Death in the tropical paradise

Death in the tropical paradise
July 29 10:25 2016

By Omkar Khandekar

“I believe in the capital punishment,” said Mohamed Kinanath Ahmed. It’s a startling admission from a man whose brother has been sentenced to death for the murder of a parliamentarian. If the penalty is carried out, 22-year-old Hussain Humam Ahmed will become the first person in the Maldives to be executed in more than 60 years.

Ever since the Supreme Court ruled against him in June, several members of the local media and civil society in the country, along with international organisations like the United Nations, European Union and Amnesty International, have been lobbying for suspension of the sentence. In part, theirs is a principled opposition. The death penalty, they say, fails to serve as a deterrent for criminals.

In 2014, the government overturned a six-decade moratorium on death penalty and passed a new regulation on it.

But death for murder is specified in Islamic sharia, notes Kinanath, and is just as valid as cutting off someone’s hands for thievery – the ruling against theft in Islamic law. “At the same time, the law adds that for the sentence to hold, guilt has to be proven without doubt,” he said. “In case of this murder, Humam was perfect to be framed. They used to show our pictures on the TV. They called us ‘the most dangerous persons in Malé’”.

Dark side of the tropical country

The tale of the two brothers touches upon a little-known aspect of the Maldivian capital: its criminal gangs, fuelled and financed by religious extremists and political interests.

In the years that the country built itself as a haven for sun-starved tourists, residents of the capital city of Malé and nearly 200 other inhabited islands were ignored. Citizens were also warned against the corrupting influence of the West by the ruling elite – a class that now earned in the American dollar.

Humam and Kinanath grew up in a slum hidden behind the rows of glittering buildings that line the seafront. The family of six shared a single room and often quarrelled with their step-grandmother, who lived next door.

When not in school, the brothers spent their time on the beaches and streets, hungry for solace, money and power. Kinanath dropped out of school in his mid-teens and formed a gang with his friends. They drank alcohol, sold drugs and settled rivalries with other gangs using machetes. Before long, he was tapped by politicians who recognised his potential as a mercenary. “They made it difficult for us to get out of it,” Kinanath said.“They would give us money, supply us with drugs, bail us out if we go to jail… If they do something for you, you were expected to do something for them.”

At his home, Kinanath showed me all of Humam’s mark sheets since kindergarten. “Humam was far better at studies than I was,” said Kinanath. The younger sibling had indeed performed well in most subjects, be it languages or Islamic studies. As he entered his teens, a rival gang, seeking to settle scores with Kinanath, assaulted Humam and left him with a bloody face. Until then, Humam had only witnessed gang culture from the fringes. This would leave a lasting impact.

His teachers noticed that there was something amiss. At the end of grade eight, one of them wrote in his quarterly report, “Humam is a student capable of achieving far better results. [He should] try to bring a change to his studies, behaviour and lifestyle.” The advice lay unheeded. Like his elder brother, Humam too dropped out of school and formed his own gang.

Humam's family at their home in Malé

Humam’s family at their home in Malé

The rise and fall of democracy

As the notoriety of the brothers grew, Maldives transitioned from a one-party regime led by Maumoom Abdul Gayoom, the longest-serving dictator in Asia who had been in power since 1978 to a democracy in 2008. The turn of the decade saw a rise in Islamic fundamentalism in the country. The elected President Mohamed Nasheed from Maldivian Democratic Party was even accused of trying to destroy the Islamic faith in the country.

By February 2012, Nasheed resigned under controversial circumstances and was succeeded by Mohamed Waheed Hassan of the National Unity Party.

That same year, Kinanath checked himself into a rehabilitation centre at a neighbouring island. On the completion of his treatment, he decided to stay back, afraid of relapsing on his return to Malé. On October 2, 2012, he received a phone call from his father, telling him that Humam had been arrested for murdering Dr Afrasheem Ali, a Member of Parliament from Gayoom’s Progressive Party of Maldives.

But Humam was sleeping at the time of the murder, his father said, so there was nothing to worry about. A few days later, the police declared that Humam had confessed to the murder – a confession he later retracted, saying he had been coerced. The police also arrested five others for the murder, at least three of them from the Maldivian Democratic Party.

Afrasheem’s assassination turned into a melting pot of conspiracy theories. The police said the murder was political in nature. Humam was allegedly promised an equivalent of MVR4 million (US$260,000) by members aligned to the Maldivian Democratic Party. On its part, the MDP alleged that it was a plot to malign its image. Fingers were also pointed at Gayoom’s half-brother, Abdulla Yameen, who sought a ticket for the Presidential elections in 2013. Afrasheem was rumoured to be a threat to his candidature.

This claim was bolstered when Umar Naseer, who led a bitter fight with Yameen in the party primaries, said he had seen one of the suspects in Yameen’s office. His rival, added Naseer, also had links to criminal gangs.

Over time, every one of those arrested – except for Humam – was released for lack of evidence. Yameen was elected president in 2013 and continues in that post to this day. He appointed his former rival Naseer as the home minister. On being asked about the president’s links to the murder, Naseer dismissed his own claims as “political rhetoric”. In 2014, fulfilling a promise he made in the run-up to the elections, Yameen lifted the moratorium on death penalty. Naseer helped draft the law.

Allowing death penalty

The assassination of Afrasheem was the first murder case to reach the Supreme Court. Although the police could never establish who the masterminds were, the Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s conviction of Humam on June 24. The next week, the government amended the law to include death by hanging in a provision that had allowed only lethal injections. On July 6, Foreign Minister Dunya Maumoon resigned, citing differences over the death penalty.

Towards the end of June, Home Minister Naseer, a vocal supporter of the death penalty, resigned from the cabinet and declared that he will be contesting for Presidency in 2018. When I interviewed him a week later, he reiterated the claims that the murder had links to the MDP. Even though he couldn’t establish it in the criminal court, “the information was enough to satisfy the investigators”.

Naseer admitted that he still doesn’t know the motive behind the murder. “But after being the home minister, I can confirm that there is no link of Yameen to the Afrasheem case,” he said.

Afrasheem’s family, however, doesn’t seem to share his certainty. In a letter to the Supreme Court, the family cited an incomplete investigation to request that the death penalty to Humam be delayed. It was a breakthrough for Humam. According to sharia, a sentence can be commuted to life imprisonment if the family of the victim exempts the culprit from the death penalty. This process is yet to formally take place.

Unfazed by the increasing criticism across the world, the Supreme Court, in the last week of June, upheld a second death sentence, for a 32-year-old man convicted of killing a lawyer. Even as Humam’s case is being debated, this opened up another avenue for the president to realise his pledge for the implementation of the death penalty.

President Yameen justified his stance in the annual address on Eid. “Such efforts are among the things we are doing to bring the youth on the right path,” he said.

Mushfique Mohamed, a human rights lawyer in Malé, sees the government’s eagerness in implementing the penalty as the president exploiting the rise of the Salafist movement, a set of ultra-conservative doctrines shared by Saudi Arabia. In the recent years, Maldives has established ties with the Saudi government to attract investment and maintain “religious unity”.

“This is a clear case of the government and judiciary working together,” said Mohamed. “Maldives is closer to Saudi Arabia than ever before. This has coincided with the rise of extremism. The policy to resume the implementation of death sentences is only a sign of our times.”

Kinanath realises the political forces that his brother’s case has been swept up in. However, he has a simpler explanation. The president, he says, wants to spread fear.

“But I will keep going. I have nothing else to live for.”