The police raided the main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party’s haruge (meeting hall) in Malé on Thursday afternoon, confiscating banners made for a planned protest against the alleged sale of Faafu atoll to the Saudi royal family.
The meeting hall was previously raided twice amidst a crackdown against any attempts to carry out “demeaning” activities during upcoming official visits. Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud is due to arrive in the Maldives on Saturday.
Unlike the previous times, the police did not allow MDP leadership figures to observe the one-hour raid.
A banner set up outside the meeting hall for the public to write their views opposing the alleged sale of the south-central atoll was also removed and police officers took away national flags, rolls of fabric and other items.
The criminal court’s search and seizure warrants authorising the previous raids cited “suspected activities that could be demeaning to the dignity, honour and respect of visiting dignitaries as well as the sovereignty of their nations”.
On Thursday afternoon, the police also briefly detained former actor Mohamed Shavin on suspicion of making banners for the opposition protest at his t-shirt printing studio.
According to the MDP, the police also confiscated items from Shavin’s studio.
The MDP has since put out a statement condemning the third raid, the “illegal theft of campaign material and property”, and the “intimidation and harassment” of political parties and individuals opposed to the “secret deal” for Faafu atoll.
The party also called the silence of independent oversight bodies “shameful” and accused the government of infringing on constitutional rights and freedoms “in the name of protecting foreign dignitaries when the Saudi king visits the Maldives”.
— 𝐈𝐦𝐭𝐡𝐢𝐲𝐚𝐳 𝐅𝐚𝐡𝐦𝐲 (@Imthiyazfahmy) March 16, 2017
More arrests ahead of KingSalman's visit, &Police raid MDP's meeting hall for 3rd time.Area cordoned off,party Secretariat not given access. pic.twitter.com/fI8WUMG2u3
— Eva Abdulla 🎈❓ (@evattey) March 16, 2017
And again! Police raiding MDP Activities Center. Third time this month. Stop this bullying! It won't work. pic.twitter.com/inh2cMTdNf
— Abdulla Shahid 🎈 (@abdulla_shahid) March 16, 2017
— Mariya Didi 🎈 (@MariyaDidi) March 16, 2017
— ⚫️⚪️TEDRY🎈❓ (@tedry) March 16, 2017
— ⚫️⚪️TEDRY🎈❓ (@tedry) March 16, 2017
The party had previously described the “knee-jerk reaction to stifle any form of opposing views on the Faafu project” as the “worst crackdown on civil and political rights Maldives has seen in recent months.”
Last week, the police confiscated the phones of two popular social media activists who were outspoken in the online #SaveFaafu campaign.
Earlier this month, the police cracked down on a protest on Faafu Biledhdhoo, snatching banners from opposition supporters and briefly detaining several protesters.
Senior MDP members on the northern islands of Bileyfahi and Dhidhdhoo also alleged that they were threatened by the police against putting up banners or speaking about the Faafu atoll deal.
The Saudi embassy meanwhile asserted last week that the kingdom has no intention of investing in a mega project or buying land in the Maldives, prompting the MDP to call on the Saudi government to “disavow any and all involvement in the Faafu project and clarify whether members of the Saudi Royal Family or Saudi businessmen are involved.”
The forthcoming investment “from the Saudi government or leading figures in Saudi” was first announced by President Abdulla Yameen in late January, reviving rumours that began circulating after the constitution was amended in July 2015 to authorise foreign ownership of Maldivian land.
On March 1, Yameen said the Saudi-funded US$10 billion project will be similar to “mixed development projects in the French Riviera” with “residential high-class development, many tourist resorts, many airports”.
Details will be revealed when the negotiations are over, he said, dismissing concerns over corruption, scarcity of land, threats to sovereignty, and lack of public consultation and transparency.
Following the Saudi embassy statement, Fisheries Minister Dr Mohamed Shainee – co-chair of the cabinet’s economic council – told local media that there were no plans to sign agreements about the Faafu atoll project during the Saudi king’s official visit.
But negotiations are ongoing with investors from Saudi Arabia, rather than the Saudi government, he said.
“The MDP is deeply concerned that President Yameen’s proposed ‘mega-investment’ in Faafu atoll could be a front for corruption, embezzlement and international money laundering and calls on the Saudi officials to refrain from engaging with a government that is openly involved in money laundering and corruption,” the MDP said in a statement last week.
“The project has, from the outset, been shrouded in secrecy and the government has been persistently vague and evasive on details.”
The party went on to call on the Saudi embassy to “side with the Maldivian people and allay public fears regarding the deal.”
It added: “The Maldivian people view the sale of Faafu atoll as a threat to our very way of life and sovereignty. We would urge the Embassy of Saudi Arabia ensure that all and any representatives of the Saudi Kingdom or the King distance themselves from any deals surrounded by allegations of mass corruption and conducted against the wishes of the Maldivian people.”