A few months after the abduction of Maldivian journalist Ahmed Rilwan in August 2014, search parties seemed to have reached a dead end.
The initial frenzy of activity following Rilwan’s disappearance, such as weekly gatherings in which people called for a thorough and more transparent investigation into his disappearance, had abated. An online petition with 5,500 signatures calling for such an investigation was thrown out of Parliament, and President Abdulla Yameen refused to speak a single word on the journalist’s disappearance, despite mounting international pressure.
Instead, Zaheena Rasheed, one of Rilwan’s colleagues from Minivan News, now Maldives Independent, received an ominous text message: “You will be killed or disappeared next, be careful.”
In February 2015, Yameen Rasheed, a satirist and a close friend of Rilwan’s – one of the key figures behind the campaign to find the abducted journalist – wrote a post on his blog about how he met Rilwan, and his frustrating search for his missing friend.
“That is what Maldives has reduced to. A country without hope. A country drowning in ‘religion’, but where the merest hint of justice withers and dies in the face of unrelenting evil. Ultimately, a country with no soul.”
Two years later, on Sunday, Rasheed was killed – stabbed 14 times in the neck, chest and head in the stairwell of his apartment in the Maldives’ capital, Malé. He died soon after being taken to hospital.
Rasheed, 29, had spent close to two decades in India. When he returned to Malé in 2009, he was struck by how the Islamic country’s politicians invoked religion for narrow, political gains. In 2012, this lobby would consolidate to topple Mohamed Nasheed, the nation’s first democratically elected president, four years after he came to power. Nasheed is now living in exile in London. In 2015, his lawyer, Amal Clooney, flagged how the Maldives was moving away from moderate Islam, saying that it had the highest per-capita rate of recruitment to the Islamic State.
Rasheed used to lampoon the country’s civic issues, religious extremism and authoritarianism in his blog, the Daily Panic, succinctly, often with a touch of wry humour. He soon became immensely popular among the liberal, secular populace in the Indian Ocean archipelago who were often shouted down by the self-appointed guardians of Islam. As was the norm – almost a rite-of-passage for many of his outspoken contemporaries – Rasheed started receiving death threats.
“We used to joke about the death threats we received,” said Junayd Mohamed, a journalist with Maldives Independent. Some threats came as tweets, a lot from unknown numbers. Nearly all signed off with “Allahu Akbar”, or God is great.
Over the last two weeks, in the run up to his murder, the text threats to Rasheed abruptly reduced. None of Rasheed’s friends and colleagues this correspondent spoke to could explain why. Rasheed was still the soft-spoken, witty writer they knew, still with a prolific output and nuanced arguments.
Murder in Maldives
The Maldives, with a population of little over three lakh, is made up of 1,200 islands of which roughly 200 are inhabited and are populated by between a few hundred and a few thousand people each. As with small communities elsewhere in the world, where everyone seemingly knows everyone else, murders are rare.
The last high-profile murder was five years ago, when lawmaker Afrasheem Ali was found lying in the stairwell of his apartment, also with multiple stab wounds. Ali’s murder prompted one of the biggest manhunts in the country. The police arrested suspects from Malé’s notorious criminal gangs but soon realised that they were only hired hands.
Abdulla Riyaz, now a Member of Parliament, who was police commissioner at that time, declared that the murder was “politically motivated” but refused to elaborate, adding that he would only speak up when the time was right. The case remains unsolved.
Rasheed had complained repeatedly to the police about the death threats he received. Yet, the police was apathetic.
When he tweeted to the police in August 2015, it had been a year since Rilwan’s abduction, and three years since Ali’s murder. In both cases, the perpetrators were yet to be apprehended.
By the looks of it, there is little expectation that Rasheed’s murder investigation will turn out differently. Over the last 24 hours, several Maldivian Twitter users have abused the police handle, @PoliceMv, in connection with Rasheed’s case. When he was alive, Rasheed did not seem to have thought much of the police either. In a blog post dated October 2014, he wrote:
“Maldives Police Service Dumbstruck by Own Brilliance
“Commissioner of Police, Hussain Waheed Three, said in a statement that “The Maldives Police Service is now the best Police force in the region. We are truly dumbstruck by our own brilliance.”
“In celebration of the great recognition that it has awarded itself, the Police Commissioner announced another round of mass promotions and a flat for each Police Officer who can count to three. “Just like me!”, beamed the Commissioner, who then contorted himself into an awkward position and started fellating himself passionately.”
Rasheed’s murder is not the first time an outspoken blogger has been targeted in the Maldives.
In June 2012, a young man in a yellow shirt waiting with a box cutter in a dark alleyway in Malé, attacked Ismail Rasheed, popularly known as Hilath, a Maldivian blogger known for his secular views, and also a former Amnesty prisoner of conscience. He had once exposed an influential family that had kept an underage girl as a concubine. He often wrote that religious extremists in the country were abusing the freedom of expression enshrined in the new democratic Constitution, which came into being in 2008, to further their agenda.
Hilath was lucky. His assaulter slashed his throat but missed a vital artery. The doctors later told him that this had earned him a 1% chance of survival. “They said they had never seen anyone recover so fast from such an injury,” he told author JJ Robinson in the book The Maldives: Islamic Republic, Tropical Autocracy.
Hilath did not respond to a text message sent by this writer for his comments for this piece. His blog is now on hold – a shadow of his outspoken past. It reveals that he has retired from public life, and has even withdrawn from other social media forums such as Facebook and Twitter.
In a post dated June 8, 2016, titled “Notice: My retirement from public life”, Hilath wrote:
“My experience on Facebook made me realize that even a trivial “activity” – such as a “like” or “comment” to anyone’s “status” – can be twisted around and in such a small society like ours, it is not advisable to allow certain elements to create conflict (fitna) amongst us whether it is political, religious, social, etc.”
Chorus of support
Yameen Rasheed’s murder has come at a delicate time in Maldivian politics. Most of President Yameen’s critics and the Opposition, including former President Nasheed, now live in exile. Earlier this month, the ruling party defeated a no-confidence motion against its Speaker, using crude tactics that saw Opposition MPs being thrown out of Parliament. The motion was aimed to set the stage for a constitutional impeachment of the president.
In the hours following Rasheed’s demise, the usually reclusive President Yameen seems to have ramped up his efforts at public relations. Unlike during Rilwan’s abduction, his office was prompt in releasing an official comment on the murder. The president’s statement adopted the same tone as that of his democratic nemesis Mohamed Nasheed, as well as that of his half-brother, the former Maldivian dictator, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom: it praised Rasheed and condemned his killers. The investigation into Rasheed’s murder will now be a test of the autocratic president’s sincerity and credibility.
So far, the Maldives Police has not released any information on the progress of the investigation. For Rasheed’s family, the wait has only just begun. They join Rilwan’s family whose wait for answers has clocked nearly 1,000 days.