August 26, 2014
Journalists, independent social media activists, human rights defenders and opposition politicians in the Maldives are being continually harassed and threatened. A. Mohácsi looks at what lies behind these attacks and explores whether extremism is being fuelled by the Maldivian Government for political gain.
On August 8, 2014, Maldivian journalist, Ahmed Rilwan, 28, known on social media as @moyameehaa went missing. He was reported missing on August 13, when family, colleagues and friends couldn’t reach or find him for days. Rilwan lives alone on Hulhumale’, an artificial island linked to the airport, 20 minutes by ferry from the capital, Male’. Rilwan was last seen in Male’ by family and friends, on the evening of Thursday, August 7. Since then, he is to be seen on CCTV footage at the Male’-Hulhumale’ ferry terminal at 00:44hrs, Friday, from where he would have taken the ferry home.
A covered-up abduction
As police investigated, and family and friends searched for Rilwan, local media reported Rilwan’s neighbors had witnessed an abduction outside Rilwan’s apartment around 02:00hrs on Friday, 8 August, approximately the time he would have reached home having taken the ferry and walked.
Neighbours who witnessed the incident said the abductors were armed, and had dropped a knife on the street as they forcibly dragged a person into a red car and sped away. They had called the police, who had come to the scene, taken photos of the fallen knife, and left with it. Witness statements were not recorded that night, and it has since been revealed that no attempt was made immediately to locate the getaway car or to rescue the victim. This is in Hulhumale’, a small 2 (two) square km island with a population of about 30,000 and less than a dozen red cars.
When the story of the abduction broke in the local media, police declined to comment on it either to confirm or to deny, instead focusing the press conference on Rilwan’s phone log, informing media his last phone use was in Male’ Thursday night, and that police were looking at CCTV footage from different locations in Male’. The ferry terminal in Hulhumale’ has no CCTV camera, and according to police, Rilwan taking the ferry the night he disappeared remained unconfirmed despite one witness having come forward to say he was on the ferry with Rilwan.
Home Minister Umar Naseer followed up with a tweet: “Doing everything we can to find the missing person. All resources fully deployed, top-cops working 24/7. Meeting his family tomrw,” and called a press conference the next day to confirm a report of an abduction was received by Hulhumale’ police around 2am of Friday, 8 August. Ironically, Minivan News where Rilwan worked was not invited to the Home Minister’s press conference.
Two weeks since Rilwan’s disappearance police have come up with no information on Rilwan’s condition or whereabouts, the identity of the abductors, or motive, nor confirmed he is the victim of the abduction outside his apartment the night he disappeared. Nor have the police confirmed the person abducted is Rilwan though there have been no reports of any other person having gone missing around the same time.
Death threats and targets
Rilwan’s abduction came days after he reported on death threats to fifteen journalists, text messages from an unlisted number warning against reporting on gangs following a spate of street violence in the last week of July which saw at least one dead and nine injured.
The article published in Minivan News on August 4, quoted a number of journalists who recalled similar threats in the past following media reports of Maldivians joining suicide missions in Syria, during coverage of the Supreme Court’s delay of presidential polls in 2013, while reporting on the notorious Artur brothers of Armenian origin seen with Tourism Minister Ahmed Adheeb and Defence Minister Mohamed Nazim, and in covering politics, gangs and organised crime. Leading up to elections in 2013 there had also been a serious arson attack on Raajje TV, the only TV station aligned with the opposition MDP, which destroyed all equipment and burnt the place down causing damages in millions of Rufiyaa to Raajje TV and other businesses located in the same building.
Rilwan reported a threat analysis report from the Maldives Broadcasting Commission (MBC) which found 84 percent of journalists surveyed had reported being threatened at least once, while five percent reported being threatened on a daily basis. The MBC report had identified gangs, politicians, and religious extremists as threats to media freedom, and claimed approximately 43 percent of journalists do not report threats to authorities.
Outside mainstream media, bloggers and independent social media activists, human rights defenders and opposition politicians in the Maldives are continuously harassed and threatened online and off, and many have been the victims of physical attacks including stabbings. These cases are rarely investigated by the authorities.
Online and text message threats in the Maldives, where the State religion is Islam, often carry a religious or moral overtone, accusing targets of mocking Islam, or of being a Christian, Buddhist or an atheist, and warning to “behave appropriately” or expect action. One threat to an MP read, “It is not a sin to kill those who challenge Allah’s words and call for freedom of religion. Afrasheem Ali was an example,” referring to MP Dr. Afraasheem Ali who was ambushed on the stairs and brutally hacked to death in his apartment building as he returned home late one night in October 2012, after appearing on a live TV programme.
In his coverage of threats, Rilwan reported both opposition MP Eva Abdulla and Raajje TV political reporter Fairooz receiving death threats – purportedly from Home Minister Umar Naseer after he was questioned by MP Abdulla in Parliament. “National police are also with me. Through a single order from me to Special Op boys you tiny MP can be shredded into pieces,” the text from “Umar” read. The Home Minister responded in a statement saying his number was used by an unknown party to send those messages, and that he had filed a complaint with the police.
The pattern or modus operandi in the attacks has been to target individuals, run smear campaigns accusing the target of acting against Islam, directing blame to extremists when an attack takes place. The extremists are fuelled by smear campaigns initiated by the government, by public political statements and reports in government sponsored media labeling and defaming individuals and organizations, and making accusations. These reports are then taken up by extremist websites and spread on social media, building up a frenzy legitimizing the death of the accused in the name of protecting Islam.
Days before Rilwan’s abduction, the government sponsored online newspaper vaguthu.mv had accused Minivan News of promoting homosexuality and defiling Islam.
Is the real IS active in the Maldives?
An Islamic State (IS) flag was raised at Raalhugandu, an open public area in Male’ by an unknown person or group in late July, and was removed, it is said, by the police. Days later, a small group prominently displaying the ISIS/IS flag and the general black and white flag/banner with the Shahada printed on it, protested in Male’, in solidarity with Gaza/Palestine. They carried no Palestinian flags, and proclaiming “Music is Haraam” they were purportedly on their way to attack another Gaza solidarity fundraising activity with music, when police blocked them. No arrests were made. The same week, a number of flag-burning protests took place, with Israeli and US flags burnt publicly by smalls groups in places where protesting is banned; most significantly on the Republic Square close to police and military headquarters. The government ignored these protests and once again made no arrests.
Face book pages Bilad Al Sham Media and Wake up Now continue to promote extremism and call for action against named individuals without action by the government, and a growing number of local social media users have begun to display the IS flag and symbols of other Jihadist groups with no reaction from the government.
At least 4 (four) Maldivians are said to have gone for “jihad” in Syria, and at least one suicide bomber in Syria is confirmed as being Maldivian by the release of a video on the Internet (now removed) where he gives a “farewell speech” in the Maldivian language, Dhivehi, explaining his crusade to be against democracy and the spread of evil and urging other Maldivians to “speak less, act more”. The government paid little heed.
Most recently, just last week, in the second week after Rilwan’s abduction, journalists and MPs have reported more death threats, this time purportedly from “ISIS”.
Missing Maldivian journalist Ahmed Rilwan
While it may appear outwardly from these that the ISIS/IS has become a formidable presence in the Maldives, the lack of government concern and response, and the fact that the threats are invariably made against those the government identify as enemies in their own public statements, government-backed media and their social media activities, suggest that the so-called IS in the Maldives may be a closer and far more dangerous enemy: the government itself.
Is IS the cover for government-backed terrorism?
The path taken by the current government to win office, the history of what has come to be locally known in the Maldives as the “December 23rd movement” which saw political leaders in power today come out with a frenzied group of Islamists to denounce the government of the first democratically elected President Mohamed Nasheed as an “enemy of Islam,” and to bring it down in a coup aided by radicalized military and police who came out on the streets calling Allah Akbar (Allah is Great); the brutal attacks by the security forces on Nasheed and his supporters the day after the February 7, 2012 coup d’état; the apathy of the government to the mass threats and the activities of the supposed IS supporters; and publicized meetings of Islamic Affairs Minister Mohamed Shaheem and Home Minister Umar Naseer in June this year with a mixed group of “concerned citizens” that included unrecognized Islamists and well-known career criminals operating gangs in the country, and the failure of the government to take action against the threats or protect targeted individuals at risk or to investigate attacks – all suggest that the IS may be a smokescreen for government-backed terrorism against own citizens, targeting free press, human rights defenders, independent bloggers and social media activists, and political opponents of the government.
Informants say the career criminal popularly known as “Gut Mua,” a man who controls multiple gangs and is said to be associated with President Yameen, is contracted by the government and given a hit-list of about 1500 names. His mission is to silence and eliminate independent voices and opposition identified in the government hit-list.
Gut Mua, seen among the “concerned citizens” who met with Islamic Affairs Minister Mohamed Shaheem and Home Minister Umar Naseer to protest against the rise of “enemies of Islam” (the so-called “laadheenee” or “no religion” people), was involved in recent attacks on administrators of the moderate FB page Colourless, where 4 (four) of them are said to have been “invited” to separate meetings where they were harassed and intimidated, forced to give up passwords of Colourless and prove they were not atheist and were good Muslims.
International coverage of ISIS/ IS and its declaration of establishing Sharia’ – or an Islamic State – in the world, and the focus on IS for the brutality and ruthlessness of their attacks on those they view as enemies of Islam, has made it far too easy to see IS behind the brutal attacks. Especially where the perpetrator is unknown, wherever the attack takes place, any attack against anyone who openly stands against IS or speaks up for democracy and human rights is far too easily attributed to IS.
The world is, it appears, ready to see the spread of IS, and waiting to see IS everywhere. Given this, is it not possible that observers on the ground, identifying similarities to IS in local issues, may well be feeding into this global willingness to see IS the enemy by identifying IS where they do not exist? Could this readiness be blinding the observer to facts on the ground? Worse, could this focus on IS be diverting attention from the unidentified culprits, directing focus to IS as a known enemy than can be easily named and blamed? Could this be manipulated by organised crime to divert attention from truth, gain cover, and shield the real criminals?
There is compelling evidence to claim Maldives government is behind the attacks, that extremism is fuelled by the government for political gain, and that gangs and extremists are both tools of the government.