The Maldivian Democratic Party-led opposition coalition is gearing up for a mass demonstration in Malé on March 24 against the alleged sale of Faafu atoll to Saudi Arabia.
Shifa Mohamed, deputy leader of the Maldives United Opposition, told the press on Wednesday that the coalition has decided after consultations during the past two weeks “to do everything we can, domestically and internationally, against the sale of Faafu atoll or any part of it”.
The government has denied that Faafu atoll will be sold. Dismissing concerns over corruption, threats to sovereignty, and lack of transparency, President Abdulla Yameen said last week that details will be disclosed when the negotiations are complete. The US$10 billion project will be similar to “mixed development projects in the French Riviera” with high-end resorts, residential developments, and many airports, he said.
The MUO protest is likely to coincide with the official visit of Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz in mid-March.
After warning that “legal action” will be taken against any attempts to carry out “demeaning” activities during upcoming official visits, the police have raided the MDP’s meeting hall twice and cracked down on a protest on Faafu Biledhdhoo, snatching banners from protesters.
On Tuesday evening, the meeting hall in front of the artificial beach in Malé was raided again and police officers seized tins of paint and 21 rolls of fabric used to make banners.
The court warrant authorising the search cited “suspected activities that could be demeaning to the dignity, honour and respect of visiting dignitaries as well as the sovereignty of their nations”.
Earlier on Tuesday, MDP members from the island of Dhidhdhoo in Haa Alif atoll alleged that they were summoned to the police station and warned against putting up banners against the Saudi-funded mega project in Faafu atoll.
The MDP is planning to hold a rally on the northern island to launch its campaign for April’s local council election.
Ali Hashim, secretary-general of the MDP’s Dhidhdhoo branch, told the Maldives Independent that he was summoned along with the vice president and financial secretary of the branch.
“They said that if we put up any banners about Faafu during the rally they will take action against us. Police threatened to use force to disperse the rally,” he said.
The police spokeswoman initially denied that the MDP members were summoned, but later said there was a meeting to discuss security for the rally.
On Monday, three MDP members from the northern island of Bileyfahi in Shaviyani atoll was detained for more than three hours and questioned over a banner put up against the Faafu atoll deal.
According to Ibrahim Faisal, the vice president of the island’s MDP branch, the three men were questioned about the banner, which read “Don’t sell Faafu atoll.”
“[The police officers] came from Funadhoo, the capital. They questioned and then threatened the three members of MDP that they had summoned. They warned that if there are any more banners they would be taken,” he said.
The police officers also painted over graffiti against the Faafu deal on Bileyfahi.
The police spokeswoman confirmed that people on Bileyfahi were questioned about banners. When pressed for the legal justification, she claimed the banners were put up without the island council’s permission.
The MDP meanwhile put out a statement on Tuesday reminding the police that “every Maldivian has the right to oppose the sale of Faafu atoll.”
It added: “The role of the police service is to ensure political activity can be held peacefully within the laws and the efforts to restrict freedom of expression and threatening people for free expression is unlawful.”
The constitution guarantees freedom of expression and the right to protest without prior permission from the state.
Following Tuesday night’s raid on the meeting hall in Malé, MDP Secretary-General Anas Abdul Sattar told reporters that he was baffled by the police actions.
“The search warrant said that they were here to confiscate banners and all related items that could embarrass or belittle foreign dignitaries. But when they came here, the banners here said, ‘Don’t sell Faafu atoll,'” he said.
“We asked the police what was the sentence there that harmed or diminished the sanctity or honour of a foreign dignitary. Our banners expressed opinions about something people are concerned about. But they werent able to answer that question.”
Anas condemned the police for violating the constitutional rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly.
“The police said that we now believe that any banner, poster, writing or anything expressing opinions against the sale of Faafu atoll, they associate anything like that with the Saudi King,” he said.