Category: Religion

Mafia state behind the tourist paradise

by Mushfiq Mohamed

Two years ago, in November 2019, the Deaths and Disappearances Commission (DDCom) published its report on Dr Afrasheem Ali’s killing on 2 October 2012. It was the first time the widescale operations of violent groups associated with religious beliefs was acknowledged and detailed by an official source in the Maldives. When the war in Syria escalated in 2012 and Maldivian foreign fighters flocked to the conflict zones in the Middle East, the Maldives was in a state of disarray, a military-backed coup against the first democratically elected government had created a power vacuum and heightened disorder. The news of young Maldivian jihadis and their families fleeing the country saturated the media. 

It was a time when transnational Salafi-Jihadist groups were not only dividing into factions based on ideological differences but also multiplying for the same reason. The stories of Maldivians leaving to fight in Syria and Iraq seemed linear, unlike the mutually constitutive disaster of today, where the jihadi outflow is now rippling back, or on their way back to home – with or without the Maldives government’s knowledge. 

The State of Maldives is an organism with its unique memory and trajectory, consisting of multiple cells programmed to spit and swallow the non-conforming, the dissidents, the undesirables. If the new mutations contradict pre-existing hereditary (dis)information, they must be stamped out. And what better way to enforce these unwritten rules than through society’s disaffected? – reintegrating through repentance by eradicating free thought

The state is protecting several individuals named in the investigative reports, leaving them free to conduct alleged terrorist activities, to issue violent threats – often openly on social media –and to build their capacity to follow through on the threats.

The DDCom lines of enquiry 

The DDCom’s investigation followed four main lines of enquiry. Whether Afrasheem’s murder was politically motivated and perpetrated by officeholders in the previous government. Whether his murder was a result of internal party politics and competition. Whether the assassination was carried out to unduly influence the 2013 presidential elections. Whether Afrasheem was extrajudicially killed because of differing religious views.  

Three individuals were investigated. However, the prosecution only submitted charges against two, and only one was convicted in January 2013. The prosecution did not appeal the acquittal. The investigation was incomplete, as DDCom stated in its report, the police investigation had not identified those who planned the murder and more importantly their motives. 

The DDCom found itself in an impossible situation with many of the suspects who had fled the country to Syria and Sudan with the help of the acquiescent former government. What’s more, witnesses began refusing to give statements, fearing for their security and safety, without an existing witness protection regime. 

Extremist jihadi groups have been operating in the country for a while. The bombing in the Sultan Park was their doing. Al-Qaeda cells operating in the Maldives are divided into small cells each with a name like A, B,C,D. Members of Cell A has no knowledge of who is in Cell B. Each cell has an Ameer. Each Ameer does the recruiting for their own cell.

Anonymous Witness No:1, testimony to DDCom

The secret witness told investigators that he had been recruited by Al-Qaeda in 2011. “In 2014, when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the ISIS Caliphate during Ramadan (on 29 June that year), the local Al-Qaeda leadership broke into factions.” According to the DDCom report financing, evangelism, and other activities are controlled by three different wings of the groups. They believed that the Muslim Ummah must wholeheartedly accept al-Baghdadi as the Caliph, and it was their religious duty to do so. 

Speaking about the financers, the witness said, “for instance, they believe all lawyers are disbelievers, their blood and property are ‘halal’ (or fair game).” The financers’ Salafi beliefs, he said, is deliberately hidden. “Their speech would be casual. They would not greet saying ‘Assalam Alaikum’ when they speak over the phone. They would not sport a beard. Even if they did, it would appear casual.”

Religious conflict, the other pandemic 

The picture is much more complex and one that is constantly moving. As the secret ‘former radical’ witness revealed, the terrorist cells are backed by a network of business (the financers) and shielded by political actors (the beneficiaries). Criminal gangs and their infiltration of politics have been researched and documented. And in a country whose nationalism is religious, sectarian violence is a useful technique to silence those who make the powerful uncomfortable. It is political parties that have created a market in the underworld landscape, giving these violent groups a sense of purpose and income for doing their bidding – whether it is intimidation and killing of political opponents, or providing security when a rival gang is used by a rival party to intimidate a member of one’s party. 

The perception of who is a criminal and who is not is unilaterally decided by the cash flow into party politics. Those accused of criminal activity have learned from politicians and religious leaders that involvement in local politics is the only way to ensure immunity from prosecution or imprisonment.

The DDCom report goes into detail about the financers and those leading operations of the terrorist cells in the country. Unapologetically naming names and uncovering covers. In a country with so little social mobility, blood-lusting vigilantism is a business that makes bigger bucks per hit. Through the secret witness’s testimony, the DDCom was able to dissect the dynamics of the splinter. “Now that this group has split into factions, the ISIS faction is led by [name redacted]. The other Al Qaeda faction, which gave its allegiance to Jabhat al Nusra, operates in Syria and Iraq. That faction is led by [name redacted]. The next in line in that faction is [name redacted], and [name redacted] under him. He maintains that the “Jabha” faction is “led by [name redacted], who lives in Feydhoo in Seenu Atoll. He is native to Feydhoo in Addu Atoll—he owns the fabric shop on the island.” The witness added: “Before the group [Jabhatal Nusra] split, a businessman [name redacted] joined it and became its primary financer.” 

Non-violent Salafis inform the Salafi-Jihadis, meanwhile opposition politicos and their social media fodder normalise religious violence through the mantra of ‘they deserved it for offending religious sensitivities.’ The opposition, who do not appear or identify as Salafi, exploit these fissures adding another layer of legitimacy to the threats first expressed by fundamentalists and violent extremists. This works like clockwork; social media then fuels and expedites the chances of stochastic attacks or expulsion fearing persecution. 

The A-Z of ‘the Horsemen of the Apocalypse’

A villain in a play can be effortlessly made into a hero in six simple acts. First, show the villain in their most grotesque form; juxtapose it with the villain’s perspective, humanise them. Add layers of redeeming qualities to the character as the story goes on. Now introduce villains way worse than the original villain. The first villain, less villainous than his new colleagues, then goes through a series of events that demonstrate s/he has turned over a new leaf and is now making the choices only a hero would. And voila, the villain is a hero. 

Based on the Maldives experience, the entire process gets so much easier if you provide the masses with some novel entertainment. See, for example, the Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

In March this year, Maldives Twitter was both enamoured and disgruntled when a red-bearded horse whisperer, W, who obtained permissions to import horses and start an equine business in the southern city of Addu. Horse riding is not what brings tourists to the island nation where 99% of the territory is sea. Some social media users praised W, liked and retweeted his posts knowing full-well he was one of those named in DDCom’s 2019 report. The announcement of his new equine business was announced almost a year after W had been named as a leading financer of Salafi-Jihadist activities in the country. Who could forget V and his bros, who abducted Maldivians suspected of being religious or sexual minorities in June, a few months before Rilwan’s abduction in August 2014? He, too, chose the enterprising path, opening a gym and rebranding as a spearfishing fitness-warrior. 

Another individual, X, who was charged but acquitted for the forced disappearance of Ahmed Rilwan, the journalist and blogger who was abducted in 2014, contested in MDP’s upcoming internal elections but was disqualified after pressure from Rilwan’s family. “Innocent until proven guilty”, the party said in defence, after using the family’s tragedies to win the 2018 election. The former Prosecutor General did not appeal the acquittal. X was also seen playing bodyguard during President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih’s campaign. Another MDP activist with gang connections, named in the DDCom report, Y, who was one of the two individuals prosecuted for Afrasheem’s murder but acquitted, has also wiggled his way into local politics as an MDP activist. He is currently one of the activists campaigning for those running for MDP’s national congress.  

The other, Z, a PPM council member from 2013 until March 2019, openly threatened slain writer Yameen Rasheed on Twitter on 24 December 2011 in Dhivehi: “The blood of disbelievers like you is halal for all Muslim Maldivians.” He did not stop there. Z came back a month later with more threatening tweets. “Those who need to be exterminated from this country”, he tweeted after tagging seven individuals, including Yameen and Ismail Hilath Rasheed, an LGBTQI+ blogger whose throat was slit in a near-fatal attack in June 2012, five months after the tweets with death threats. Z is a well-known lackey of former president Abdulla Yameen. He was summoned to the DDCom in December 2019. Z also contested—but later dropped out—in PPM’s race for the parliament in 2019.

The 2019 DDCom report annexed text message exchanges between the slain MP and cleric, Afrasheem and the former Islamic Minster, Mohamed Shaheem Ali Saeed, that contradict his statement given to DDCom investigators in December 2018. Shaheem claimed to the DDCom that Afrasheem’s TV Maldives appearance on 1 October 2012—a few hours before his killing—was a last-minute request from Afrasheem. Although, as DDCom’s 2019 report states, text messages from 12 September to 1 October 2012 show that Shaheem organised and offered the TV slot to the late MP. Further to that, the DDCom report states that these events hauntingly demonstrate that Afrasheem was intensely distraught and given an ultimatum to publicly repent within a specific period, or violent gangs would not hesitate to resort to vigilante violence.

To the bitter end

These examples show the collision and convergence of the political, the financial, and the criminal. In the Maldives, forgiveness and a clean slate is given to the most unforgivable. Will they leave many a wreath for the murdered Maldivian writers, or will those who threatened them while they were alive be celebrated? 

Few came to Afrasheem, Rilwan and Yameen’s defence. How can a person claim to have the authority to take matters into their own hands and kill or threaten with full impunity? Why did no one ask him what authority any individual has in policing another’s faith? More importantly, why are those who incite and act out violence and hatred left without prosecution?

It appears that many still believe in the “their blood is halal” rhetoric, or don’t care to counter it. That individuals, fashioning themselves as religious warriors doing god’s work on earth, can threaten people with death and play with their lives as they wish if a religious line is crossed. To make sense of the increasing political violence in local politics, the links between criminal gangs, the police, politicians and clerics need to be investigated further. If action is not taken based on nuanced evidence of terrorist financiers and their enablers, the details and witnesses disappear, relegating justice solely into mythical dimensions. 


To be, or to conform, that is the question

by Azra Naseem

On International Human Rights Day 2011, a group of young Maldivians met in Lonuziyaaraiy Kolhu, Male’, to silently protest their lack of religious freedom. A similar protest had been held on the same day in 2010. Article 9 of the Maldivian constitution requires that all citizens be Muslims; and the State imposes an ever-increasing litany of punishments on those seen as falling short. Should the State fail in its ‘religious duty’ to punish such transgressors–as the aftermath of the small yet impactful protest revealed–Dhivehi Salafi Jihadists are ready, swords drawn, eager for their internal domestic Jihad: to maintain the ‘100 percent Muslim country’ status of the Maldives. 

The 2011 silent protest marked the first physical altercation between Salafi activists and secular-minded Maldivians. On that December afternoon, Ismail Abdulraheem Adam, a Salafi Jihadist who would later be deported from Turkey while attempting to enter Syria, was among many such warriors who followed the protestors to Lonuziyaaraiy Kolhu. Abdulraheem hit Hilath Rasheed, a journalist and prominent blogger, on the head with a rock, cutting him.

It was the first in what would become many violent attacks on anyone in the Maldives insisting on advocating for rights not recognised by, or contrary to, Salafi beliefs, practices and teachings. Since then, two people linked to the protest have been murdered, another barely survived an attempted decapitation, and almost all the others who participated have been threatened, harassed, have no choice but to live in fear, or have had to flee the country. The attack on the protestors also set the tone for all future investigations into crimes committed by Salafi Jihadists and their non-/less-violent brothers: nobody will be punished; not even in the face of overwhelming evidence to convict.

Police knew who attacked who and why on 10 December 2011. They arrested no one.

Five months later, on 10 May 2012, Abdulraheem, acting with two fellow Jihadists, attacked Hilath again. “Repent, repent! We don’t know, the public doesn’t know, you have repented!”, they shouted, hitting him around the head, surrounding him with motorcycles.

Only weeks later, on the evening of 4 June 2012, they returned to slit his throat. Three Dhivehi Salafi Jihadists, waited for him to return home from work late at night, cut his throat with a Stanley knife, and left him to die outside his home. 

Hilath lived to tell the tale; but no one listened, really.


Allowed to get away with murder, the Jihadists widened their campaign to rid Maldives of any citizens that dared contradict their manhaj, or disagreed with their teachings. They found their next prey within a few short months.

MP Afrasheem Ali was a politician with a doctorate in Usul al-Fiqh from the Islamic University of Malaysia noted as a rising star in conservative politics. For several years after he returned from Malaysia in 2007, Maldivian Dheenee I’lmverin–dominated by Adhaalath Party and other Salafi influencers such as Jamiyyath Salaf–ostracised Dr Afrasheem for “contradicting the manual of the Salaf al Salahin”, for suggesting music may be as pleasing to the ear as the sound of Qur’an, for not using the appropriate language to address the Prophet Muhammad, and among other things, for saying beards are not necessary for men. Basically, for not aligning his thinking with Salafi thinking. Afrasheem was banned from expressing his opinions and forbidden from leading prayers unless he repented. Endorsed by Adhaalath and other Salafi leaders, followers harassed Afrasheem online and on the streets, sometimes violently, once in a mosque in the presence of his young son. His religious opinions—which included endorsement of practices dominant Salafi clerics rejected as bid’a—were deemed unfit for the Modern Maldivian Muslim. A definition that must be approved by Salafi leaders to be accepted as true.

In the early hours of 2 October 2012, Afrasheem returned to his apartment on the south-eastern waterfront of Male’ after appearing in a late-night show, Islamee Dhiri-ulhun, on state television. He parked his car, entered his apartment building, and was walking up the stairs to his flat when three Jihadists attacked him on the stairwell. He had finally given into the immense pressure on him to conform or else; and agreed to appear on public television to repent. The station, channel and programme on which he should do so was decided by those demanding this public spectacle of him. Adhaalath Party held a special screening in their headquarters to gauge his performance. The killers knew exactly where he would be and when that evening. Afrasheem tried to explain his aqida on TV that night; and he apologised–for expressing his own opinion. However well-informed, considered or well-intentioned it was, it was not valid for it contradicted The Most Learned Men of Salaf Jamiyya, Adhaalath and other such groupings.

Despite the apology, Afrasheem was unable to save himself. They still cut his throat.

When the news of his murder reached the leader of Salaf Jamiyya, he responded: “It was an atrocity in Islam to kill Afrasheem after he had admitted to his sins and after he repented last night”. Without repentance, he had been fair game.   

Afrasheem has now been dead almost 10 years. It is now known Dhivehi Salafi Jihadists, operating domestically as one among several Al-Qaeda cells, were behind the planning and the execution of Afrasheem. They have not been prosecuted.

The dust may seem to have settled on the murder of Afrasheem’s death with no consequence for those who laid the plans and paid for it. Society, on the other hand, paid a heavy price. No religious scholarly longer dares publicly challenge the Salafi doctrine in the Maldives.


In July 2014 Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi of the ISIS declared an Islamic Caliphate from Iraq, further emboldening Maldivian Salafi Jihadists, both as foreign fighters and as local warriors on a holy mission to cleanse Maldives of the secular and the shirk. Less than a month later, in the early hours of the morning of 8 August 2014, Jihadists kidnapped Ahmed Rilwan, a journalist and blogger. At the time he was covering the activities of Maldivan Jihadists flocking to the conflicts in Syria and Iraq as a journalist for Maldives Independent. One Dhivehi Jihadist in Syria accused Rilwan of not being a proper Muslim and issued a warning that his days were numbered.

Just as the earlier Jihadists waited outside the homes of Hilath and Afrasheem with their sharpened blades hidden in the darkness of the night, they waited for Rilwan outside his home in the early hours of the morning. Instead of decapitation on the spot—the apparent goal behind both previous attacks—they kidnapped Rilwan, bundled him into the boot of a red car, forced him onto a boat, took him out into the open ocean, and made him recite the Shahadha. Then they decapitated him. 

Rilwan’s family only learned of his fate in 2019, years after the Jihadists abducted him. They are still campaigning for justice. In vain.


On this day four years ago, Salafi Jihadists picked their next target: Yameen Rasheed, 29, a blogger and writer who not only disagreed with the Salafi vision for the Maldives but also often satirised various aspects of it online. Yameen and Rilwan shared more than an ideological kinship; they were also bound by strong ties of friendship. After Rilwan’s forced disappearance in 2014, Yameen dedicated much of his energy towards campaigning with Rilwan’s family for justice. In vain.

On 23 April 2017, Yameen returned home from work in the early hours of the morning. The Jihadists were waiting for him in the darkness of the stairwell inside Yameen’s apartment building. They stabbed him 34 times in a frenzied attack. His cries for mercy fell on deaf ears. The young writer died in hospital later that morning. Yameen’s family now dedicates much of their energy to campaigning with Rilwan’s family for justice. In vain.

Salafi Jihadists are allowed to kill non-conforming Maldivian citizens with impunity. 

A Maldivian citizen that openly criticises Salafi beliefs, teachings and practices—does not matter whether you are a pious Muslim; a scholar of Islam; a ‘moderate Muslim’; a relaxed one; a lapsed one; an apostate or an atheist—can be, has been, and will be killed. And the Jihadists who kill them will remain unpunished. The reason is simple: the government and most of contemporary Maldivian society accepts death—or at the very least expulsion from society—as a suitable form of punishment for citizens identified as insufficiently Muslim, anti-Islam, or Enemies of Islam. ‘LaaDheenee’ people, marked as such by Salafi influencers according to their own criteria, are made into figures of public hatred to such an extent that Jihadists feel they must kill them to rid their society of Kuffars, and the public feels convinced the killing was for the ‘greater good’ of the ‘100 percent Muslim’ country.

That is why the courts of law in the democratic republic of Maldives are failing to deliver justice in these killings. According to the religious ideology that dominates the entire government and state apparatus, and most of society, true justice has already been done. By killing these men.

Starved for justice: the Rilwan & Yameen story

by Mushfiq Mohamed

Rilwan and Yameen were peaceful, principled and brave. Their calming presence, wit and humility set them apart from the average modern Maldivian. Even as I write, I think of a multitude of cheeky comments Yameen would have made about how carefully I frame my words. The principles they believed in were clear, simple and open. The aspirations and values they had for the society into which they were born should not be controversial to anyone. Many mistakenly think Yameen and Rilwan only wrote about religious extremists. Their focus was not so narrow. On numerous occasions they wrote beautifully of how society was rotting at its core in relentless cycles of nepotism and political violence, causing the kind of cultural decay and malaise that requires persistent resistance. It would take a continuous and infinite revolution to resolve. The Maldives may have interrupted these two incredible souls, but their soul-searching over our nation’s condition continues to resonate with many of us. 

The last time I spoke to Yameen, he was here in London in March 2017 after winning seed funding from a global tech company for a breakthrough healthcare app he developed. We could not meet but planned to catchup in Malé when I went back to renew my visa. A few days after I returned to Malé in April, I woke up to the horrific news of his killing. In contrast to our planned laughter-filled interaction, I went to his funeral in April 2017—filled with echoes of his family’s cries.

Why do we keep speaking of Rilwan and Yameen? Why not stay quiet and let the government attend to its ‘more important tasks at hand’? Why not focus on the issues of bread and butter? Why not talk of the sewage systems some island communities are still waiting for? Or the privatised healthcare system? Or the fact that clean drinking water is still a privilege on several of these islands? It is because you cannot talk about bread without talking about the blood on the streets. Those crime scenes might have been hosed down, the evidence erased or negligently abandoned. But the loss of these two promising young men is forever imprinted in the minds of their family and friends, and the young people of this nation. 

It is a waking nightmare to call home a place where my friends could disappear by force or brutally hacked to death in their own homes as they would in a lawless failed state. 

What is most devastating is the deafening silence of the masses, a majority of whom appear conditioned into questioning the powerless over the powerful. It surely should be the other way around. The Zeus-like politicians with their entourage of yes-men, who can be capricious and populist while promoting democracy, do not realise still that their inaction and shifting priorities will eventually extinguish the small flames of hope the Maldives had for an open society that legally recognised and protected all Maldivians equally. 


DDCom

“The knife you see in this picture was found on the road outside Rilwan’s apartment [building] on 7 August 2014 after an individual was seen being forced into a car”

Deaths and Disappearances Commission (DDCom), 8 February 2021

For years, Rilwan’s family and friends talked about the knife, the red car, the abduction. In the end they killed the most vocal critic of police negligence in investigating Rilwan’s abduction and its connections to Salafi-Jihadism. Yameen refused to stop questioning until they silenced him literally. Others who joined the family in their campaign for justice were followed and threatened in full view of CCTV cameras. Plots were hatched to kill us. In September 2014, one of the men implicated in the abduction of Rilwan threatened to disappear me too. He did so openly, on a street of Malé. Leevan Shareef was cornered and quizzed on his Islamic knowledge the next year. We were subject to hostile surveillance again in late 2016. Our police reports gathered dust without so much as a statement from Leevan and I. When Rilwan was abducted and Yameen was killed, records of death threats against them, ignored by the police, went as far back as ten years. 

The new government set DDCom up with the pledge to resolve the atrocious crimes of the past, including those committed by the previous government. Transitional justice, they proclaimed, was an important cause for this government. In April 2019, for the first time, the president joined the third rally held to commemorate Yameen’s killing. President Solih seemed to have a lump in his throat as he spoke of the importance of serving justice for Rilwan and Yameen’s families. Activists reminded the government that we may never have another opportunity to get to the truth. These cases are but just two of the 27 cases the DDCom is attempting to resolve since it was formed in 2018. 

What is the actual state of justice for these families behind the circus of presidential commissions and newly enacted transitional justice laws that seem to do nothing more than enable political mudslinging? 

Speaking to the media in April 2017, weeks after his 29-year-old son Yameen was killed by vigilantes, his father Hussein Rasheed had to speak words no parent would ever want to. His son’s throat had been cut, he said. “He’d been stabbed in 34 places.” Tears streamed down his cheeks from behind his thick black spectacles as he continued, “A part of his skull was missing.” Without a care for the sentiments of the grieving family, social media went into overdrive. Some cruelly shared leaked police photos of Yameen’s mutilated body. Opposition politicians (who now hold power after the 2018 elections) joined the chorus of condemnation against the killing. 

Fast forward to today, there are institutions mandated to serve justice and provide reparations and closure for these families who have had their lives put to the test. This is worthy of praise but meaningless if it is incapable of putting perpetrators behind bars. The main objective of such commissions is to prevent any chance of atrocities recurring. The present reality elucidates that their cases were steppingstones for Maldivian political animals who now conveniently promote the status quo after winning the vote and cushy new positions. 


The trials

Months after Yameen’s murder, the previous government was quick to prosecute the alleged killers. The hearings continued at lightning speed. One thing that came to my mind was: why is this a murder trial when the crime was an act of terrorism? If Rilwan’s alleged abductors were accused of terrorism, why aren’t the perpetrators of Yameen’s extrajudicial killing seen as terrorists who planned and executed someone based on perceived ideological grounds? The planning of the assassination took place in mosques in Malé. When this information became public through the reporting of the trial, Maldives Twitter protested that a place of worship was being sullied over this murder. They did not find it offensive that the sanctimonious surroundings were used to plot a cold-blooded killing of a person. 

Yameen and Rilwan’s mother in their quest for justice, Photo: IFJ

Eight individuals were suspected of killing Yameen. Six were charged and pleaded not guilty to murder. Prosecutors declined to press charges against the other two, including one who was initially accused of aiding and abetting. Perhaps giving a clue as to the possible plea bargaining that had gone on behind the scenes before the case reached the courtroom. 

For two years, since the trial began in 2017, activists had to pressure the previous government’s chief prosecutor to hold the hearings in open court. His family were repeatedly prevented from entering the courtroom, and the hearings were subject to regular cancellations. Exasperating the family still processing that their beloved had been ruthlessly slaughtered, and the plotters, enablers and active executors hid in plain sight. Almost all the hearings in 2018 were held in secrecy until July that year, despite growing calls to end the closed-door charades and open the trial. 

Then in November 2018, to the shock of many locals and observers alike, President Abdulla Yameen’s government lost the presidential election to the ruling party, Maldivian Democratic Party’s President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, leading a coalition consisting of defectors, dictator-loyalists and Islamists. The mix, politicians decided, would produce national unity after a long period of political turbulence that began in late 2011. Regardless of competing interests within the government, justice for past abuses was said to be prioritised. In 2019, defence lawyers began using delaying tactics to slow down and manipulate the judicial process. The State, too, was accused of failing to produce witnesses or defendants in time for the hearings. Prosecutors eked out excuses for delays, clueless as to why it was being stalled. 

“Those who organised and financed Rilwan’s abduction and Yameen’s murder,” the DDCom chair disclosed, “are the same.” This whirlwind of revelations was made in September 2019. It was even more precarious than that. Acknowledging publicly for the first time, the chair also confirmed that it was “local Al-Qaeda affiliates” that carried out these crimes, including the murder of an Islamic scholar and politician, Dr Afrasheem Ali, known for his relatively less conservative views on Islam that clashed with the fundamentalist positions held by more politically influential scholars and religious leaders. 

In late 2019, prosecutors complained in court that their witnesses were subject to undue influence, without making any direct accusations against the alleged perpetrators or their lawyers. The courtroom was dominated by the defence lawyers whose presence outsized the judge and the prosecution. 

When the COVID-19 pandemic took over the world, the Criminal Court stopped scheduling hearings for the murder trial. Maldivian courts adjusted to the ‘new normal’ of COVID, switching to online hearings. The murder trial of Yameen, however, remained unheard throughout 2020. On 7 February 2021, the trial resumed after a hiatus of over a year. The new hearings bear the same characteristics as before:  delay tactics from defence lawyers, prosecutorial mishaps and judges rendered incapable of administering the trial.  

Yameen’s family urged the Prosecutor General to intervene, reminded of how Rilwan’s abductors were acquitted in August 2018, a few days before the third anniversary of his forced disappearance in 2014. There was just a month left before the presidential elections that would shift political dynamics in favour of the opposition coalition. President Abdulla Yameen had to tie up loose ends, fearing his government could be implicated in colluding with the terrorists who assassinated Dr Afrasheem Ali, disappeared Ahmed Rilwan forcefully, and murdered Yameen Rasheed on the same Jihadist ideological grounds. 

In his judgement acquitting Rilwan’s alleged abductors, the presiding judge, Adam Arif, blamed the police and prosecution for the incomplete investigation that enabled perpetrators to evade justice. The judge made it clear, in his damning verdict, that the state wilfully ignored credible leads and jettisoned basic procedures, giving way to the manipulation of the course of justice. As the government changed from blatant autocracy to a seeming democracy, prosecutors repeatedly promised Rilwan’s family that they would be appealing the acquittal. Yet, the appeal period elapsed, and nothing moved ahead as promised. A new or re-trial after the DDCom investigation also remains a promise.


Conclusions

President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih joins the march by family and friends demanding justice for Rilwan and Yameen on 23 April 2019. Photo: Maldives Independent

The new government was praised for its forthright stance on human rights even before it had done any constructive work, purely based on its aspirations to strengthen democracy after another period of autocratic reversal. The slow-moving pace of justice and fast-moving injustices continue and dampen any hope of holding perpetrators to account. Indeed, perpetrators include those who were in political office then that directly derailed the investigation; not just the radicalised individuals who carried out the acts of religious violence and persecution. 

Although the families may not experience finality for these horrific crimes, the only hope is that at least the findings of the DDCom will bring them closure. It must strive to do that before politics becomes turbulent ahead of the 2024 elections. Although none of these trials, investigations or even reparations compare to having Afrasheem, Rilwan and Yameen with us. At times, engaging with this farce appears like a perpetual re-victimisation for these families seeking justice. 

Sectarian violence might have been unheard of in the Maldives, but since 2008 and the birth of democracy, with its abuse, the most ardent enemies of liberty have been able to co-opt the benefits of the newfound freedoms. Why would ‘liberal democrats’ give credence to movements that want nothing but their complete destruction? Maldivians nostalgic for an open society can dream but we are stunted by the grief of losing these heroes who spoke out against violence and cultural erasure disguised as religion. Our syncretic and romanticised past, just that, “a mockery of the present” as the brave Yameen Rasheed said.