The murders of a lawmaker, liberal blogger and the abduction of a journalist were carried out by an extremist group, the chair of a presidential commission has told the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Husnu Suood told a CPJ researcher that the attempted murder of blogger Ismail Khilath Rasheed in June 2012, the assassination of lawmaker Dr Afrasheem Ali in October 2012, the abduction of Maldives Independent journalist Ahmed Rilwan in August 2014, and the murder of blogger Yameen Rasheed in April 2017 were all connected.
“What did the four share in common? All spoke about social issues, human rights, and religion. And all were popular, with large followings, typically online,” reads a report by CPJ’s Asia programme research associate Aliya Iftikhar.
“The attacks were masterminded by one group and were motivated by religious, militant elements, with gang involvement, Suood said, without naming the group.”
Suood previously told local media that the murders and abduction were connected. But the CPJ report was the first time he confirmed longstanding suspicions about the religious motive and the involvement of radicalised gangs.
The inquiry commission on deaths and disappearances was formed by President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih on his first day in office. Finding the truth behind the unresolved cases of Afrasheem, Rilwan and Yameen was a key pledge of his campaign.
In his interview with the CPJ, Suood claimed the government had been aware of the group as early as 2011, “but failed to go after them for political reasons.”
“There was an identified group and the state knew that … and had they stopped or investigated and prosecuted the people behind Rilwan’s case then Yameen Rasheed’s would not have occurred,” he was quoted as saying.
“Even in Hilath’s case, no action was taken at that time. Had they stopped that in 2012, even Afrasheem’s case I doubt could have happened.”
Ibrahim Hood, the president’s chief communications strategist, said: “One of the reasons these groups thrive is the laissez-faire approach that has been taken with regards to them. I think they had state protection. I don’t know whether it was deliberate or some kind of implicit arrangement of ‘these are the boundaries.’ We’ve taken a more no-nonsense approach. It’s no longer a free-for-all.”
Suood also said the commission has established a motive in the abduction of journalist Rilwan, “something that had previously evaded authorities.”
He declined to elaborate but assured that information would be made public in the commission’s investigation report.
Days before the fourth anniversary of Rilwan’s disappearance, two suspects were acquitted last August with the judge blaming glaring investigative and prosecutorial failures.
The missing journalist’s family said the not guilty verdict showed “at minimum state complicity and, at worst, active involvement in Rilwan’s abduction and disappearance.”
Acting Police Commissioner Mohamed Hameed told CPJ that police would review and take action against anyone named in that report as being complicit or negligent.
“It’s quite evident that police hadn’t treated Rilwan’s case as a serious case from the start and that it was not carried out in a timely way,” he said.
Suood was confident that the commission would be able bring cases to prosecution. The investigation has uncovered enough new evidence in Rilwan’s case to appeal the acquittal, he said.
– “Independent and trustworthy” –
The commission was mandated with conducting “a free, independent and trustworthy investigation” into cases between January 1, 2012 and November 17, 2018 that were “not properly investigated for various reasons.”
Dr Afrasheem, a moderate religious scholar, was stabbed to death at the stairwell of his home on the night of October 1, 2012. Police claimed the killing was politically motivated but no charges have been raised over the alleged funding.
Hussain Humam is the only person convicted so far.
Yameen Rasheed, an IT professional and satirist, was killed by a radicalised group of young men who believed he was guilty of insulting Islam, according to police. Six suspects were charged with murder and preliminary hearings were wrapped up in October.
Yameen’s family previously questioned the ability of the police to conduct an impartial and credible investigation due to the failure to convict suspects in Rilwan’s abduction and the near-fatal attack on blogger Hilath Rasheed, whose throat was slashed outside his home.
Suood told CPJ that the commission’s authority will be limited if parliament refuses to pass a bill proposed by the government to grant investigative powers, which would enable it to work independently of the police and judiciary.
Last month, Speaker Gasim Ibrahim refused to call a vote on the bill after it was tabled in the agenda for the fourth time.
Three previous attempts to put the bill to a vote were thwarted by a lack of quorum due to the absence of several lawmakers from Gasim’s Jumhooree Party, one of four parties in the Maldivian Democratic Party-led coalition.
Gasim concurs with opposition lawmakers that granting legal powers to presidential commissions is “unconstitutional” as it would undermine the authority of existing law enforcement agencies and “duplicate” their powers.
Suood said the commission also anticipates threats from gangs and complicit individuals in positions of power.
“There will be a lot of challenges in that respect, because this is a small place and one is connected to several others who are influential and who are in power,” he said.