The criminal court concluded Monday the trial of three Maldivian men charged with terrorism following their arrest from the Turkey-Syria border in February 2016.
Ahmed Latheef, Ahmed Suhail Moosa, and Munawwar Abdulla are the first suspects to stand trial for travelling abroad with the intent of joining a terror group after the offence was criminalised by the controversial 2015 Anti-Terrorism Act.
The court heard closing arguments from the prosecution and defence at Monday’s hearing.
The prosecution’s case was based on statements collected from the suspects by the police, testimony from 11 anonymous witnesses, an immigration report outlining travel details, plane tickets, audio analysis of calls, a telegram chat log, intelligence reports and expert opinions from officers who prepared the reports.
Citing audio analysis of conversations, State Prosecutor Aishath Azleena told the court that one of the defendants told a witness that he was in the “sacred land of Shām to seek Jannat-ul Firdaus”.
Munawwar Abdulla was also alleged to have said that he was in Syria for “a sacred purpose” and to do “the most blessed work a man can do on earth.”
Munawar was alleged to have asked the witness to tell his mother to remain on the “path of tawheed”, to pray for him, and to watch sermons by particular sheikhs. He also asked the witness to assure his mother that if he died in “jihad”, his whole family would go to heaven.
The prosecutor also cited a similar conversation between Latheef and one of the witnesses, which she said was sufficient to establish that the accused were religious extremists.
The three defendants, however, maintained their innocence and insisted that they travelled to Turkey on a “business trip” to meet several potential partners.
They were stopped at a checkpoint and arrested by the Turkish Security Forces, they said.
According to Raajje TV, the three men were arrested while trying to cross a mud ditch dug between border fences as a buffer to prevent illegal crossings.
They left the Maldives for Sri Lanka on February 16 last year with two others and flew to Turkey after transiting in Dubai.
According to the police witnesses, the five Maldivians divided into two groups upon arriving in Turkey and two of them crossed the border into Syria.
Munawwar was alleged to have been heading to a camp in Iraq. He told friends that he would not be reachable via phone for two months.
An anonymise expert told the court that recruits are taught Arabic and terrorist ideology and provided military training in these camps, which could take between one month to a year.
Phones are believed to be confiscated during the training.
The police expert witnesses said there are over 113 such camps in Iraq and Syria. Agents from terrorist organisations help foreign recruits get into Syria, they said.
The prosecutor also dismissed the defence lawyer’s claim that the three had return tickets. The tickets were purchased on March 10, she said, citing the police intelligence report.
The defence lawyer meanwhile reiterated that the onus was on the state to prove that his clients travelled with the intent of joining a militant group, stressing that the government has not publicised a list of designated terrorist organisations.
He also questioned the admissibility of the audio analysis report as state witnesses had denied providing the evidence, which he said implies that it was acquired without a court warrant or their consent.
Judge Adam Arif concluded the hearing after announcing that a verdict will be delivered on August 30.
If found guilty, the three men could be handed a jail term of between 10 and 20 years.
In February, a Maldivian man who attempted to cross into Syria to join the civil war was also arrested and repatriated. It is unclear if he has been charged with terrorism.
Two others who allegedly fought with militant groups in Pakistan are also standing trial.
The opposition claims as many as 250 Maldivians are fighting in Syria and Iraq – the highest per capita in the region. But the government says the opposition has been inflating the figure to lobby international support for its cause, offering various lower estimates and decrying damage to the economy due to “exaggerated” claims.
At least six Maldivians fighting with the al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front in Syria are believed to have been killed in battle.
In August last year, the parliament approved the first state policy on combating terrorism and violent extremism, which broadly outlined plans to take “a central and active role” internationally, strengthen national security, and conduct de-radicalisation and rehabilitation programmes.
Photo from Avas