The police took Maldives Independent journalists Hassan Mohamed and Hassan Moosa into “protective custody” on the island of Nilandhoo, Faafu Atoll, on Wednesday night after ruling party supporters threatened them with assault.
Mohamed, 27, and Moosa, 22, were on the island ahead of a state visit to the Maldives by the King of Saudi Arabia, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, who is expected to sign a US$10 billion deal to develop the atoll.
They were held overnight and released at 10am on Thursday morning. The police refused to let the pair contact their families or editors, and turned down a request by the Maldives Independent to speak to them on Wednesday night.
“We are extremely disappointed with the police conduct in handling the complaint lodged by our journalists. The police claimed they were held in protective custody but they were treated like suspects,” said Ahmed Naish, acting editor of the Maldives Independent.
“We thank the police for keeping our journalists safe. However, in cases of protective custody, it is essential for the police to maintain communication with family and employers. The Maldives Independent was unable to contact them for nine hours.
“We also urge the police not to take such threats lightly. An investigation must be launched immediately to guarantee freedom of the press.”
The journalists arrived on the capital island of Faafu on Wednesday morning.
At 10:30pm, Mohamed said he was accosted on the street by Abdul Wahid Abdul Azeez, the brother-in-law of MP Abdulla Khaleel of the Progressive Party of the Maldives. Wahid accused him of being an opposition “puppet” and threatened to assault him and destroy his camera.
A group of ten people including Wahid later gathered outside the gate of the residence where the journalists were staying and one man entered the premises and knocked on the door to their rented apartment.
When a member of the atoll council reported the incident, the police arrived on the scene at 11:30pm and escorted Mohamed and Moosa to the police station. Once there, they were told they were under protective custody and their phones were confiscated.
The police questioned them over whether they planned to cover a protest against the Faafu atoll deal on Friday. Mohamed and Moosa were also asked if any foreigners had accompanied them to the island.
When the Maldives Independent contacted the police for information on their whereabouts, the police officer in charge of the station said they were not under formal arrest, but was being held for questioning.
A police officer looked through their notes and photos before they were released.