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. 


    The daily pain

    Yameen

    by Azra Naseem

    Yameen Rasheed was brutally murdered a year ago today. He had just turned 29, was on the cusp of a major career breakthrough, and had, only a short while previously, met the love of his life. He was the pride of his parents, a beloved brother, a doted upon uncle, a precious friend, an admired colleague, and a brave social critic. The promise of a fulfilling life of success, love, and potential contributions to shaping a more tolerant Maldivian society brought to an abrupt end by a knife plunged frantically into his young body; hatred cancelling out love, intolerance victorious over empathy.

    It would have come as no surprise to Yameen that in the long painful year that has passed since his life was taken, none responsible have been punished. Justice, as he well knew, is non-existent in the Maldives. And nothing has highlighted this truth more than the obstacles against punishment for Yameen’s killers. To begin with, the investigation was so deliberately careless his already traumatised family had to sue the police for negligence. Their case, of course, was thrown out. The ‘trial’ that followed, and is said to be ongoing, is so secret it is closed even to Yameen’s family.

    Murders are not just personal crimes, but crimes against society; but society is kept in total darkness about this particular killing which—if only society were to indulge in a moment of collective reflection it would realise—is a pivotal event in its history.

    If Yameen’s death goes unpunished there would be no turning back for Maldives.

    What is happening behind closed doors in the name of justice for Yameen is a struggle for the direction Maldives will take in the future: will it embrace tolerance, or will it submit to religious puritans free to take the lives of those who fail their demands for absolute conformity?

    Yameen’s killing was followed by a flurry of state activity. Not against extremists who assume the authority to murder whomever they think offended what they believe is the right way to practice Islam, but against those who expressed views of Islam contrary to the extremists’ interpretations. The president used the occasion to mount an attack on ‘those who mock Islam’, and self-proclaimed religious authorities tripped over themselves to defend the right of the killers to take the lives of those who advocate tolerance. An Islamic society cannot be secular. It cannot allow other religions to co-exist. Muslims cannot empathise with people of any other faith. To advocate tolerance is to mock Islam. The message that has been broadcast loud and clear—by the president in his various speeches; by religious leaders; by figureheads of the various sects of Islam that have established themselves within Maldivian society; and—sadly—by a substantial portion of the population itself, is: follow this script, or be excluded from Maldivian society. And from life itself.

    Around the world, across space and time, seemingly isolated events have triggered dramatic changes in societies. The killing of Arch Duke Ferdinand in 1914 became the catalyst for the First World War.  Almost a century later, the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in December 2010 became the catalyst for the revolution in Tunisia, which gave birth to the ‘Arab Spring’.

    The killing of Yameen on 23 April 2017 had the potential to trigger similarly dramatic changes in Maldivian society. It was an event that could have— should have—brought every mother, daughter, sister, brother, friend, son, and fellow citizen out on to the streets from Male’ to Addu and everywhere in-between. It should have incensed every Maldivian who believe in the sanctity of life, who hold dear the tolerance preached by their faith, who value the existential right of human beings to think freely.

    But the moment passed, only those personally touched by Yameen’s wonderful spirit came out on the streets. A handful of ‘society at large’ came too. But a year later, they too, have dwindled in number to almost nothing. Only family and friends, and a core group of human rights defenders, remain on the streets. Their pain is as fresh as it was this day a year ago, their demands as sincere, their commitment to justice for Yameen unwavering.

    But they cannot do it alone.

    Whether people realise it or not, Yameen’s death is a life-changing event for them. By not raising their voices as one, by remaining silent in the face of the farce that is ‘justice’ for Yameen, by going about daily business as if nothing has changed, in the empty space created by their silence, they are allowing religious puritans to write their own futures, and the futures of their children.

    Perhaps none of this would have surprised Yameen.

    But it would have certainly caused him pain.

    It would have caused him pain to know that the society he fought for did not fight back for him; that when he lost his life in the battle for freedom, the war had already been lost to those making freedom a crime.

    Or has it?

    Without a people’s uprising or a similarly obvious consequence, Yameen’s killing may not seem as life-changing a moment in the history of the Maldives. But it is. In retrospective, if society remains complicit as now, it would be pointed to as the event which planted Maldives firmly on the path to intolerant religious puritanism. Truth is, there is still time to shape what happens next. The ‘trial’ is not over yet. The future is not yet writ large in a ‘court’ verdict. The people still have the power to make sure it will be one that allows all Maldivians right to think freely for themselves without being punished and killed for what they think and what they say.

    What it will take is for everyone who believes in such a society to stand up.

    Like Yameen did.

    Or be prepared for daily panic, and endless pain.

      The making of the Great Ocean of China

      by Thilmeeza Hussain

      The political impasse in the smallest country in the Indian Ocean is drawing global attention to India’s power in the region and its leadership role in the world.

      If India does not act swiftly to ensure that the Maldivian people’s rights are protected and democracy is restored in the country, China, which has sided with the current Maldivian ruler Abdulla Yameen, is going to consolidate power in the region around India.

      The Maldives has been on a downhill slope since the coup d’état in 2012, when former president Mohamed Nasheed was forced to resign under duress; the country’s situation has deteriorated steadily since Yameen took office in a highly contested election. Soon after taking office, he has prosecuted every opposition leader and they are either in jail or exile.

      For many Maldivians like me, the coup d’état still feels surreal. We watched parliamentarians getting beaten on the streets and peaceful protesters being met with batons and pepper spray. The death of Maldivian democracy stood in stark contrast to our euphoria after the hard-earned end of a 30-year dictatorship. Yameen’s older half-brother, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who lost the first multi-party election in 2008, was the only president many of us had known our entire lives.

      For four years, we tasted freedom and rule of law.

      Today, voices demanding freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, or calling to uphold the rule of law are thrown behind bars. The door to jail cells is a revolving one, and there is a continuous flow of political prisoners.

      Not even members of Yameen’s own political party are safe if they are seen as a threat to his power. Not too long ago, we saw a member of Parliament (MP) stabbed to death with a machete on the stairwell of his home. When an investigative journalist, Ahmed Rilwan, started reporting on the murder, he was abducted from his home and hasn’t been seen since. Shortly after, Rilwan’s friend and political blogger Yameen Rasheed, who sought the truth of his friend’s disappearance, was stabbed in the neck and chest multiple times in the stairwell of his apartment building. State-sponsored attacks on citizens and a culture of impunity have taken over our country. Despite being under constant threat, harassment and fear, Maldivians are still fighting for their rights every day.

      It’s clear that the current pressure from the international community, including our closest ally and neighbour India, has not stopped Yameen’s blatant disregard for the rule of law so far. For example, the international community condemned the current administration’s refusal to release former president Nasheed, eight other political prisoners and reinstate 12 members of Parliament. Instead of abiding by our Supreme Court ruling, Yameen’s government declared a state of emergency, arresting and jailing two Supreme Court justices, three MPs, his half-brother, former president Gayoom, and anyone whom he saw as a danger to his rule.

      We Maldivians share strong ethnic, linguistic, cultural and commercial ties with India but if our human rights abuses are not enough to compel India into taking more concrete steps to stop Yameen, their own security should be reason enough.

      The rapid deterioration of the situation in the Maldives since 2012 has extended far beyond the shores of our islands because of our location, and it has brought India’s significance in the region into question. The worth of this vast ocean to India cannot be exaggerated.

      The Maldives lies next to crucial shipping lanes, one of the major choke points for the world maritime transit of oil which provides continuous energy supplies from the West to the Far East through the Indian Ocean (equivalent to just under half of the world’s total oil supply). Also, according to India’s ministry of shipping, about 95% of the country’s trade by volume and 70% by value comes via the Indian Ocean. As China swiftly grows its military presence in the Indian Ocean  in the garb of anti-piracy operations, India must come up with a more coherent plan; at the end of last year, it was forced to carry out a threat assessment due to the presence of Chinese submarines in the Indian Ocean.

      The Maldives, since its independence in 1965, has had an “India first” policy and leaders of both countries have held high-level exchanges on regional issues. But since Yameen took office, he has aligned with China, which has defended his authoritarian rule. The Maldives now owes about 80% of its foreign debt to China, which has been spreading its wings rapidly in South Asia and has been eyeing the atoll nation for its strategic location. China has already cosied up to Nepal by helping the latter reduce its significant trade deficit; it has invested heavily in Sri Lanka and Pakistan. China is strategically encircling India under the fancy name of the “Silk Road Project”. A part of the road will also pass through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and may eventually help Pakistan take over Kashmir.

      Is India losing its grip in the region and becoming a non-actor in the mighty Indian Ocean? Are we witnessing the making of the Great Ocean of China? If India loses its dominant power in Asia, it will not be able to safeguard its security or protect its interests.

      Although ours may be the smallest country in the region, our economic and political value cannot be overlooked. Let’s hope it’s not too late by the time India recognizes this.


      Thilmeeza Hussain is a former deputy ambassador of the Maldives to the UN and a 2018 Aspen Institute New Voices fellow

      This article was originally published by LiveMint, www.livemint.com on 20 February 2018

      http://www.livemint.com/Opinion/vr9GnxjjCJLIYYElZkL1gK/The-making-of-the-Great-Ocean-of-China.html