A 56-year-old man appeared in court on Thursday after charges were raised over street harassment for the first time in the Maldives.
Abdul Ghani Ismail was arrested in June after a young woman posted a video on social media and accused him of following her on a motorbike while making sexual remarks about her body.
The defendant was brought to court in handcuffs by two police officers. He was charged with disorderly conduct for using abusive and obscene language, making obscene gestures, persistently following a person and soliciting sexual contact in a public place.
Presenting the charges, prosecutor Fathmath Shifaza told the court: “On the night of 8th June 2019, Ghani followed a young girl walking west on Majeedhee Magu on his motorbike while touching his crotch and making obscene remarks.”
He solicited sexual contact when the woman stopped and asked what he wanted, the public prosecutor added.
The charges stem from section 615(a) of the 2014 penal code. Each offence specified in the section is a class three misdemeanour and carries a jail sentence of one month and six days. But the prosecution only sought two counts to avoid double jeopardy, Shifaza explained.
The defendant would face a maximum jail term of 54 days if he confesses.
But Ghani vehemently denied the charges when he was allowed to respond.
“I never talked in a bad way towards anyone, I have explained to police investigation why I went on that road that night,” he said. “I will swear by Allah that I didn’t do it.”
The judge replied that such an oath would not suffice to conclude the case.
Ghani also pleaded with the judge to release him to house arrest in order to hire a defence lawyer, claiming he needed to contact friends for help as he lacked the financial means. He was only allowed to call his wife from the remand jail, he said.
But the judge said there was no legal basis to release a defendant to allow him to hire a lawyer. A public defendant was only appointed by the state for cases classified as serious crimes, he noted.
But he ordered the detention centre to arrange daily phone calls and to provide contact numbers of Ghani’s friends from his confiscated mobile phone.
Ghani said he would try to hire a lawyer with the help of friends and asked the judge to expedite the trial.
The judge concluded proceedings after granting the defendant a 10-day period to appoint legal counsel.
The incident in June had prompted calls for the police take a tougher stance on sexual harassment.
Police Commissioner Mohamed Hameed tweeted about the arrest in response to the uproar as spokeswoman Izmia Zahir called on those who might have witnessed the alleged harassment to contact the police.
A 2015 survey found that 96 percent of Maldivian women had been victims of inappropriate behaviour in public, with 60 percent saying they were abused before the age of 14 and 40 percent before the age of 10.
According to the survey, 89 percent of victims of abuse did not report the incident to the police.