With a new presidential commission investigating the abduction of Ahmed Rilwan Abdulla and the murder of Yameen Rasheed, Committee to Protect Journalist’s Asia program research associate Aliya Iftikhar travels to Malé in late February to speak with the bloggers’ families about their pursuit of justice, and with authorities about the progress and challenges in the cases.
In her pink hijab and floral dress, Fathimath Shehenaz was easy to spot in the small crowd of protesters gathered outside the Malé parliament building, carrying signs emblazoned with #FindMoyameeha and #WeAreYaamyn.
Shehenaz has been a mainstay at these protests, as she seeks answers to the abduction of her brother, Ahmed Rilwan, five years ago.
On the afternoon at the protest, parliament had refused –for the fourth time–to vote on a bill to give investigative powers to a newly formed presidential commission on enforced disappearances and murders.
The commission has brought hope that justice will be served in several cases in the Maldives, including those of Rilwan and Yameen Rasheed, a blogger murdered in April 2017. However, without parliamentary approval of the investigative powers, the commission will be unable to work independently of the police and judiciary.
As a presidential candidate, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih met both families last year, and promised to open investigations.
At her home in the capital, Rilwan’s mother, Aminath Easa, said she was optimistic about the new commission and could see that it was trying, unlike under the past administration, whose officials never came to meet her and did not conduct a thorough investigation.
“I just want to know what happened, if he’s dead or alive,” Easa said, with tears in her eyes.
The commission was announced on Solih’s first day in office in November. His was a surprise win. His party–the Maldivian Democratic Party–first came to power in 2008 in the country’s first democratically held elections, but a coup in 2012 ousted the elected president. The following year, Abdulla Yameen Abdulla Gayoom came to office, bringing in a period of authoritative rule during which journalists were attacked and defamation cases threatened to send them to jail and their outlets into bankruptcy.
During this period, religiously motivated attacks targeted writers who were popular on social media, including blogger and former editor of Haveeru, Ismail Khilath Rasheed (known as Hilath), who survived an attempt on his life in June 2012; Afrasheem Ali, a former member of parliament, killed in October 2012, Rilwan and Yameen Rasheed.
The attacks were connected, Husnu Al Suood, former attorney general and president of the commission, said. What did the four share in common? All spoke about social issues, human rights, and religion. And all were popular, with large followings, typically online. The attacks were masterminded by one group and were motivated by religious, militant elements, with gang involvement, Suood said, without naming the group.
The government was aware of the group as early as 2011, but failed to go after them for political reasons, Suood said, adding that the people were targeted over their writing. Aside from Saudi Arabia, the Maldives is one of the only other countries that bills itself as “100 percent Islamic.” Religion is an extremely sensitive topic, and politicians have historically kowtowed to sheikhs and religious leaders to help their political image.
“There was an identified group and the state knew that … and had they stopped or investigated and prosecuted the people behind Rilwan’s case then Yameen Rasheed’s would not have occurred,” he said. “Even in Hilath’s case, no action was taken at that time.” Suood added, “Had they stopped that in 2012, even Afrasheem’s case I doubt could have happened.”
Extremists have been more influential and growing in number, Rilwan’s brother, Moosa, said. Politicians use religion as a tool to achieve their agendas and get power, but they’re also afraid of them, he said.
Rilwan was a reporter for Minivan News (now the Maldives Independent), but he was better known for his blog where he was known as “Moyameehaa” or “madman” and wrote about social issues, human rights, and religion. Moosa remembers him as fun-loving, friendly, and kind. Two weeks before his abduction, he published a story about Maldivians leaving to fight for the extremist group Islamic State in Syria.
In Rilwan’s case, Suood said, the commission has established a motive, something that had previously evaded authorities. He declined to elaborate, saying the information would be released in a report when the commission completes its investigation.
One of the most active voices in pursuing justice for Rilwan was Rasheed, whose website, The Daily Panic, providing satirical social and political commentary. He was stabbed to death more than 36 times in the stairwell of his apartment building. Seven suspects were arrested and a trial started 18 months ago. Initially held in secret, the trial has been opened up, but the number of people allowed to attend is limited and no hearing has been held in nearly four months, Rasheed’s sister, Aisha, said.
In Rasheed’s case, authorities were also accused of negligence, though the civil court threw out a case filed by the family in 2017.
Suood told CPJ that he was confident that the commission will bring the cases to prosecution. He said he believes the investigation already has enough new evidence in Rilwan’s case to appeal the acquittal last year. But, he said, the more time that goes by, the harder it will be for the courts to prosecute the Rasheed case. He added that the lapse in time allows perpetrators and their supporters to try to influence witnesses and judges.