Nooshin Washeed was 14 when she first heard about murder in the Maldives: a secretary found dead in a bathroom with multiple stab wounds at the Chamber of Commerce. It was 2001. The victim was Azleena Nafees, she was 27. Nooshin recalls how shocked and scared people were over her death. It was the talk of Maldives, which for decades has marketed itself to the rest of the world as a tropical paradise. “Yet today,” says Nooshin, “murder has become extremely normalised [in the country] and hardly anyone remembers the victims’ names.”
Nooshin, now 30, is co-creator of the only website documenting murder in the Maldives. It was sparked by a discussion about Azleena’s killing. She teamed up with Shahee Ilyas to set up mvmurders.com in 2013. It was, Nooshin says, a way “for us to point out that something has gone very wrong in our society and also a way for us to commemorate the victims.”
But there are challenges.
“There are no official data or crime statistics available to the public so I have to use information from open sources such as online newspapers,” she says. “This means there is always the likelihood of errors in reporting, and there is no way of verifying the information. Another is that we are not paid for this work, we have to find time around our schedules to keep everything up and running.”
The Maldives Independent estimates there have been 32 murders in the country since 2012. But statistics on murder convictions and arrest rates are not publicly available and authorities, including the police, failed to provide them despite repeated requests. Murder is not even included on the police website’s crime statistics page, which has data going back to 2008.
Police were unable to say why Azleena’s killer, Abdullah Zuhair, was reportedly freed after serving 11 years of a life sentence. There was also no comment from Maldives Correctional Service about his release.
“I think that we are closer to getting arrested and jailed for talking about the issues of the justice system rather than suspects for violent crime,” says lawyer Mahfooz Saeed. He was part of the legal team representing former president Mohamed Nasheed when he was stabbed in the head.
The attack took place in the capital and in broad daylight. His assailants were not wearing masks. A dive knife was lodged three inches deep in his skull.
Mahfooz survived the near-fatal attack and three men were charged, one with attempted murder and the others with accessory. Police are yet to find the fourth suspect, who has been the target of a manhunt since October 2015.
In early November, Maldivian media reported the three stabbing suspects were released.
The Maldives Independent understands they walked free because the Prosecutor General’s office failed to bring anonymous witnesses to the hearing. The witnesses refused to give evidence after they claimed their anonymity had been compromised.
“I do not feel safe here, obviously,” says Mahfooz. “Ever since the attack I have been overly suspicious. I have to think carefully and be prepared even if two random people are staring at me on the street.” He has lost faith in the law.
“The government gives a deaf ear to the plea for justice,” said the family of Maldives Independent journalist Ahmed Rilwan who was kidnapped in August 2014. “Rilwan’s abduction, followed by the release of people suspected after their arrest, is encouraging those who wish to carry out such actions again to do so. It’s paving the way for them,” they said in a powerful statement marking the third anniversary of his disappearance. Police have not found out what happened to Rilwan after his kidnapping.
Yameen Rasheed, a prominent blogger and Internet activist who was campaigning for information about his missing friend Rilwan, was stabbed to death in April in the stairway of his apartment building in Malé. He had 35 stab wounds. His throat was slit and part of his skull was missing.
Despite the promise of open hearings the prosecutor general’s office continues to request closed sessions against the seven suspects charged with his killing.
“When the government wishes to arrest someone,” said Rilwan’s family, “they keep him or her behind bars for days. They keep them behind bars till the court hearings are over. They hasten the investigation. They send the case to court. They have hearings in close succession to one another. Yet in the case of Rilwan’s abduction and of Yameen’s murder, we see the negligence of state authorities. To the Maldivian citizen, this could be taken as a dangerous threat hinted by the government.”
Yameen’s family have questioned the ability of police to conduct an impartial and credible investigation because of the way they have handled Rilwan’s case and that of the near-fatal attack on blogger Hilath Rasheed, who had his throat slashed outside his apartment door. No arrests were made even though the police claimed to have access to CCTV footage near his home.
Despite the vigils, headlines and international condemnation there is rarely progress in cases where people are targeted for their stance on religion, politics or the judiciary. So there is little hope for other families seeking answers and justice. Their loved ones have been killed and already forgotten about because murder in the Maldives is no longer a shock. There will be no Twitterstorm for Anas, Hawwa, Shaheen or the dozens of victims who have failed, even, to register as police statistics.