On September 1, the nation was shocked by the chilling findings of a 10-month inquiry by an independent commission into the abduction of Ahmed Rilwan Abdulla. The Maldives Independent journalist was murdered by a local extremist group linked to the al-Qaeda terrorist organisation, the presidential commission’s chair Husnu Suood told the press.
President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih promised justice as Rilwan’s grieving family called for the prosecution of former government officials “implicated in derailing and obstructing the police investigation.”
According to the commission, former vice president Ahmed Adeeb secured the release of two suspects who were allowed to leave the country in January 2015. Adeeb also tasked two police intelligence officers with obtaining a copy of Rilwan’s passport in a bid to create false news suggesting that he had left the country and died in Syria. The same officers followed Rilwan and intercepted his phone calls with a court warrant weeks before he was abducted, the commission found.
Former president Abdulla Yameen tried to “divert” the focus of the investigation by sending police officers “all over the place,” Suood alleged.
The Progressive Party of Maldives released a statement contending that the information disclosed by Suood had been gathered by police during Yameen’s administration, a claim that was also made by former home minister Umar Naseer. The suspects named by the commission were arrested and prosecuted, the PPM said, referring to two suspects who were acquitted in August last year.
“Therefore, it has been revealed to the public today that claims made for years by the opposition parties then, linking president Abdulla Yameen with Minivan News journalist Ahmed Rilwan, are unsubstantiated and false and that there was no connection between [Rilwan’s] death and president Abdulla Yameen and his government.”
The PPM went on to condemn Home Minister Sheikh Imran Abdulla for failing to declare that the allegations levelled against Yameen had been untrue. The main opposition party also called the commission’s press briefing “uncivilised” and dismissed its claims against the opposition leader.
Pressed by reporters about the commission’s findings ahead of a campaign trip last week, Yameen refused to comment and referred to the PPM statement.
Rilwan’s family meanwhile despaired as outrage mounted over the failure to arrest suspects.
“(I have) no hope for getting justice for Rilwan. Police and the government were very much involved in killing Rilwan. I have no trust in Police anymore, the same officers are still there,” Rilwan’s sister Fathimath Shehenaz wrote on twitter on Saturday.
The home minister defended the police on Tuesday ahead of search operations launched later in the day.
“We should not forget the principle we have been advocating since the beginning. ‘We will act justly even towards the person who commits a crime.’ Those who need to be detained will God willing be detained through justice,” Imran tweeted.
– Majlis –
A day after the commission met the press, Suood shared a draft report with parliament, which published a summary on its website with further details and identities of suspects. Speaker Mohamed Nasheed came under fire for sharing the draft report with opposition parliamentary group leaders as disclosure of sensitive information could compromise the ongoing investigation.
But the former president insisted in the face of criticism that the names of secret witnesses were redacted from the report shared with parliament. The commission’s chair asked for a parliamentary debate on the findings, Nasheed said. Only a summary of the report was shared with lawmakers upon Suood’s request, he said.
“The commission’s chair believes there’s nothing to be gained from keeping this information secret,” Nasheed said before opening the floor to a debate. Suood “believes that no progress can be made with the current police or the courtrooms,” he said midway through the debate.
During the debate, MPs of the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party said the report has vindicated what Nasheed has been saying for years about a “deep state” with extremists or sympathisers in top posts of the government and security forces.
Mickail Naseem said the report made it clear that the “police, intelligence, security forces, government, judiciary and prominent businesses worked together to spread terrorism in Maldives.”
“Ahmed Rilwan was killed by the Maldives state. He was killed by the Maldives Police. We must admit this” he said.
“This report by the commission reveals to the Maldivian public, with irrefutable proof, how the state was negligent in this and how the state acted to cover up the murder of a journalist.”
Former human rights commissioner Jeehan Mahmoud expressed concerns with the revelations concerning police.
“The most shocking thing is that this report points to a link between extremist organisations and the police. We, the 19th Majlis is here today, with that reality. The other reality is that the state helped people who took part in murdering Rilwan escape the country. The people who helped murder Rilwan were freed from jail. That senior officials of the government and the courts colluded to offer protection to the people who took part in murdering Rilwan and following him. And that police took money from the people who gave this protection.
This report says that only half of some intelligence reports were given to the commission. That police refused to give the full information of intelligence reports to a commission which has been given all the powers under a law. It tried to change the entire course of the investigation, police acting on behalf of terrorist organisations.
The people who took part in this are still in government institutions, without being held accountable, escaped the country, under the protection of other countries, in other positions, hiding behind their businesses, these people are living in and outside the Maldives. These people are living under the full protection of the state while Rilwan’s family goes from door to door.
The truth has been revealed, no matter where this report ends up. The power of truth, I believe, is stronger than the helplessness we feel today. Today, the state must act to stop the atrocity done by the collusion of extremist forces, people in government positions and security forces.”
MP Hassan Latheef, the MDP’s chairman, called for the swift prosecution of suspects.
“What is most concerning is that the people who committed these acts are still in government institutions, especially in police, I believe this has gone this far because some officials in police were complicit, negligent, careless and even unprofessional.
The Presidential Commissions Act says how the commission must act now: sending [cases] to prosecutor general for prosecution after consulting the president.”
The report indicated the two intelligence officers were acting on orders by their superiors, MP Mohamed Abdulla Shafeeg observed.
“The intel officers who went to immigration controller said they were asked by ‘the chief’ but did not say who the chief was. So we know these officers were acting on orders that came from people in senior positions. So we can be certain that this is very much rooted in the system.”
MP Mohamed Waheed criticised a statement issued by the police assuring a probe into alleged negligence.
“Honourable speaker, is there a bigger negligence than 1,850 days. This report clearly says this started in 2010. Ten years have gone by without any action, without caring. It is clear the police institution is involved.
Rilwan’s mother said yesterday that until yesterday she believed her son would come back to her. It makes me speechless. Should we still be questioning whether to talk or not to talk about this, if it might tamper with witnesses, if it might violate some article of some law, how long must we stay without talking about this? Should we let these people take advantage of our silence and let them spread fear in our community? This parliament must stand up against this with courage, our country must stand up against this, we must escape this disease.”
MP Mohamed Wisam talked about the threats faced by journalists reporting on radicalisation.
“When we talked about this before, when a journalist or a news outlet report about jihadis leaving to Syria or about Maldivians [fighting] in Syria, it becomes hard for the journalist to live, then and even now.”
“So many journalists were threatened when we wrote about it and went back home… a knife pointed to the neck. These were reported to police even then. But police didn’t look into it and police didn’t even want to accept these complaints. This is how this has been.”
MP Eva Abdulla noted that the people who organised, aided and planned the murder were free.
“There is no room to deny that the murder of Ahmed Rilwan Abdulla was planned and carried out by the Maldives state. There is no room to doubt that a dark, powerful, deep state has its claws in the Maldives state.
I am most scared because they are still free. We have to pull this from the root, whether we have to root out the entire police intelligence department, we have to save the Maldives state from this. Even if we have to change the law or the police or the courthouses we have to do it. This is too serious for us to just keep picking at it slowly…
I believe, yes, the passports have to be held but when the report is revealed these people must be tagged and kept in a way they are not a danger to society. The justice we can get for Rilwan today is getting rid of this danger.”
But Jumhooree Party Gasim Ibrahim defended the police and questioned the inquiry commission’s contribution.
“All the information in the report came from the police, I’m not saying that the presidential commission did not do any work but in sum it was done with police cooperation. But because of how someone came here and spoke to the speaker in a way that distorted the truth, it is not right when the speaker speaks in a way that defames the police. No matter what the former home minister said, no matter what was done before, it is certain that the current police force gave all the help and cooperation to the commission.
How could people who had no capacity or capability to carry out investigation have handed over a [draft] report to the president one month ago, without using the work that police had done? The information in this report is entirely what the police found out, I’m not saying things were not done wrong then but I don’t believe it is a reason to blame it on the current police service.”
MDP MP Hisaan Hussain quoted the title of a 2007 blogpost by Rilwan about growing radicalisation in the country.
“‘They exist and is a threat to our nation, what have we done?’ this is what Rilwan wrote on 31st May 2007. We cannot doubt that they exist now, we cannot doubt that a deep state exist. After reading this report, what Rilwan said then is now an officially documented truth. Twelve years ago, Rilwan asked what can we do?”
The heavyweight lawyer proposed changes to existing laws, including the introduction of new guidelines and setting up a multi-agency taskforce to review progress on the commission’s recommendations. After the debate, the report was sent for review by the security services oversight committee.
– Human rights groups –
Both domestic and international human rights groups called on the government to bring the perpetrators to justice.
Maldivian Democracy Network called on the police and prosecutor general to provide security to witnesses named by the commission. Security also need to be ensured for the members and employees of the inquiry commission, MDN said.
Transparency Maldives called on the authorities to investigate “the efforts by the government and state institutions who facilitated the escape of the people who abducted and killed Rilwan as well as prevented bringing those involved to justice.”
Index on Censorship, a UK-based organisation, echoed the calls of the local NGOs.
“The government of the Maldives must do all it can to uncover and bring to justice all those responsible for the murders of Ahmed and Yameen. Their pursuit of truth in the public interest led to their murders at the hands of criminals bent on silencing their work,” said Perla Hinojosa, Index Fellowships and Advocacy Officer.
The Committee to Protect Journalists said it was “deeply saddened” by the news of Rilwan’s murder.
“While we are encouraged by the progress in the investigations, five years is far too long to await justice,” said Aliya Iftikhar, CPJ’s senior Asia researcher who interviewed Suood earlier this year.
“We urge Maldivian authorities to see this through and swiftly prosecute all those involved in Rilwan’s killing, including those who organized and financed it as well as authorities who were complicit or negligent.”
#Maldives🇲🇻 RSF hails the progress of the investigation into forced disappearance of reporter #AhmedRilwan by #AlQaeda affiliates 5 years ago. All light must be shed on those responsible, including inside @PoliceMv and former govt members like @Ahmed_Adeebhttps://t.co/eKbNOlxtMJ
— RSF (@RSF_inter) September 3, 2019
Intelligence resources were used to aid and abet Rilwan's murder.
PPM Govt and the Judiciary facilitated the escape of key suspects.
The rest looked away, turned a blind eye.
Political correctness has never saved a life. Calling out might.
The State; the Police killed Rilwan. pic.twitter.com/7gHMsPn9PV
— Mickail Naseem 🎈 (@MickailNaseem) September 3, 2019
I'm more shocked that the then Foreign Minister Dhunya Maumoon had no idea of the presence of Al Qaida in the #Maldives when it's common knowledge to everyone else.
Here's her nodding to every word of #Tyrant #Yameen who tried to evade the investigation into #FindMoyameeha https://t.co/ar8VAPpaXN pic.twitter.com/2inzDZfXka
— Muna Amina 🎈 (@MunaAmina) September 3, 2019
As Commissioner of Police, I assure the public that MPS will fully assist DDCOM in effecting the immediate arrest of any person against whom DDCOM has obtained an arrest warrant from the courts. (3/3)
— Mohamed Hameed (@M_Hameedh) September 7, 2019
Home Minister & Commissioner of Police met with the family of Ahmed Rilwan this morning. Commissioner has formally requested the People’s Majlis to arrange a meeting with its Committee on Security Services with respect to DDCOM’s findings in to cases of deaths & disappearances. pic.twitter.com/ntlsTJzjTH
— Maldives Police (@PoliceMv) September 4, 2019