Elwira Szczecian doesn’t remember a single summer in the last ten years that hasn’t included a trip to the Maldives. Her visits often last for up to 40 days and involve a usual mix of diving, sunbathing and photography.
This year, the Polish photographer and her businessman husband returned to their home in Rome after spending only a week in the tropics. There won’t be another trip for the next ten years – that’s the duration for which the Maldives immigration department has handed the couple a travel ban last week.
“It happened very quickly,” she says on July 31, a day after she landed in Italy. “I was in the capital city of Malé. We were standing next to the crowd [of anti-government protestors] and taking photos. That’s when the police came and arrested us.”
The news of her arrest spread quickly on Twitter, helped by the presence of local media and bystanders who filmed the police escorting her away from the venue. The police later accused Elwira, who has occasionally worked as a photojournalist, of “practising journalism” after entering the Maldives on a tourist visa.
But for a country that has over a million visitors from across the world every year, it’s not unusual for journalists to use the ‘visa on arrival’ facility for tourists to expedite their reportage. Although Elwira denies the charge vehemently, for observers, her detention was yet another sign of the government’s ongoing efforts to silence its dissenters.
Before her visit this year, Elwira was aware that the country’s political climate was far from amicable. In the past year, three media outlets – news websites CNM and Addu Live, and Haveeru, the oldest newspaper in the country – were forced to shut down after a series of reportage unfavourable of the government. The past week saw at least two opposition-aligned politicians being summoned for tweeting criticism of the establishment. In what is seen as yet another move to muzzle its detractors, the ruling party-led parliament is now considering a bill to criminalise defamation. The bill includes provisions to impose fines of up to $1,30,000 on media outlets.
Since the last week of July, the opposition, led by the exiled former President Mohamed Nasheed, has been holding anti-government protest rallies every night. On the evening of July 28, it was one such protest that the couple stumbled on as they travelled to the capital city.
“Within ten minutes of us reaching the spot, a group of 15 to 20 policemen surrounded us,” says Elwira. The couple was instructed to accompany them to the police headquarters. No explanations were offered for their arrest at the time.
At the police station, the two were questioned for their links to the opposition parties and the ongoing protests. Despite repeated requests, they weren’t allowed to contact a lawyer or the Polish and Italian embassies. It was only when Safa Shareef, an attorney who had seen the events unfold on television, showed up at the police station and volunteered to represent them, that the police complied. After several rounds of interrogation, the two were taken to a detention centre where they were photographed, strip-searched and had their belongings taken away. They were then lodged in separate cells with other inmates, built as a cage inside a large room.
“There were rats scurrying all over,” says Elwira. “I saw two ladies inside, sleeping on the floor. They didn’t speak English. We just looked at each other to give support. It was the longest night of my life.”
The next day, the police presented the couple to the criminal court and argued to extend the period of arrest. “We argued that the couple were visiting on a holiday and were staying at a resort. If the couple had indeed broken the business visa regulation, the law only allows for a fine,” says Safa. “But the police said that they suspected the two of being a threat to the national sovereignty.” The court wasn’t convinced and ruled to release them.
But the ordeal wouldn’t end just yet. On returning to the police headquarters to collect their belongings, they were told that the immigration department has instructed them to leave the country. Distressed, the couple got in touch with their respective embassies. Both of them, says Elwira, told them to leave the country since the political situation was unpredictable.
There was only one thing left to do: “We agreed that the [Italian] counsel would go to the airport and book a ticket for us in any direction as soon as possible.”
In a tourism-heavy economy of the Maldives, domestic turmoil has been traditionally kept at an arm’s length from its guests. Former prosecutor general Hussain Shameem recalls similar instances of visiting journalists being detained and harassed for covering pro-democracy protests about a decade ago. “This is a case of history repeating itself,” he says.
In November 2015, four journalists from German public broadcaster ARD were deported citing ‘improper permits’. The crew was shooting a documentary that included stories on the political situation and religious extremism. Such moves, says Shameem, are aimed at sending a message to foreign journalists critical of its politics.
But Ibrahim Hussain Shihab, international spokesperson for the president’s office, describes it only as a case of violation of visa rules. “Those who are here on business, with the proper visa, have no cause for concern,” he says.
A police spokesperson said that the arrest was made on the basis of “information we had received”. He did not comment on the nature of the information or the allegations of overstepping a court order.
Elwira is yet to come to terms with being banned from her summer getaway. “In all these years, we never saw a situation so restrictive that you cannot take a photo on the street,” she says. And even if she were there as a journalist, she quips, “Are you not a doctor anymore when you go on a holiday?”