Elwira Szczecian doesn’t remember a single summer in the last 10 years that hasn’t included a trip to the Maldives. Her visits often last up to 40 days and involve the usual mix of diving, sunbathing and photography.
This year, the Polish photographer and her husband, Francesco, a businessman, returned to their home in Italy after spending just three days in the tropics last fortnight. The couple won’t be able to visit the Indian Ocean archipelago for the next decade – that’s the duration of the travel ban recently handed to them by the Maldives immigration department.
“It happened very quickly,” said Szczecian on July 31, the day after she returned to Italy. “I was in the capital city of Malé. We were standing next to the crowd [of anti-government protestors] and taking photos [on July 28]. That’s when the police came and arrested us.”
The news of the arrest spread quickly on Twitter, helped by the presence of local media and bystanders who filmed the police escorting the couple away from the venue. The police later accused Szczecian, who has occasionally worked as a photojournalist, of “practising journalism” after entering the Maldives on a tourist visa.
The Maldives has over a million visitors from across the world every year and offers a “visa on arrival” facility. It is not unusual for journalists to use this facility to expedite their reportage.
And though Szczecian vehemently denies that she visited the country in her capacity as a journalist, for observers, her detention was yet another sign of the Abdulla Yameen government’s ongoing efforts to silence dissenters.
Freedom of expression endangered
Before her visit this year, Szczecian was aware that the country’s political climate was far from calm.
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 they published reports critical of the Yameen government.
Their closure has come under scrutiny, and the government has been accused of misusing the judiciary and intimidating publishers.
In what is seen as yet another move to muzzle its critics, on August 1, Parliament accepted a bill that criminalises defamation. The bill, which has been sent to a committee for review, prescribes a fine of up to $1,30,000 on media outlets that violate its provisions, and is likely to be approved this week.
Since the last week of July, the Opposition, led by the exiled President Mohamed Nasheed, has been holding protest rallies every night. These rallies are held under the banner of Maldives United Opposition, a group consisting of several political parties seeking to oust the current Yameen government. On the evening of July 28, Szczecian and her husband had stumbled upon one such protest as they travelled to the capital city.
Asked to leave country
“Within 10 minutes of us reaching the spot, a group of 15 to 20 policemen surrounded us,” said Szczecian. 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.
“There were rats scurrying all over,” said Szczecian. “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,” said Shareef. “If the couple had indeed broken the business visa regulation, the law only allows for a fine. But the police said that they suspected the two of being a threat to national sovereignty.”
The court wasn’t convinced and ruled to release them.
But the ordeal hadn’t ended just yet.
On returning to the police headquarters to collect their belongings, the couple was told that the immigration department had instructed them to leave the country immediately.
Distressed at being targeted yet again, the couple got in touch with their respective embassies. Both embassies advised them to leave the country since the political situation was unpredictable, said Szczecian.
“We agreed that the [Italian] counsel would go to the airport and book a ticket for us in any direction as soon as possible,” she said.
History repeats itself
In the tourism-heavy economy of the Maldives, tourists have traditionally been insulated from domestic turmoil.
Former deputy prosecutor general Hussain Shameem recalled 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 said.
In November 2015, four journalists from German public broadcaster ARD were similarly deported citing “improper permits”. The crew was shooting a documentary that included stories on the political situation and religious extremism. Such moves, said 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, described these incidents as only cases of violation of visa rules. “Those who are here on business, with the proper visa, have no cause for concern,” he said.
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.
Szczecian 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 said.
And even if she were there as a journalist, she quipped, “Are you not a doctor anymore when you go on a holiday?”
The article first appeared on Maldives Independent.