A cameraman from the opposition-aligned Raajje TV has been found guilty of obstructing police duty and handed a fine of MVR3,000 (US$195).
Delivering the verdict Monday afternoon, Judge Adam Arif said the defence failed to challenge the eyewitness testimony of two police officers, which he deemed sufficient to prove guilt.
Adam Zareer was arrested during the station’s coverage of an opposition protest in March 2015. The 29-year-old maintained his innocence during the trial, stressing that he had an accredited press pass when he was filming the protest.
The state prosecutors had sought a prison sentence of four months and 24 days, but the judge opted for the fine as Zareer has no prior criminal record.
Zareer’s lawyer Abdulla Haseen said he will appeal the verdict at the high court as soon as possible.
Raajje TV journalists Mohamed Wisam and Leevan Ali Nasir were also found guilty of obstructing police and handed a fine of US$1,868 each last month. The pair became the first journalists to be convicted in more than a decade.
Wisam was also arrested along with Zareer. The 21-year-old’s sentencing on his second count of police obstruction has been scheduled for March 9.
A fourth Raajje TV journalist, Hussain Fiyaz Moosa, the station’s chief operating officer, is also on trial on a charge of assaulting a police officer in November 2015. He faces a jail term of more than a month if found guilty.
Meanwhile, during today’s sentencing hearing, Judge Arif said that there were minor contradictions in the testimony given by the three witnesses for the defence.
RaajjeTV‘s cameramen Ahmed Anil, Mohamed Mamdhooh and former Haveeru photographer Mohamed Sharuhaan had told the court that Zareer was not arrested from a cordoned off or restricted area.
Zareer was taken into custody with his camera and equipment used for live transmissions, they noted.
But the judge questioned whether the journalists could have clearly observed Zareer’s actions as they would have been focused on covering the protest.
The two police officers meanwhile told the court that Zareer had pushed a barricade and police shields and tried to barge into a cordoned-off area.
The police officers could not recall whether Zareer had an accredited press pass or a camera, which could be seen on video footage submitted as evidence by the prosecution.
But the judge said their failure to remember particular details does not disqualify their testimonies.
The obstruction charge carries a maximum fine of MVR12,000 (US$779) or a jail term of up to six months. After delivering the verdict, Judge Arif advised Zareer to respect laws and regulations while exercising his rights as a journalist.
Zareer previously told the Maldives Independent that he was willing to risk jail to continue reporting. “I am not guilty of a crime, I know it and the whole world knows it. Why should I hide?”
Former President Mohamed Nasheed has promptly condemned Zareer’s trial as unfair, calling for the verdict to be overturned.
Raajje TV previously condemned the charges brought against all four of its journalists as “baseless in its entirety.”
The charges “can only be justified as an attack on press freedom and an attempt to impede, harass and psychologically torture Raajje TV journalists with the objective of stopping Raajje TV’s independent broadcasts,” the station said.
Last month, New York-based press freedom group, the Committee to Protect Journalists, urged the Maldivian authorities to drop the charges against the journalists, accusing the government of singling out the station for harassment.
The prosecution of the four journalists also stand in stark contrast to the lack of justice for crimes committed against the press, including the abduction of Maldives Independent journalist Ahmed Rilwan, the arson attack on Raajje TV, the near-fatal beating of the station’s former news head, Asward Ibrahim Waheed, and the mass death threats sent via text messages to journalists.
The withdrawal of charges against 24 journalists arrested since President Abdulla Yameen assumed power in November 2013 was among nine demands outlined in a petition submitted to the authorities by some 183 Maldivian journalists last April.
The Maldives is now ranked 112th on the France-based Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom index, which said the country remains “very hostile for independent and opposition media”.