The criminal court heard both prosecution and defence witnesses Tuesday night in the trial of opposition-aligned Raajje TV journalists Mohamed Wisam and Leevan Ali Naseer on charges of obstructing police officers.
The pair is accused of attempting to block the arrest of a third journalist on November 2 during a bomb scare in the capital. If found guilty, they could be fined MVR12,000 (US$778) or imprisoned for up to six months.
At last night’s hearing, two policemen, Shifan Mohamed and Idhurees Moosa, testified to seeing Wisam and Leevan grabbing a police officer. But neither were able to identify the policeman in question, according to Raajje TV.
Wisam is accused of grabbing the policeman from behind and Leevan of trying to remove the officer’s hand from journalist Hussain Fiyaz Moosa, the station’s chief operating officer.
All three were arrested and later alleged physical abuse in custody. Fiyaz is also on trial on a charge of touching an individual without his consent.
Fiyaz and two other Raajje TV journalists, Murshid Abdul Hakeem and Hussain Fariyaz, meanwhile testified as witnesses for the defence.
Fiyaz said he met Wisam and Leevan near the sports complex in Malé and was about to leave when a policeman came from behind and suddenly attempted to take him into custody. He then saw Wisam and Leevan being beaten on the ground.
The officers did not inform them of the reason for their arrest, he noted. The other Raajje TV journalists also told the court that they did not see Wisam and Leevan obstruct police officers. The pair were on the job and reporting the military’s attempts to defuse a bomb found near the presidential palace, they stressed.
The police had evacuated the sports ground area and closed the surrounding streets to traffic while the military’s bomb disposal unit worked on defusing the improvised explosive device.
After concluding the witness testimony, Chief Judge Abdul Bari Yousuf, who presided over last night’s hearing as Judge Ahmed Shakeel was on leave, said the court will hear closing arguments on November 23.
A fourth Raajje TV reporter, Adam Zareer, is also on trial on charges of obstructing police officers during the station’s coverage of an anti-government protest on March 25 last year.
Wisam, who was arrested along with Zareer and held for five days, was also charged over the incident.
The withdrawal of charges against 24 journalists arrested since President Abdulla Yameen assumed power in November 2013 was among nine demands outlined in a petition submitted to the authorities by some 183 Maldivian journalists last April.
Raajje TV has dismissed the charges against its staff as “baseless in its entirety,” describing the trials 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.”
Press freedom groups including Committee to Protect Journalists, International Federation of Journalists and Washington-based National Press Club have also expressed concern over declining press freedom in the Maldives.
The Maldives is now ranked 112th on the France-based Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom index, which said the country remains “very hostile for independent and opposition media”.