The criminal court heard Thursday testimony from defence witnesses in the trial of a Raajje TV journalist accused of assaulting a police officer while covering a bomb scare in November 2015.
Hussain Fiyaz Moosa, chief operating officer of the opposition-aligned station, is accused of hitting Corporal Mohamed Shaheen while he was being arrested for refusing to leave the sports complex area of Malé where the military’s bomb disposal experts were defusing an improvised explosive device.
Fiyaz, who could face a jail sentence of more than a month if convicted, has pleaded not guilty to the assault charge.
“As we’ve said before, we maintain that these trials against journalists from Raajje TV are baseless in nature and is an example of the government’s continued targeting of journalists and media,” the 39-year-old veteran journalist told the Maldives Independent after the hearing.
Last month, Raajje TV journalists Mohamed Wisam and Leevan Ali Nasir, who were arrested along with Fiyaz, were handed a fine of US$1,868 each for obstruction of police duty. The pair became the first journalists to be convicted in more than a decade.
Wisam and Leevan were accused of trying to prevent Fiyaz’s arrest. All three had later alleged abuse in police custody.
At Thursday’s hearing, Wisam, Leevan, and their colleague Murshid Abdul Hakeem told the court that Fiyaz had heeded orders from policemen to leave the restricted area.
“I saw one police officer, who I now know to be Shaheen, shove Fiyaz on the chest, pin him to a nearby wall and grab his neck,” Wisam said in his testimony.
“I was with Fiyaz that night. I saw very clearly what happened around me.”
According to Wisam, all three were walking towards the police barricade about 50 feet away when the alleged victim, Corporal Shaheen, yelled and told them to walk faster.
Fiyaz turned back, told the officer that they were leaving, and continued walking.
“We were almost at arm’s length from the police tape when around four or five officers suddenly came from behind and arrested us,” he said, adding that the area was not cordoned off when they arrived.
Leevan and Murshid backed his testimony. All three insisted that Fiyaz did not hit a police officer.
Murshid said he witnessed the incident from a couple of feet away.
“Fiyaz did not touch the policeman. He didn’t even have a chance. He was pinned to the wall and [Shaheen] grabbed his neck,” he said.
At the previous hearing on Sunday, three policemen – including Corporal Shaheen – told the court that Fiyaz had refused to leave the area despite repeated warnings.
The prosecution’s witnesses claimed to have seen Fiyaz placing his right hand on Shaheen’s chest and shoving him.
The three Raajje TV journalists who testified Thursday were among a list of seven witnesses submitted by the defence. But Judge Adam Areef only agreed to call three witnesses to the stand.
During the previous hearing, the judge had also refused to accept a medical report of Fiyaz after he was released from custody.
However, at Thursday’s hearing, the judge accepted and examined footage from Raajje TV’s live coverage of the bomb scare, which included a phone call from station to Murshid, who reported the three journalists arrest.
Both the prosecution and defence are due to present closing arguments at the next hearing, which Judge Areef said would be scheduled for next week. Citing his wife’s illness, Fiyaz had asked the judge to speed up the trial.
A verdict will be delivered before the end of the month, the judge said.
Along with Raajje TV cameraman Adam Zareer, Wisam is meanwhile on trial on a second count of obstruction over his arrest while covering a March 2015 protest.
Wisam’s second case is ongoing while a verdict in Zareer’s case is expected on February 27.
Raajje TV has previously said that the charges brought against all four are “baseless in its entirety.”
They “can only be justified as an attack on press freedom and an attempt to impede, harass and psychologically torture Raajje TV journalists with the objective of stopping Raajje TV’s independent broadcasts,” the station said.
New York-based press freedom group, the Committee to Protect Journalists, recently urged the Maldivian authorities to drop the charges against the journalists, accusing the government of singling out the station for harassment.