Maldives court frees alleged jihadi fighter
No suspects charged with joining militant groups have been convicted to date.
The criminal court has dismissed terrorism charges raised against a Maldivian man for allegedly attempting to join a militant group in Syria.
Ali Shafeeq, from Raa atoll Kandholhudhoo, was charged under the 2015 Anti-Terrorism Act for “leaving the country to join a civil war in a foreign country.” He was accused of travelling to Turkey in October 2016 and attempting to cross the border into Syria with the intention of fighting with a terrorist group.
After considering pre-trial motions filed by the defence, the judge reportedly threw out the case at a hearing on Tuesday and ordered Shafeeq’s release. He cited the prosecution’s failure to submit any evidence to justify the terrorism charge.
In July last year, the court ordered Shafeeq’s release from custody for the third time since he was brought back to the Maldives from Turkey.
During a pre-trial hearing at the time, the state prosecutor told the court that there was evidence that proved Shafeeq had left the Maldives to travel to Syria, despite claiming to have gone on a vacation.
According to a police intelligence report submitted as evidence, Shafeeq travelled to Turkey via Dubai and stayed in a safe house operated by the Islamic State group for people waiting to enter Syria.
But his defence lawyer questioned the validity of the charges and challenged the state to prove Shafeeq’s intent to join the war.
“How would the state prove that? Can a person be guilty for watching a YouTube video or talking to a specific person abroad?” he told the court.
– Record of terror-related activities –
Shafeeq was previously arrested in relation to the 2007 Sultan Park bombing that injured a dozen tourists. But he was cleared of charges.
He was arrested again in 2009 by Pakistani authorities near the Afghanistan border. He was among nine Maldivians who were armed with weapons when they were captured by the Pakistani security forces.
All nine were brought to the Maldives but no charges were filed.
A US-based consultancy firm estimates around 200 to 250 Maldivians have fought in Syria and Iraq, making the island nation the highest foreign fighter contributor per capita.
But the previous government disputed the figure. Based on information from relatives of jihadi fighters, the National Counter Terrorism Centre puts the current figure at 69, excluding women and children.
In February, the NCTC said widows of Maldivian jihadis who left to fight in Syria and Iraq were seeking to return to the Maldives.
Several people have been charged since the enactment of the 2015 anti-terror law. But not a single suspect has been convicted to date.
In August last year, the criminal court dismissed charges against a Maldives man alleged to have fought in Pakistan’s Waziristan for almost a decade.
In 2017, three people charged with terrorism for attempting to cross into Syria from Turkey were acquitted as prosecutors could not prove their intent was to join a foreign war.
The three men were stopped at a checkpoint and arrested by the Turkish Security Forces in February 2016. Audio analysis of calls and a telegram chat log in which one of the defendants claimed to be in “the sacred land of Shām to seek Jannat-ul Firdaus” was in itself insufficient to prove they were planning to join a militant group, the chief judge ruled.
Suicide bombings in neighbouring Sri Lanka last April meanwhile prompted renewed concern over rising intolerance and extremism as well as the threat posed by jihadi fighters returning from war zones in the Middle East.
In May, Defence Minister Mariya Ahmed Didi said the government was working on “designing and implementing a rehabilitation programme for radicalised individuals,” adding that security agencies have also been enhancing operational capabilities.