The Maldivian Prison Riots of 2003

The riot I will analyse in this essay are the riots that took place in the Maldives in September of 2003 after the deaths of Evan Naseem and several other inmates at Maafushi Jail. I will focus mostly on the death of Evan Naseem and the riots at Maafushi jail rather than the subsequent linked riots in Male’, the capital. I will first start with some context to the situation in the Maldives, after which I will present a timeline of events which I will attempt to analyse, explain and discuss using sociological theory using a critical realist approach. I have chosen these riots because I believe they represent a turning point in Maldivian history that has not yet been properly examined. My main sociological reference will be the journal article “The State and Collective Disorders: The Los Angeles Riot/ Protest of April, 1992” by Bert Useem (1997).

The Maldives is an archipelago consisting of over a thousand islands which lie south of India and Srilanka. The Maldives has a long and cultured history, and was an independent sultanate for most of its official history until becoming a British protectorate from 1887 until 1965. The first attempt at a Republic, led by President Mohamed Amin Didi on January 1st 1953, would only last until August 21st of the same year. In 1968 the Sultan was once again deposed after a referendum and Ibrahim Nasir became the first president of the newly independent republic. He would be replaced by Maumoon Abdul Gayoom in 1978, who would rule as president until 2008. A report by the Asian Human Rights Commision referred to his tenure as “An Omnipotent Presidency” where the office of the Presidency governs every aspect of Maldivian political life. The president was vested with interventional powers, in regards to the affairs of parliament, that the report stated as being “in contrary to all modern norms of constitutionalism and separation of power” (Asian Human Rights Commission  2006).

It was during Maumoon’s 30 year rule that Evan Naseem was incarcerated at Maafushi Jail on a drug conviction at age 16 in July 2001. He would die 2 years later on the night of September 19th 2003. The events of that fateful night would cascade and change the course of Maldivian history forever.

Useem (1997 p358) states that theorists of resource mobilisation / collective action (RM/CA) apply an approach to the study of social conflict that:

1. Recognises the state as an independent entity that can affect the broad course of social change

2. Embraces the idea that government officials may act upon their own interests and policy preferences, rather than serve as a transmission belt or referee for societal preferences

3. (yet) maintains that factional conflicts and administrative disorganisation may prevent government elites from achieving their interests.

Furthermore he states that in a riot of serious magnitude, authorities make choices in a complex and uncertain environment. He states that Supervisory personnel (“command”) must handle unpredictable problems as they arise, but their own mistakes may only add to the confusion (Useem 1997 p358).

There are two broad types of strategies that can be employed by state officials facing the threat of a riot or rebellion (Useem. 1997 p360). These include diplomatic strategies, which are efforts to convince potential participants that a disturbance would be costly to them personally, counterproductive for reform, and unnecessary because their grievances will be addressed in the future. The other main type of strategies are force strategies, which are efforts to physically inhibit mobilisation; this can include massive shows of force, with the implied or explicit threat that it will be used against rioters/protestors, that likely instigators or participants will be arrested or put in detention, and that crowds will be dispersed as they form (Useem  1997 p360). I believe that the Maumoon regime used a combination of both of these strategies before, during and after the Evan Naseem riots in order to quell rebellion and maintain their control over the Maldives.

Due to the authoritarian nature of Maumoon’s regime, very little official academic literature exists on these events. The regime chose to suppress and veil rather than investigate transparently. Even though an investigative committee was formed by Maumoon’s government (Daily News 2003), the contents of the report have been said to incomplete after a review and another investigation was ordered under President Mohamed Nasheed in 2011 (Minivan News 2011). However that report was never completed and Mohamed Nasheed was forced to step down in a coup that occurred on February 7th 2012 (Al Jazeera English 2012) (Paul Roberts 2012). The members of the original inquiry panel themselves faced difficulty in gaining information; for instance their attempt at obtaining CCTV footage of the night of Evan’s death proved fruitless as the data was allegedly already overwritten (President’s Office 2003). Furthermore the inquiry completely leaves out the events of the next day when four inmates were shot dead and several were injured. In addition the inquiry does not acknowledge the role played by the culture of torture and violence present in the Maldivian correctional system (Minivan News 2010). For these reasons my reconstruction and analysis of the events will additionally rely on eye witness testimonies of people present at Maafushi on the night of the 19th and people present in the capital Male’ on the 20th.

At the time of Evan Naseems death in 2003, there was no separation of Military and Police and responsibilities of both insititutions were covered by the umbrella of the NSS or National Security Service (President’s Office 2003). Maafushi Prison was mainly under the care of the Department of Corrections with the Maafushi Jail Security Unit from the NSS assigned to maintain security and vested with the “general responsibility” to guard the perimeter of the jail (President’s Office 2003 p.5.2.1). Despite this, MJSU were also charged with the responsibility of looking after Block C or Investigation Jail-1 – the unit in which Evan Naseem was being held.

In an interview given to, an independent website dedicated to sharing the stories of torture victims within the Maldivian prison system, Ali Shinaah describes his first-hand account of the night of Evan’s death (Ali Shinaah n.d). Shinaah was imprisoned for a drug offence and he describes the situation at the time as being incredibly brutal. He said that there would be regular beatings, where inmates who were suspected of offences such as smuggling tobacco or phones into the prison, would be rounded up and beaten at a place that was called the ‘range’. He says that sometimes this would involve being cuffed in standing position to a palm tree or an iron ring for weeks. He says that he was in the same block as Evan when it was raided sometime before the 19th. He says that the MJSU personnel threw their clothes into the toilet and as a result the aggravated inmates began to throw stones. He says that the situation escalated and that he and several other inmates, including Evan and an imnate called ‘Ammakalhey’ (who was killed on the 20th), were transferred out of the block and put into separate cells in an area was called the ‘galhi falhi’ (literally stupid-side) by the inmates which was next to the ‘Gudhan’ side (warehouse). When correlated  with the findings of the official inquiry, this area appears to be Block C (President’s Office 2003). He says that since a phone was discovered on Evan during the raid, he was taken to Dhoonidhoo (another prison island) for investigation (Ali Shinaah n.d). He said that upon his return he was placed in the ‘Gudhan’ side instead of the ‘Galhi falhi’. He says that on the night of the 19th there was a loud racket coming from the ‘Gudhan’ side and that a force of officers went into investigate. He says that one of the inmates from the ‘Gudhan’ side were saying that Evan had been seriously beaten and had been taken out to the ‘range’. According to the official inquiry this was when the order came to remove several inmates from that unit and after Evan protested that he did not deserve to go the range (President’s Office 2003). The inquiry confirms that Evan was correct in his grievances as he had not been involved in the doings that the other inmates were being taken out for. According to the inquiry, Evan, refusing to leave, hit Private Ishaq Ahmed, one of the members of the MJSU (President’s Office 2003 p4.3-f) with a piece of wood, which led Captain Adam Mohamed to command “all the assembled members of the Security Unit to go to the cell” and remove Evan in order to transfer him to the range. The inquiry concludes that this was an “irresponsible order issued without regard to either the risk of maltreatment Evan faced from the members of the unit or the extent of their anger towards him” (President’s Office 2003).

According to Shinaah (Ali Shinaah n.d) this caused the inmates on the “Galhi falhi’ to also create a commotion and himself and another inmate called Maujoo were cuffed together and taken out to the range; which at the centre he says there is a workshop, behind which is a row of toilets. He says that at the range he was beaten further and that while this was going on he could hear Evan screaming for mercy from the direction of the toilets. According to the Presidential Inquiry Evan was handcuffed with his arms behind his head and in a standing position to the steel bars on the eastern wall of the workshop; where he was beaten by at least 12 MJSU personnel who in addition to using bare hands, used wooden planks, riot batons, and the boots that they were wearing (President’s Office 2003 p43.21). Shinaah says that the people who were beating Evan came around from behind them while he was being forced to do knuckle push-ups and told him to say that he was “size zero”; which he says they meant as meaning slave. When he responded with “size one hundred” instead, he was slammed on his head with a baton after which they began to beat his back. When they could not stop his shouting he says they put sticks in his mouth which he spat out, after which two men dropped a large piece of wood onto his back. He says that his ordeal came to a stop after a Sargent nicknamed ‘Daulat’ (literally ‘regime’) came over and ordered them to stop the brutality. He says that he and the other inmates were ordered to face in the opposite direction of the workshop and that they were told that they would be punished for looking behind them (Ali Shinaah n.d). Shinaah said that at the time he was already on the ground and that he couldn’t resist looking behind him. He says that his turn of the head was met with a swift baton blow which missed his head and clipped his ear. This gave him enough time to witness officers dragging something wrapped in a canvas towards the direction of the workshop (Ali Shinaah n.d).  I believe these details are important as the riots would occur the following day in the prison and ultimately in the capital would not have happened if there was no knowledge of Evan’s fate. They also help illustrate how the culture of violence appears to be an expected and not at all unusual part of the correctional system.

The next morning, as news of the previous night’s events spread among the prison, inmates demanded a meeting with a correctional officer about the circumstances of Evan Naseem’s death (Maldives Culture 2003). There were no response to these demands and after refusing to eat lunch, Islamic funeral prayers were conducted by the inmates for Evan around midday. The inmates apparently prayed in loud voices so that the guards would know exactly the type of prayer they were performing and who they were praying for (Maldives Culture 2003). After the prayer was over the inmates left the praying area and pushed over a small shed made of corrugated iron near the duty officer’s tent. As the news kept spreading the number of prisoners grew the rioting spread towards the NSS buildings that the officers were retreating to (Maldives Culture 2003). They were met with a force equipped with riot gear. At this point an unnamed “old” NSS officer who was standing next to Fusfaru (the Officer Commanding or OC of the prison) raised his hands, asked everyone to calm down and called on everyone to try and solve the situation through dialogue(Maldives Culture 2003). Although some of the mob calmed themselves, the rest did not, which caused the officers present to panic (Maldives Culture 2003). One of the officers (allegedly called “Appa”) shot a single bullet into the air after which the officers opened fire on the group, killing Abdullah ‘Clinton’ Ameen, Ahmed Shiyam and Ali Alsman and injuring 17 others as they tried to flee (Maldives Culture 2003). The bodies of the dead inmates, including Evan’s, were transferred to Indhira Ghandhi Memorial Hospital (IGMH) on the capital island of Male’ that same day (Uncuffed: Torture Victims of Maldives. n.d).

I believe the brutality present in the Maldivian correctional system is indicative of a broader culture of violence and marginalisation perpetuated by the Maumoon regime. Most of the inmates killed and injured that day were undergoing sentences for drug offences and are from impoverished backgrounds. As the Maldives only has welfare for aged citizens, I believe this would encourage them more or less to seek opportunities in the criminal economic sphere; which includes activities which cannot be undertaken legally in the economic sectors, either on or off the books. In addition there are reports that it is very difficult to obtain employment if one already has a criminal record.  The frequent beatings and terrible conditions indicate that the prison system is more focused on dehumanising punishment rather than any form of rehabilitation.  I believe this has led to a significant amount of offenders becoming criminalised and marginalised as a result. For instance term “partey” – derived from “partu” which is derived from “partner”, originally used as a term of friendship amongst prisoners – is a common slang term in Dhivehi that often used to stereotype and alienate people with criminal and often disadvantaged backgrounds or relations by upper classes in a somewhat similar way the word “bogan” is used in Australia.

However, I believe that the riots that occurred on Male’ were not a result of their criminal activities, but rather the release of tension that had been building up in the Maldives due to the activities of the Maumoon regime (Asian Human Rights Commission  2006). I believe that Maumoon and his associates can be classed as a criminal family; especially in the light of how his younger brother is the current President of the Maldives after the coup of 2012 and the controversial elections of 2013 (openDemocracy 2013) (The Independent  2013). Maumoon would fall into the category of “omission-implicit” for the crimes committed by his state (Kauzlarich, Mullins and Matthews 2003); due to the human rights abuses committed by his regime and the human suffering which may have been avoided. Even though stories of brutality in the prison system were common, it was not until the 20th of September 2003 that those stories crystalized in the eyes of the public as a tangible reality. Furthermore strict control over state broadcasters and independent media meant that transparent information about the regimes activities would always be difficult to obtain by the general public (Asian Human Rights Commission  2006).

When Evan’s body was handed over to his family for burial, his mother, Mariyam Manike’, pulled the shroud off her son’s bruised and battered body and asked the gathered crowd to bear witness to the very visible and apparent signs of abuse (Uncuffed: Torture Victims of Maldives. n.d).

Abdul Raheem, who is the father of Abdulla ‘Clinton’ Ameen, describes the events of the 20th in another interview to UncuffedMV. He says that he kept getting reports that his son was dead but he kept refusing to believe the shocking news until he finally got a call from his sister in law, a nurse who works at the hospital. He says that upon arrival, it was only after much insistence that the body, which was still connected to an IV drip even though he was obviously deceased, was handed over to the family. He says that both the entry and exit wounds the bullet had made were clearly visible on his sons head. I believe this is an indication that the Maumoon regime were trying to conceal information regarding the inmates from the public.

As the stories of the fate of Evan and the other inmates spread throughout Male’, people began to take to the streets to demand justice; eventually damaging / burning government buildings and vehicles. Information on the timeline of events during the actual riot is murky and there is almost no local or international news that has a coherent or objective report of what happened on the 20th. The riots in Male’ led to Maumoon declaring a state of emergency after deploying the NSS onto the streets of Male’ and enforcing a curfew from 2200 to 0430hrs for almost an entire month.  It would be a tactic he would continue to employ in the riots that would occur in the following years (Asian Human Rights Commission  2006).

While the prison system established by Maumoon would be an example of a Coercive Institution; the majority of the tactics employed by the regime for control, at the superficial  level atleast, are diplomatic. I believe this allows the visible elements of the regime to save face in the eyes of the public while blame for deviant behaviour by the regime can be passed onto people of lower rank that can then be said to be acting independently.  In his address to the nation, which was broadcast in response to the riots over Television Maldives (TVM) and Dhivehi Raajjeyge’ Adu (or Voice of Maldives) – the state broadcasters and only broadcasters), at 8PM on the 20th, Maumoon initially claimed that the prisoners involved in the Maafushi riot were attempting to access the armoury and said that the bullets fired only into the air as a deterrence against the very “violent” and “dangerous” mob;  implying that the precision shots to the heads of inmates were accidental and done only as a last resort (Haveeru Online 2003). Furthermore the content and delivery of his speech gives the impression that the death of Evan Naseem was a completely separate and unrelated event. This is in contrast to reports from inmates that they were not even aware of the existence of the armoury and that there was no conspiracy to take over the prison beyond protesting Evans death (Maldives Culture 2003). In the conclusion to his speech he said that people should “behave well” and head back to their homes, saying that the protests in Male’ were only the result of criminal elements taking advantage of the situation to cause chaos,  and that an official inquiry into the events of Maafushi will be launched – to be spearheaded by a panel of “independent” and “upstanding” citizens; promising that those responsible would be persecuted to the full extent of the law and “shariah” (Haveeru Online 2003). 

His speech demonstrated the use of several neutralisation techniques. His transfer of blame of the treatment of inmates towards the individuals present at the time, rather than acknowledging the culture of torture and maltreatment, is an example of a denial of responsibility (Sykes & Matza 1957 p667). Denial of injury and denial of victim (Sykes & Matza 1957 p668) were used to an extent with the claim that the prisoners were all dangerous and attempting to gain control of the armoury the implication that the subsequent use of force was necessary. The targeted arrests of pro-human rights and democracy activists (Asian Human Rights Commission2006) that had been occurring under his regime both before and after the Evan Naseem riots is an example of the condemnation of the condemners (Sykes & Matza 1957 p668). These tactics rely on the denial strategies of splintering the event, blameshifting and a combination of individualising, normalising and isolating the event from the past/future.

The eventual outcome of the riots and growing public dissatisfaction was the acceleration of democratic reforms in the Maldives and would foreshadow the “Black Friday” riots of August 2004. These riots, which began as demonstrations calling for the release of four arrested activist/reformists (BBC News 2004), were the result of the resistance that had been slowly building up against Maumoon’s regime since 1978; the exact dynamics of which would be quite interesting for future resource mobilisation / collective action based analysis. The 2004 riots would be the largest in the country’s history and would result in the arrest of 90 people and the Maumoon regime taking drastic measures such as temporarily cutting off the internet for the whole country (Reporters Without Borders 2004). The growing pressure against the regime, both internally and from a less naïve international community, would cause Maumoon to put in effect the reform process that would eventually lead to the Maldives electing Mohamed Nasheed as president after having its first multi-party democratic elections in October of 2008. Nahseed’s presidency would not last long, with Maumoon loyalists using demonstrations and riots themselves to manipulate the events leading up to the coup of 2011 (The Independent2013).

I believe this case study demonstrates the complexity of the construction of crime; especially when those crimes are being committed by the institutions that were created to prevent them (Becker & Bruce 2007).



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All photographs
© Hani Amir