The trial of a Maldivian man accused of fighting with an Islamic extremist group in Pakistan began at the criminal court last Thursday.
Ahmed Naiz from the Merry Lodge house in the Maafanu ward of Malé was charged with terrorism for allegedly participating in a foreign war, an offence that carries a jail sentence of up to 20 years.
The first hearing of the trial was closed to the public at the request of the prosecutor general’s office.
According to a spokesman, the judge granted Naiz’s request for time to appoint a lawyer before answering the charges.
The defendant was brought to court under police custody. The circumstances of his arrest or extradition remain unclear.
Naiz is the fifth alleged Maldivian jihadi fighter to stand trial since travelling overseas to join a militant group was criminalised by the 2015 Anti-Terrorism Act.
In May 2016, three Maldivian men arrested from the Turkey-Syria border was charged with terrorism. All three pleaded not guilty, claiming they travelled to Turkey on a business trip. The trial is ongoing.
The case of a 30-year-old Maldivian man alleged to have fought in Pakistan’s Waziristan for nine years was meanwhile brought to trial last month.
In 2010, nine Maldivians arrested with weapons in Waziristan were extradited to the Maldives. But the suspected jihadis were released with the state claiming they could not be prosecuted under existing laws.
The anti-terror law was passed after the current administration was accused of ignoring the threat posed by jihadi recruitment since the first reports of Maldivians joining terror groups emerged in 2014.
The opposition claims as many as 250 Maldivians are fighting in Syria and Iraq – the highest per capita in the region.
But the government says the opposition has been inflating the figure to lobby international support for its cause, offering various lower estimates and decrying damage to the economy due to “exaggerated” claims.
At least six Maldivians fighting with the al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front in Syria are believed to have been killed in battle.
In August, the parliament approved the first state policy on combating terrorism and violent extremism, which broadly outlined plans to take “a central and active role” internationally, strengthen national security, and conduct de-radicalisation and rehabilitation programmes.