Police use pepper spray to disperse opposition prayer gathering

Police use pepper spray to disperse opposition prayer gathering
July 09 11:07 2016

Riot police forcibly dispersed the opposition’s weekly prayer gathering Friday afternoon, using pepper spray to push the crowd back and briefly detaining two men.

“Sending the police there on the orders of President Abdulla Yameen’s government and continuing to obstruct the prayer with force by confronting worshippers is absolutely unconstitutional,” the main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party said in a statement last night.

MDP MP Imthiyaz Fahmy was among several pepper sprayed at close range.

The police meanwhile put out a statement last night reiterating that “political activities will not be allowed inside or near mosques” and denying that any arrests were made.

The gathering was dispersed “peacefully and without a disturbance,” the police insisted.

Opposition supporters have been gathering outside Malé’s main mosque every week after Friday prayers since the arrest of former President Mohamed Nasheed in February 2015, praying for the freedom of jailed politicians and for an end to “tyranny and injustice.”

Riot police began dispersing the gathering in mid-April.

A month later, an opposition supporter was arrested outside the Islamic centre on a charge of disobeying orders and detained for five days.

However, the police had allowed the prayer to go ahead in the following weeks.

In November, the Islamic ministry claimed the weekly prayer contained “ill-wishes towards particular people” and incited “strife, hatred and anger” among Maldivians.

The prayer violated the Religious Unity Act, the ministry insisted, warning that action would be taken against “repeat offenders.”

Soon thereafter, Ahmed Hassan, an MDP council member who had been leading the prayer, was arrested and detained for ten days.

Meanwhile on Wednesday morning, riot police also thwarted a prayer gathering planned by the Maldives United Opposition outside the Islamic centre after the communal Eid al-Fitr prayer.

After the prayer, dozens of opposition supporters gathered outside the mosque, but riot police moved to disperse the crowd before the prayer could begin and quickly pushed them back.

“At first, the police just said they didn’t have a problem with us performing the prayer, but only with the media being there,” MUO Spokesman Ahmed Mahloof told reporters near the mosque.

“I told them the press will surely be there to cover President Yameen’s Eid handshake ceremony [at the mosque] later. If that event is not political and our prayer is, then that’s a joke, is it not?”

Shortly after the MUO’s announcement of the planned gathering on the eve of Eid, the police warned that political activity will not be tolerated near mosques.

At a press conference last Tuesday, Mahloof had also urged opposition supporters to attend the handshaking ceremony and to urge Yameen to resign.

However, the ceremony took place without incident amid a police and military presence.

Mahloof meanwhile told reporters after the Eid prayer that Yameen’s supporters had performed a prayer of thanks at the Islamic centre following his election victory in November 2013.

“So what’s actually happening is that they are scared of  the prayer. It is not praying for ill upon someone. We’re asking God to save us from tyrants, to send us a good ruler. So unless Yameen believes the prayer is about him there is no reason he should be afraid of a prayer.”

Additional reporting by Hassan Moosa.