Police deployed stun guns, tear gas, and pepper spray against large numbers of people demonstrated in the Maldives capital of Male on Friday to demand the release of ousted president Mohamed Nasheed and other political prisoners.
The demonstration was timed to coincide with International Workers' Day and reportedly numbered over 20,000 people, in the biggest such gathering since Nasheed was overthrown in a military coup in 2012. Located in the Indian Ocean, the nation has a population of approximately 400,000.
"People have come on boatloads from across the 1200 island archipelago. ‘We have travelled on different ships, but we are now all on the same boat’, observed one such protester on social media," wrote Azra Naseem in an op-ed about the day of protests.
"The regime's unprecedented efforts to intimidate (the opposition) have failed," 27-year-old protester Yameen Rasheed told Reuters. "People have poured out in record numbers to demand President Nasheed's release."
Nasheed, who attracted international acclaim as a human rights and climate defender, was handed a 13-year prison sentence in March following a trial that was internationally denounced as unlawful and politicized.
Since then, residents say that the human rights situation has deteriorated as the government of the new President Abdulla Yameen has grown increasingly authoritarian.
Amnesty International warned in April that "authorities are muzzling peaceful protesters, silencing critical media and civil society, while abusing the judicial system to imprison opposition politicians."
Reports suggest that Friday's protest is no exception.
The Turkish state-run Anadolu Agency reports, "Chief Superintendent of Police Abdulla Nawaz told reporters they would show 'zero tolerance' in dealing with further protests after declaring the demonstration not peaceful."
The opposition Maldivian Democratic Party released a statement on Friday indicating that police carried through on this threat:
[A]fter three hours without incident, at around 6 pm, as protesters paused for a special prayer, then headed for a mass prayer at the mosque whe the ‘Special Operations’ police — renowned for their previous brutality — moved in, indiscriminately beating protesters with batons, firing tear gas at the crowd, and spraying pepper spray into people’s faces. Some protesters were sprayed with pepper spray multiple times. By 8 pm local time, over 40 people have been arrested.
Live reports on the protest and crackdown are being maintained here.