were released on this day, bringing the total number of detainees in my cell down to fifteen.
‘Fifteen!’, I thought, ‘Finally! We’re no longer too overcrowded in here anymore!’
Just as we were settling down to have our first proper sleep in a cell that was not too overcrowded, the duty officers arrived and asked us all to step outside with our belongings.
They split us into groups of five and reassigned us to the three remaining cells.
Thus, I ended up in cell 6D (where Waddey and Hamid Shafeeu were)
It was a difficult moment, splitting with the group I had come to bond with. Also, it was quite stressful that first night in the new cell.
The men in my new cell were a lot louder, and the walls had a lot more graffiti. Small groups sat around, playing cards. One fat guy leaned back against a wall, and was loudly narrating ribald stories.
I found some space near the doorway, next to a volatile gentleman who never took off his socks. That very night, without any warning, he violently flung a plastic plate outside through the bars, smashing it to tiny bits against the corridor ceiling.
Then he grinned, and wordlessly retreated.
Also, he never took off his socks. Ever.
I went to sleep.
I was left shocked and numb after hearing the story of a gentleman from Kolamaafushi, who was released earlier that day.
He had come to Malé with his ailing father and brother. The father was hospitalized in intensive care with multiple organ failure, and the brothers were taking turns attending to him at the hospital.
He was arrested from near a mosque, and had pleaded with the police to let him go – and even showed them the hospital pass that he used for access to his father’s ward. But they didn’t pay him any heed.
Even though he wasn’t a protester, he too was remanded for 15 days along with the rest of us.
On the third day, prison guards arrived at his cell and asked him to get ready to visit Malé, giving no further details.
Upon reaching Malé, he was informed that his father had passed away. He was taken to the cemetery in handcuffs – and given stern instructions to ‘not talk to anyone’.
He was allowed to see his dead father for all of ten minutes.
The police then took him to Malé custodial centre, where he begged and pleaded for an hour to be allowed to take part in his father’s funeral prayers.
Instead, he was brought back to Dhoonidhoo, and thrown into his cell.
The inmates were shocked – just as I was – to hear the story. So in the cell, they held a special prayer for their cellmate’s deceased father.
It was a beautiful rainy day outside. I looked through the bars; above the the fence, I could see the swaying treetops against overcast skies.
I really wanted to be outside, in the rain.
Ali Amir didn’t get his epilepsy medicines after the cell reshuffle. I complained to the duty officer three times that day, but didn’t get an answer – or any kind of assurance.
That afternoon, we learned that our next door cell mate had developed a serious allergic reaction to the reef fish served for lunch, and was reportedly unable to get up. The duty officers were informed, but they didn’t take any action.
All the cells joined in loudly yelling for attention from the duty officers.
They didn’t arrive until late evening after Isha prayers, which was when they finally took the man away for medical attention.
That night, there was more song and dance in the cell. We played drums (on a plastic plate slipped inside a pillow cover) and had a good time.
There was time for more mockery from police, however. At bedtime, the duty officers refused to switch off the overhead LED lights, despite angry demands from all the cells.
We had to sleep under glaring lights that night.
I was really moody and frustrated on this day. A new clothesline was being erected by my cell mates, and everything was annoying and chaotic and noisy. I felt utterly drained and badly – badly – needed to get away and be outside on my own.
But that wasn’t an option, of course. We were never let outside, except for lawyers visits (and once a week for shaving and clipping nails)
So I slept instead.
Meanwhile, Ali Amir still hadn’t gotten his epilepsy medicines for the third consecutive day.
There was a bit of a confrontation later that afternoon when the caterer rudely rebuked the cell mates for praying during tea time.
We pointed out that, in fact, he was serving tea during prayer time.
There was further confrontation later when dinner arrived too early (it was shortly after maghrib – not even seven PM!)
We refused to eat.
I almost pitied them, however. Dhoonidhoo was severely understaffed; the six catering staff who served the whole island had to start serving meals quite early to finish before it was too late.
(This, of course, wouldn’t have been an issue had they not locked up a couple of hundred political prisoners on the island – but it wasn’t the fault of the Dhoonidhoo police staff, just the regime that they willingly serve)
That day I had a very disturbing conversation with a cellmate.
He told me that on the night that we were arrested, one policeman had threatened a protester saying, “There are 5000 of us, and we have made one of you disappear already”
A clear reference to abducted journalist Ahmed Rilwan? An admission of a police role in the enforced disappearance of my friend?
It could have been a hollow boast, but equally likely a sign of radicalization within the police.
Several cellmates were released that night. At this point, there were only nine of us left in the cell, which somehow made the wait even harder.
— Waddey (@waddey) May 11, 2015
It was about 3:30 in the morning when I woke up to the sound of loud, heaving grunts like a wild beast in pain.
Ali Amir was having a violent epileptic seizure; his eyes rolled up to the back of his head, his body was convulsing in rigid fits.
His face pressed down hard against the straw mat, and he was foaming at the mouth and making a sort of braying noise. I instructed my cell mates to leave him alone, and placed a pillow under his head so he wouldn’t hurt himself.
We called for help.
By the time about five duty officers arrived, led by the senior in charge, Amir had had another epileptic attack.
They walked into the cell, and ordered him to get up. The man hadn’t yet come to his senses, and was looking blank.
With some difficulty he got up wordlessly, with a dazed expression. When the police tried to lead him away, he gently resisted.
Almost at once, one of them pounced on him and locked his hands behind him in a hold. We all reacted angrily and started yelling – and that’s when they let him go.
They took him away, and locked the cell behind them. We were all tired and went back to sleep.
I woke up again a couple of hours later to the same groaning sound. It would have been about 5:00 am; Ali Amir had been quietly returned to the cell, and he was suffering yet another seizure.
Asked about the incident later, Ali Amir didn’t recollect any of it.
Later that afternoon, I met my lawyers. Talked to Nazim about the book I was reading (Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies)
He had heard from somewhere that I was able to get some books inside.
Other detainees were not allowed reading material; my folks had to pull some strings to get me my books (which I then read very, very slowly so that I wouldn’t finish them all too soon)
When you’re permanently locked up in a cage with strangers, books offer an invaluable escape.
I kept humming the Beatles’ Strawberry Fields Forever most of the day.
At this point, I had informally inquired and learned that some police officers had given false testimony against me – claiming that they had seen me throwing rocks. (This was apparently enough to convict me for up to six months)
I was informed that neither Hamid nor I would be released – and that the police themselves had no say in this matter. It wasn’t difficult to tell why; we were both vocal critics of the regime.
I met my lawyer again that afternoon. He informed me that a group of friends were convinced that I was being framed, and wanted to start a campaign demanding my release. They wanted my thoughts on it.
I told him to ask them to wait until after my next court hearing on the 17th.
I wasn’t sure if added attention would help or harm my case, given the regime’s dickish approach to things in general.
Just as I finished speaking to my lawyers, I was informed that my family had come visiting. For some reason, they decided to handcuff me from behind before they could escort me to the tiny hut outside where my family was waiting, barely a couple of hundred feet away.
I was meeting mom for the first time in several weeks (she had arrived in the Maldives the morning after I was arrested) Upon seeing me, she broke down crying. I told her to calm down, and that it wasn’t all that bad. I told her that the handcuffs were just them being silly.
It was nice talking to them, and it was quite heartening to learn about all the messages and concern that friends and strangers on the Internet were expressing. (Seriously, thank you guys!)
Day 14: The PIC comes calling
On the 14th day, we had visitors.
The Police Integrity Commission had come to inspect the cells.
There were three members – Faruhad, Rukhshana and an Adam Saeed Moosa. Unlike the HRCM, these members were allowed to visit our cell block – which now only held barely 35 inmates in all.
The first question they had was whether the Police had used any physical violence on us.
One of my cellmates, Naim, had indeed been physically assaulted during the arrest; beaten on the head and back with batons. Basit, the pickup driver, still walked with a limp. Another cellmate in my previous cell also reported being ruthlessly kicked and beaten inside a police vehicle all the way to the HQ.
Naim had barely begun telling them of the violent arrest when one of the members interrupted him. “No, have you been assaulted AFTER you were brought to Dhoonidhoo?”
We didn’t know what to say.
They phrased the rest of the questions in a similarly weird manner: “Were you all arrested after the police had issued instructions to leave the area?”
(Hey lady, I was arrested from an area that wasn’t restricted, nor did I ever receive any instructions to vacate the area – nor would such an order have been legal. But I couldn’t bother the PIC with such mundane details, could I?)
Furthermore, one of the members – I remember it being Adam Saeed Moosa – seemed to be in an exceptional hurry to leave. He kept fidgeting and looking at his watch, and told us that perhaps we should go and pray or something. He then walked out to the sunny yard and waited, and then seeing that the other two were still engaged in conversation with the cell mates, came back again.
“Dua is your hathiyaar (prayer is your weapon)”, he said, perhaps in a sort of admission that any justice we could hope for would be divine in nature, and talking to the PIC was an utterly pointless exercise.
Small surprise then, that these members were allowed to visit our cells, while the HRCM were not.
That night, they refused to switch off the overhead LED lamps again.
We were mostly in good spirits. We washed the cell again, and had a lot of fun playing an improvised game of bowling with plastic water bottles.
Irey, one of our cellmates who was especially homesick and missing his young kid, was released one afternoon. We were all incredibly happy for him.
We played cards most of the time. Hamid, Naim and I – and two other cellmates, whom we called Mudhimbe (he led us in prayers) and Maavaharey (He claimed to have found some ambergris – maavaharu – potentially worth hundreds of thousands before he got arrested)
My mind was full of jazz music.In particular, I kept humming Louis Armstrong’s version of La Vie En Rose.
On the 16th night, Mudhimbe was released. We were down to five people.
Day 17 – Final day
The day of the next remand hearing had arrived.
That morning, I finally received the books and a tall bottle of shower gel that I had requested the previous week.
At this point, I had convinced myself that I was going to get another fifteen days. And now, with the arrival of new books, I was all prepared to put up with it.
I thought about President Nasheed and his lifetime spent behind bars, and realized that I didn’t really mind another fifteen days.
We were once again ordered to step out, handcuffed from behind, and taken to the court. With us on the ferry this time were also some violent criminals – including murder suspects. The trip to Malé was a lot more relaxed this time – with none of the urgency of the initial remand hearing. We were taken in police vans to the Criminal Court, and about nine of us were ushered into the courtroom.
Two policemen dutifully took to the stand, and once again swore a dishonest oath to Allah to speak the truth.
They once again accused us of attacking the police with rocks and other projectiles. They also added that we were a dangerous threat to society, and that the Prosecutor General had recommended that we be kept in further detention.
Our lawyers all pointed out that none of our arrest chits had mentioned any such crime. The judge made some pretense of caring about it. The police made the ridiculous response that they didn’t in fact know our individual charges, but that the charges they read were the cumulative charges against all May Day detainees.
But the whole thing was just theatre – our fates were already decided long before the judge entered the room.
The judge remanded us to a further five days, but under house arrest. (So did most of the other detainees taken to court that day)
This came as a total surprise, as I hadn’t remotely considered the possibility of going home that day.
We were taken back to the police custodial center in Malé (Atholhuvehi) – minus the handcuffs.
At Atholhuvehi, I once again observed the total absence of any process or system in place to manage detainees. They told us to wait in an area adjacent to the reception, where they served us tea in tiny packets.
Then we were informed that our clothes and other belongings would be brought to Atholhuvehi from Dhoonidhoo.
“How”, I asked, “could you possibly identify our belongings from the cells?”
Apparently, they would bring all the stuff and dump it in the yard, and we’d need to pick out our things from the pile. The idea was so startlingly stupid, I could only shake my head.
I realized then that my notes – my painstaking notes that I had compiled over the previous two weeks – were left under my straw mat. The thought that some idiot duty officer might not find my notes – or worse, find them and throw them away – worried me a lot.
I spoke to Hamid, and he spoke to the in-charge at Atholhuvehi about my notes. Surprisingly, the guy agreed to call Dhoonidhoo and ask them to make sure they brought my notes back.
(He actually did place that call, and I sincerely appreciate that)
It was moot point though. After keeping us waiting for several hours, they told us that we were going to Dhoonidhoo after all. It took them that long to realize there was simply no way to execute their stupid, hare-brained idea.
So we were once again loaded onto vehicles, taken back to the jetty, and put on a ferry back to Dhoonidhoo.
On the way to Dhoonidhoo, I learned that my cell mate Naim was not transferred to house arrest.
Instead, he was given an additional seven days in prison.
This was incredibly sad – not the least because he was the most optimistic of us that morning that we would be released.
We were thankfully pardoned from the trouble of having to go through the arrivals/body search nuisance. Instead, they allowed us to go right across the yard, and straight to our cells.
I am not sure how to describe my thoughts as I entered the cell one last time. Seeing the green walls and grey floors. A sense of relief, but also a sense of sadness. The realization that my whole existence was confined to within those walls – stripped of freedom and dignity. The sheer magnitude of the indignity of being unable to step out of the cage, even to enjoy some fresh air, began to sink in. It was a revolting, nauseating feeling.
My thoughts were also with Naim. He was going to spend the night in the cell all alone.
I left him the pen and a book to read (Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Jerusalem).
The police had indeed entered the cell and taken away pillows and straw mats. But thankfully, they had spared my notes. I found them lying on the floor.
We were taken once again to the hut, where 17 nights earlier, I had handed over my personal belongings. This time, the prison duty officers were acting conspicuously friendly. I learned later that this was the norm. They acted super nice to people who were leaving prisons – to make sure potentially violent criminals left with a positive image of them, just in case they ever ran into each other on the streets again. No hard feelings, bruh!
Over the next hour or so, they slowly called us one by one, and opened the large envelopes that contained our wallets and belongings.
After confirming that nothing was missing, they put it back in the envelope and stapled it shut. They could have handed it over to us right away, but that would have made way too much sense. No. Instead, they took it back, and told us that they would have our stuff shipped to Atholhuvehi, where we could repeat this exercise all over again.
And so, we boarded the ferry yet again. And were taken back to Malé, where our ferry took us around the capital island and landed near Atholhuvehi.
Since we were placed under house arrest, the police would need to escort us home.
The process of arranging the transport and processing our belongings was so awfully incompetent, it felt like I was in the middle of a bad slapstick comedy.
Three different policemen standing in different parts of the room asked me my address – which they either wrote on paper or entered into a computer terminal.
(At one point, one of them realized he had a list of five names, but there were six detainees in the room. So he had us all march out of the room one by one as he called out our names, so he could identify the extra person… sigh.)
While standing outside, I met lawyer Nazim. He told me that my family was waiting outside Atholhuvehi wondering what was up. It was about nine in the night when we were finally loaded onto a vehicle and given our belongings. My phone battery was dead, and holding it after so long, it felt unusually large in my hands.
I was the first one to be dropped home.
My family had finished moving to a new place while I was in prison. And my first entry to my house was with a police escort.
The officer accompanied me till the stairs, and gave me stern instructions against stepping outside my house or violating the terms of my house arrest. He said that they would come pick me up again in five days for my next remand hearing.
Worst. Vacation. Ever. After 17 days as a political prisoner in Dhoonidhoo, I’m now transferred to house arrest. — Yameen Rasheed (@yaamyn) May 17, 2015
I showered and walked around restlessly back and forth, like I was used to doing in the cell.
I was still in captivity, I understood. But I had my family and a proper bed – and it wasn’t hot anymore.