The Maldives Police Service knew missing journalist Ahmed Rilwan was followed before his abduction on August 8, 2014, by a suspect who was allowed to leave the country, the Maldives Independent has learned.
Mohamed Suaid, who was charged in absentia three years later, was arrested in late September 2014 with evidence of hostile surveillance, a credible police source confirmed.
Suaid was interrogated on October 1, 2014 and accused of lying when he denied following Rilwan, according to information from the police investigation seen by the Maldives Independent.
However, until April 2016, police refused to say that Rilwan was abducted. They denied any link between an abduction at knife-point reported outside Rilwan’s apartment in Hulhumalé – seen by several eyewitnesses around the time he would have reached home – and his disappearance after Suaid followed him to the Hulhumalé ferry terminal in Malé.
Rilwan was last seen at 12:45 am on August 8 four years ago.
Suaid was released by the criminal court in November 2014 and he left the country in January 2015 with Azlif Rauf, a former soldier charged in connection with the murder of moderate religious scholar Afrasheem Ali.
Their families say the pair died fighting in Syria.
In August last year, terrorism charges over Rilwan’s abduction were filed against Suaid along with Azlif’s brother Alif Rauf, and Mohamed Nooradeen.
Alif and Nooradeen were acquitted by the criminal court last Thursday.
When he was arrested in late September 2014, Suaid listed Alif as his guardian or person to contact. He told police investigators that he was employed by Alif at the MMS Garage.
Chief Inspector Abdulla Satheeh told the press that Rilwan was tailed for more than two hours by several young men from Malé’s Kuda Henveiru gang, one of whom was identified as Suaid in security camera footage shown at the press briefing.
The video footage was not used as evidence during the trial.
Rilwan was forced at knife-point into a red car that belongs to Alif and DNA lifted from hairs from the trunk matched Rilwan’s mother, Satheeh said.
But up until then, police insisted that DNA analysis was insufficient to link the August 8 abduction with Rilwan’s disappearance.
Police were also looking into an attempt at forging Rilwan’s passport in March 2016 “to make it appear as if he had left or was out of the country,” Satheeh said. At the time, several pro-government websites, citing a blog that later turned out to be fake, claimed that Rilwan had died in Syria.
On Tuesday, jailed former vice president Ahmed Adeeb denied authorising Suaid and Azlif to leave the country. They were able to fly because the Criminal Court released their passports, Adeeb said in a statement issued through his lawyer.
He was temporarily in charge of the immigration department at the time with the defence minister on vacation, but the department functions independently and under the direct supervision of the controller of immigration, he said.
– ‘Complicity’ –
Rilwan’s family has decided to sue the police for negligence, citing Judge Adam Arif’s list of glaring investigative and prosecution failings when he acquitted Alif and Nooradeen.
Basic questions were left unanswered, the judge said, whilst registration details of the red car, chain of custody documents on the key DNA evidence, and forensic evidence of a knife recovered outside Rilwan’s apartment were not submitted.
The verdict showed “at minimum state complicity and, at worst, active involvement in Rilwan’s abduction and disappearance,” Rilwan’s family said.
The police press briefing in April 2016 confirmed the findings of a private investigation commissioned by the Maldivian Democracy Network – which the authorities labelled as politically motivated at the time – that implicated radicalised gangs 45 days after the abduction.
Citing the abduction of several young men in June 2014 by a vigilante group in a push to identify online activists advocating secularism or professing atheism, the investigation report found gang activity in Rilwan’s abduction to be a “strong possibility.”
Days after the publication of the report, a machete was left on the front door of the Maldives Independent (formerly Minivan News) office after a man named in the report removed the security camera.
A Minivan News journalist received death threats shortly thereafter, which read, “You will be killed or disappeared next. Watch out.”