A year ago today, our brother, friend and fellow reporter disappeared

A year ago today, our brother, friend and fellow reporter disappeared
August 08 02:05 2015

On August 8, 2014, Minivan News journalist Ahmed Rilwan disappeared. He has not been seen or heard from since. The Find Moyameehaa team, a group of Rilwan’s family members, friends and colleagues, will hold a march at 4pm, starting from the Social Center in Malé today. The following op-ed is by the Find Moyameehaa team.

Today, August 8, marks one year to the day our brother, friend and fellow journalist Ahmed Rilwan disappeared. He is believed to have been abducted, and is now feared dead. The police and other responsible agencies of the state have made very little effort to find him and bring perpetrators to justice.

Rilwan was last seen entering the Hulhumalé ferry terminal in Male at 12:44 am on August 8, 2014. An eyewitness, who sat next to Rilwan on the 1:00am ferry to Hulhumalé, said Rilwan did not board the bus upon his arrival on the suburb island approximately 25 minutes later. Rilwan’s neighbors reported to the police seeing a man forced into a car at knifepoint between 1:30 – 2:00 am right in front of his apartment building. A knife was dropped on the ground and recovered by the police within the hour.

Police continue to maintain that there is no conclusive evidence linking the reported abduction to Rilwan’s disappearance. No mention is made of the knife.

The police issued a statement on July 12, saying they had received DNA analysis of samples taken from three cars suspected to have been used in the abduction. But they are unable to “conclusively state” if there is a connection between the two incidents.

No person other than Rilwan was reported missing in the period, from Hulhumalé or elsewhere in the Maldives.

To this day, the police have not categorized the type of investigation, whether it is an abduction, a forced disappearance, kidnapping or missing person’s case.

We, Rilwan’s friends and family, believe the international community, including the UN must intervene urgently to pressure the government to seek foreign forensic expertise and conduct an independent inquiry. Otherwise, the threats and attacks against journalists, bloggers and human rights defenders will continue to increase.

Rilwan’s disappearance took place against a backdrop of heightened insecurity in the Maldives; threats against journalists and politicians, the spread of religious extremism, radicalization of criminal gangs, failure of the police to investigate and bring to justice the perpetrators in more than 30 murder cases, and the government’s open-courting of criminal gangs.

A report commissioned by local NGO Maldivian Democracy Network (MDN) to a Glasgow based intelligence and security firm found that the most plausible line of inquiry is that Rilwan may have been forcibly disappeared by radicalized gangs. Home Minister Umar Naseer in an interview with the state broadcaster suggested the same. Rilwan had received numerous death threats for his criticism of religious extremist groups and had reported being followed by a man suspected of involvement in a near-fatal attack on a blogger in 2012. CCTV footage obtained by family members show Rilwan was followed by young men associated with a Malé gang on the night of his disappearance.

Four young men were arrested over Rilwan’s disappearance in September, but all were released within weeks. Local media in January reported one of the suspects was part of a group of 12 Maldivians that had left the country to fight with Islamic militants in Syria. The Maldivian police reportedly brought back another man arrested in the case from Malaysia in January on the request of his family who suspected he was about to leave to Syria with his wife.

In the first few months following Rilwan’s disappearance, some members of his family, his friends and fellow reporters received death threats via social media, anonymous text messages and on the streets of the capital Malé. In September 2014, a security camera on Minivan News’ office, where Rilwan worked, was vandalized and a machete was lodged on the front door. That day, then- deputy Editor of Minivan News received a text message saying she would be killed or disappeared next. Weeks later, she was accosted on the street by a group of young men and told she would be disappeared. Although the threats were reported to the police, they were never investigated. Furthermore, even though the perpetrator who had vandalised Minivan News’ security cameras was caught on camera, charges were never filed.

From day one, numerous efforts have been made to spread misinformation about Rilwan’s disappearance. For instance, a fake blog that cropped up in March this year claimed Rilwan had gone off to Syria to fight with Islamic extremist groups and had been killed in battle. This is despite the fact that Rilwan had been a staunch critic of religious extremism. There is reason to believe employees of the state were involved in the making of the blog as the photo of Rilwan used on the blog is the same as that on his passport. The first news websites to carry the story were government-controlled media outlets. When Rilwan’s colleagues asked reporters with these media groups to refrain from publishing the story and aiding the spread of misinformation, they were told the blog was one the media groups frequently used to obtain information about Maldivian jihadists in Syria. But the police later confirmed the blog was fake.

Efforts are also being made to pass on the blame for the lack of progress in the police investigation on Rilwan’s family, friends and the Maldivian media. The police have repeatedly condemned the media for alleged interference and even suggested the family was passing sensitive information obtained from the police to opposition parties. Meanwhile, several journalists this week reported they had been contacted by police officers who had showed them excerpts from a confidential police report that claims Rilwan had contacted his mother via telephone shortly after his disappearance. The report blamed the family for hiding information and obstructing the investigation.

Shortly before Rilwan disappeared, he reported on journalists receiving death threats for their coverage of gang violence. The anonymous threats only stopped earlier this year with the political crisis brought on by the imprisonment of former President Mohamed Nasheed. At the time of Rilwan’s disappearance, radicalized gang members had conducted brief abductions of multiple individuals perceived to be secular. Meanwhile, President Abdulla Yameen and his then- Tourism Minister Ahmed Adeeb (now vice president) have held numerous rallies with well-known gangsters.

We, Rilwan’s family and friends, have exhausted every possible avenue of achieving progress with the investigation. We collected 5500 signatures on a petition calling on the parliament to urge the authorities to properly investigate Rilwan’s abduction. The petition was first thrown by the government-led majority, but is now stalled at a committee. We have held numerous public awareness events, including two marches. Rilwan’s family also lodged a complaint regarding police negligence and disrespectful treatment with the oversight body, the Police Integrity Commission (PIC). A report has not been finalized yet.

Family, friends, and journalists have met separately with political parties, the Speaker of the Majlis, the PIC, the human rights watchdog, the Prosecutor General’s Office, MPs, Home Minister and Commissioner of Police urging a speedy investigation.

The government response to the abduction remains callous and inadequate. President Abdulla Yameen, when questioned on the issue, stated that he had no comment on the abduction. He has refused to meet with the family. Home Minister Naseer stated that some crimes were “simply unsolvable” and also went as far as to claim that whether Rilwan had simply fled or whether he was abducted would only be known once Rilwan clarifies it himself.

Rilwan’s family has filed three complaints with the UN Special Procedures. A petition was filed with the UN Working Group on Enforced Disappearances (UNWGED) within the first 30 days of his disappearance. In November 2014, with the help of local rights group Maldivian Democracy Network (MDN), submissions were filed with the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights’ Defenders. In March, when MDN made a submission to the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Opinion regarding the imprisonment of former President Nasheed, Rilwan’s disappearance was mentioned in detail.

As we reach day 365 of his disappearance, there has been no substantial progress into the investigation. Renewed efforts must be taken by the international community and independent bodies to pressure the government to find Rilwan and disclose what has happened to him.

We will once again march today in Malé. We will continue to remind the state of its responsibilities and will continue to do all we can to find him.

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Maldives Independent. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals [email protected]