Police officials today confirmed the use of less-lethal weapons including pepper spray, tear gas and, in one confirmed case, rubber bullets during violent clashes with civilians in Male’.
However, the country’s security forces insisted they had employed a policy of “minimum force” against anti-government protesters.
Despite international calls for calm, and pledges to conduct peaceful anti-government protests, images of violence were the one constant across all Maldivian media as President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan was finally able to give his state of the nation address.
The president still required several attempts, having to shout over loud heckling and protests by several Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) supporters to get the job done.
Chaotic scenes – more often that not of a violent nature – took place both inside and out of the country’s parliament as bitter political divide stemming from allegations that Waheed replaced Mohamed Nasheed as the country’s president in a coup d’etat, appeared to escalate.
A spokesperson for the Maldives’ Police Service told Minivan News that amidst the day’s violence, there was one confirmed case of rubber bullets being used during the afternoon in order to stop an individual accused of taking a police vehicle from near the now-demolished MDP protest camp.
The spokesperson added that the exact details of whether or not the suspect hit by the projectile was an anti-government protester had not been confirmed at the time of going to press.
When contacted by Minivan News, Maldivian National Defence Force (MNDF) spokesperson Colonel Abdul Raheem added that he was not aware of any incidents of military officers using rubber bullets against civilians during the day. However, he did stress that as a so-called less-lethal weapon, rubber or plastic bullets were options the military were authorised to use as a means to restore order.
With President Waheed facing calls from international bodies such as the European Union and the Commonwealth, as well as the opposition MDP to hold fresh elections over the controversial transfer of power that brought him into office, a mixture of violence and heckling erupted in parliament.
Several international observers were reported to have been looking on from the public galleries, according to a source present during the session.
Some media outlets reported that several MDP MPs were injured during minor scuffles that broke out in the Majlis chamber as protesters faced expulsion for continuing to block Waheed. MDP party members alleged that it was the MNDF that was responsible, a claim refuted by military officials.
An MDP member claimed that at one point around 20 MNDF soldiers entered parliament, attacking MDP members, including Baarashu Dhaaira MP Shifaz.
Shifaz was alleged to have been beaten unconscious before being removed from parliament by MNDF officers with a broken leg.
After several attempts by the President to complete his speech, a task frequently interrupted as Parliamentary Speaker Abdulla Shahid’s was forced to fulfil his constitutional duty to remove disruptive MPs from the Majlis, Waheed was able to continue only by shouting over his dissenters.
Waheed had been prevented from delivering his speech at the previously scheduled opening of parliament of March 1.
Once the Majlis session was concluded, Maldivian Democratic Party spokesperson Imthiyaz Fahmy said the party did not take pride in obstructing parliament, but had felt forced to do so due to its dissatisfaction with the nature of Waheed’s accession to the Presidency.
Fahmy claimed the party would now work both inside and outside of parliament to achieve early elections. Waheed later issued a statement claiming he would work with all political parties to ensure early elections if such a thing was “required”.
A spokesperson for the President was unable to clarify exactly what sort of requirement he was referring to when contacted by Minivan News.
“This is the time for all of us to work together in one spirit, the time to bring political differences to the discussion table in order to formulate solutions,” stated Waheed. “I fully assure you that I will not order anyone to act against the constitution or laws of this country”.
In the streets
Any hopes for more orderly demonstrations at protests outside of parliament were also dashed as violent chaos ensued in the streets.
Groups of anti-government protesters left the MDP camp by the Tsunami memorial just before 9.30am and were firmly entrenched at two of the police’s many barricades by 10am with all routes to the Majlis blocked.
While those to the east of the Majlis building demonstrated peacefully with a sit-down, the far larger group advancing on the blockade to the south appeared more confrontational in their approach.
The activities of this group eventually prompted the use of tear gas by police, which drove the group away from the police lines.
This tactic then brought the group into direct confrontation with soldiers who were protecting the studios of Villa Television (VTV).
In the meantime, fire fighters struggled to control a blaze at Neelan Fihaara on the other side of town situated next to a police garage. The cause of this fire is not yet known, though both the MDP and pro-government supporters blamed each other for deliberately starting the blaze.
As demonstrators on Sosun Magu were forced back, some vented their frustrations on the VTV building, using bricks from outside the adjacent hospital to attack the troops and the TV station. Extensive damage was reportedly caused to VTV and its property, with the station briefly being brought off air – an act claimed by the station’s owner to be tantamount to “terrorism”.
Local media bodies also criticised protesters for allegedly threatening journalists and media personnel covering the clashes.
MNDF reinforcements and, according to some witnesses, rubber bullets were used by police to successfully disperse the rioters on Sosun Magu.
Minivan News witnessed the use of some form of weapon, but could not confirm what sort of projectiles were fired from it. By this point, police had claimed one civilian and eight police officers were injured.
President Waheed used his Twitter account to lay the blame for the street battles solely at the foot of former President Nasheed – despite his non-appearance on the day.
“Anni must take responsibility for the chaos as he is directing the chaos in Male’,” he said.
The clashes along Sosun Magu between security forces and their aggressors continued into the afternoon until demonstrators began to make their way to the MDP protest camp near the Tsunami Memorial at about 3pm.
Less than an hour later, police told Minivan News that the violent confrontations with protesters appeared to have been brought under control.
However, tempers soon flared again as large numbers of police arrived to begin clearing the surf point area of the capital that has been home to the MDP protest camp since former President Nasheed’s controversial resignation in February.
A police spokesperson told Minivan News that a court order to dismantle the camp had been obtained by the security forces in response to the violence that engulfed the city during the morning. The MDP have disputed the existence if any such warrant.
“All of the unlawful acts that are taking place across the city have been planned in this place [the MDP camp],” the spokesperson claimed.
Attorney General Azima Shukoor later told local press that the Tsunami Memorial area itself belonged to the MNDF, at least according to certain laws which would suggest Male’ City Council’s decision to provide the MDP with the land until later this year was invalid.
“The old days are back”
However, MDP Spokesperson Imthiyaz Fahmy responded with claims that the move reflected a continued reversal of human rights under the new government.
“The old days are back. They are violating freedoms of expression and association,” he told Minivan News. “They are now committing atrocities in daylight to intimidate the public.”
Fahmy claimed he was not surprised that the security forces had been granted a court warrant to remove the camp, “The courts function as they want.”
As protesters gathered around the police blockade surrounding the perimeter of the camp area, tear gas and water cannons were used by security officials to pushprotesters back towards Dharubaaruge.
With the camp eventually dismantled, both the Haveeru and Sun Online news agencies reported the police’s discovery of beer cans and a large quantity of a substance believed to smell like home-brewed alcohol, both prohibited under Maldivian law – though this discovery has not been confirmed by Minivan News.
Despite crowds continuing to gather to jeer and shout at police past sunset, the day’s violence appeared to once again have died down by 8PM.
Correction: The original opening paragraph to this article implied MNDF officials had also confirmed the use of rubber bullets, which was not the case. Minivan News apologises for the grammatical error.