One year on, 13 May Day protesters in custody await verdicts

One year on, 13 May Day protesters in custody await verdicts
April 28 17:06 2016

Twelve men and one woman on trial over the assault of a police officer during a mass anti-government protest on May Day remain in custody nearly a year later, awaiting a verdict from the criminal court five months after hearings concluded.

Scores of protesters and two police officers were injured during violent clashes on May 1. The police at the time released video footage showing protesters kicking and hitting a fallen Specialist Operations officer over the head with his helmet and baton.

Of the 15 suspects arrested, four were charged with assault using a dangerous weapon, an offence that carries a seven year jail term, and the rest were charged with aiding and abetting the crime, which carries a jail sentence of between three to five years.

Mohamed Iqbal, 50 years, was found guilty of assault last month and sentenced to seven years in prison whilst the criminal court acquitted one defendant, Usman Hussain, citing lack of evidence.

The 13 defendants awaiting judgment include 20-year-old Mohamed Laban, the goalkeeper of football club Eagles, who was arrested three days after the mass rally when he arrived for practice at the Maafanu sports grounds in Malé.

Laban is accused of tackling Sergeant Abdul Rahman Hussain, an SO officer, to the ground on Chandhanee Magu.

The policeman was flown to Sri Lanka for medical treatment after the assault. But lawyers representing the 12 defendants say the policeman only sustained minor bruising.

Ibrahim Ibadh, Ibrahim Rasheed and Ahmed Unais were charged with assault, with Ibad being accused of taking Hussain’s baton and hitting him, while Rasheed and Unais are accused of beating the officer with a cone and a helmet, respectively.

The other 12 defendants charged with aiding and abetting the assault of the policeman are Nasira Ali, Ahmed Ibrahim, Moosa Sharumeel, Faruhath Ali, Abdulla Rasheed Mohamed, Ali Rasheed, Umar Gahir, Mohamed Shinan and Laushan Ahmed Zahir.

Nasira and Gahir are accused of throwing empty plastic bottles at the police officer, while Farhath was accused of attempting to take the officer’s helmet from him. The rest are accused of kicking the officer with their hands and feet.

The trials began on July 8 last year, and the court heard closing arguments at a final hearing on November 30.

Trials were also stalled after the presiding judge, Abdulla Mohamed, was demoted to the family court in February. The cases were then reassigned to different judges.

During the trials, the former chief judge of the criminal court had criticised the Prosecutor General’s decision to raise charges under a 2010 law banning the possession of dangerous weapons and sharp objects.

He observed that video footage shows protesters beating the fallen policeman with their hands and feet.

Amendments brought to the law by the ruling party-dominated parliament in late 2014 had meanwhile granted judges discretion to hold defendants in custody until the conclusion of a trial.

Laban’s brother Laman Shareef told The Maldives Independent that the family has written numerous letters to state institutions and the courts over delays in reaching a verdict in Laban’s case.

“We wrote a letter to the court earlier this month as well. Their replies earlier said that a decision has not been reached on the case. They haven’t responded to this month’s letter yet,” he said.

Laban’s mother said the family tried meeting with the judge and writing to the president as well.

“The president’s office said the letters should be written to the court, and when we filled out the form to meet a judge they asked us to write a letter,” she said.

Laman also expressed concern over his brother’s future after facing trial at the age of 19. “We are very saddened that he remains in jail for so long, especially at such a young age, someone who has a bright future ahead of him,” he said.

Club Eagles terminated Laban’s contract a week after his arrest.

After being shuffled between the Dhoonidhoo police detention centre and the low-security ‘Asseyri’ jail on the island of Himmafushi, Laban is now being held at the Malé jail.

A source familiar with Laban’s case told The Maldives Independent that three prosecution witnesses who claimed they saw Laban tripping the policeman gave contradictory testimony.

“While one witness said [Laban] was wearing a shirt, the other said he was wearing a T-shirt. One said he was wearing jeans and the other said he was wearing shorts,” said the informed source who spoke on the condition of anonymity. He added that the culprit was not clearly identifiable from the video footage submitted as evidence.

The defence meanwhile presented two witnesses who testified to playing video games at home with Laban at the time of the assault.

Nearly 200 protesters, including leaders of three allied opposition parties, were arrested on May Day. The 20,000-strong rally was the largest anti-government demonstration in Maldivian history.

Eyewitnesses who saw the policeman being assaulted had told The Maldives Independent at the time that other protesters, including former MP Ahmed Easa, had shoved off violent protesters, helped the officer to his feet, and took him back behind police lines.

The police were meanwhile accused of beating protesters during and after their arrest. Lawyers and the main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party alleged that the police tortured and threatened to kill suspects arrested in connection with assaulting the SO officer.

After complaints were lodged, the Human Rights Commission of Maldives launched investigations into three cases of apparent brutality and custodial abuse.

An official from the human rights watchdog told The Maldives Independent yesterday that the commission had replied to the complainants, but declined to say whether it recommended charges against police officers.

A single police officer has yet to be convicted of brutality.

In September, the criminal court acquitted a police officer charged with assaulting a protester during a crackdown on a protest march in February 2012, despite video evidence of the incident.

In February, Adhaalath Party leader Sheikh Imran Abdulla was controversially found guilty of terrorism over a speech he gave at the May Day rally and sentenced to 12 years in prison.

Imran was accused of inciting violence with inflammatory allegations against President Abdulla Yameen and then-Tourism Ahmed Adeeb. The prosecution argued that the president of the religious conservative party must bear responsibility for the violent clashes.