Thayyib Shaheem, a prominent opposition social media activist, is under arrest on suspicion of inciting fear and panic about the H1N1 swine flu virus and sowing discord among the public with false information on social media.
He was arrested around 11:50pm on Thursday from the Shabnam café in Malé. The criminal court remanded the 42-year-old to police custody for eight days on Friday.
According to his arrest form, Thayyib’s charges include raising a false alarm, a class one misdemeanour that is defined in the penal code as providing false information either about an imminent violent offence or “a situation that is serious to human life”.
The second charge is disorderly conduct under section 615 of the penal code, which is defined as “creating a hazardous, physically offensive or seriously alarming condition by an act that serves no legitimate purpose.”
The first offence carries a maximum jail term of one year and the second a maximum of three months.
Thayyib was formerly the news editor of the state broadcaster under former President Mohamed Nasheed. He has more than 21,000 followers on Twitter and routinely levels serious allegations against President Abdulla Yameen, ruling party lawmakers, and senior state officials.
Thayyib’s arrest came less than two hours after he posted on Twitter audio clips of MP Ahmed Nihan telling a group of people that the constitution was amended to facilitate the sale of the island of Himithi in Faafu atoll to the Saudi deputy crown prince.
The constitution previously prohibited foreign ownership of Maldivian land, but controversial amendments were brought in July 2015 to authorise foreign freeholds if an investment exceeds US$1 billion.
Shortly before his arrest, Thayyib also alleged on Twitter that 13 boxes unloaded from a Saudi helicopter were taken to the presidential retreat island near Malé under the supervision of two officials from the Maldives Monetary Authority.
The central bank promptly issued a press statement denying the social media rumours as “absolutely false and without any degree of truth”. The MMA also threatened to take action against those who spread lies about the institution and its employees.
Thayyib’s phone was meanwhile confiscated earlier this month after he was summoned for questioning at the police headquarters.
He told the Maldives Independent that the police wanted to know who has access to his Twitter and Facebook accounts.
“They then proceeded to browse my Facebook account, going back to about a year,” he said.
“They also had some photocopies of my tweets but after I said there were other people with access to my Twitter account, they didn’t ask me any more questions about Twitter.”
A day later, the police also summoned social media activist Shammoon ‘Lucas’ Jaleel and confiscated his phone.
Both men were outspoken in the online campaign against the alleged sale of Faafu atoll or parts of it to Saudi investors, tweeting prolifically under the hashtag #SaveFaafu.
Thayyib was meanwhile widely credited last week with forcing the health authorities to reveal that the H1N1 type of influenza virus was spreading in the Maldives.
In response to swirling rumours and panic on social media, the Health Protection Agency released a statement around 1am last Monday saying that the virus was detected during routine influenza testing.
Schools and state universities were later closed on the advice of the health authorities after further testing revealed that the virus was spreading rapidly.
Despite the number of cases in 2017 exceeding the total number detected during the past two years, Health Minister Abdulla Nazim told newspaper Mihaaru last week that the media was not informed because there were no signs that it could become an epidemic.
“When something happens in the Maldives, you don’t have to give it to the media that very same day, do you? When the flu was detected, a team to advise the minister was formed…On Monday, they said we have to go to the media now and explain the situation. Talk was circulating on social media at the time,” he was quoted as saying.