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Three questioned in hate speech probe

Police launched an investigation after a public chat channel started branding individuals as apostates.



At least three people have been questioned in an investigation launched by police into hate speech and death threats after a public chat channel started branding individuals as apostates.

Sheikh Ali Zaid was questioned on Sunday evening after Aishath Aniya, a host on Minivan Radio, and Siruhaan Mohamed, an online campaigner for strict Islamic sharia, were summoned to the police headquarters during the past week.

Aniya told the Maldives Independent she has been targeted by extremists online after she tweeted a photo of the King Salman Mosque under construction in Malé and complained about the “ugly structure” blocking her view of the airport.

The January 2 tweet prompted criticism from renowned local clerics who implied that Aniya was laadheenee (irreligious or secular).

“What a beautiful mosque Masha Allah! Some laadheenee people will say the structure is ugly and its blocking the view. Let them be. We know what they really find ugly. The most loved place for Muslims are mosques. That’s for sure,” tweeted Sheikh Zaid.

Aniya said she started getting threats after Sheikh Zaid’s tweet. Police asked her to explain what happened on Twitter, she said.

Zaid meanwhile tweeted about his police summons on Sunday afternoon.

“What I said is in the tweet. And when people add complete lies about me, I am the one being summoned. Please be fair!” he said.

Zaid has previously accused the education ministry of working with “irreligious” people and made unfounded claims about 70 percent of people on a southern island not fasting during Ramadan.

Debates and heated arguments raged on Twitter and Facebook earlier this month after an island magistrate court sentenced a woman to death by stoning.

Human rights activists who condemned the verdict were accused of blasphemy and a public telegram channel called ‘Apostate Watch MV’ started branding individuals as apostates.

In April 2017, liberal blogger Yameen Rasheed was killed by a radicalised group of young men who believed he was guilty of blasphemy and insulting Islam, according to police.

In the wake of the brutal murder, several local sheikhs and the online campaigner Siruhan labelled Yameen as someone who “mocked Islam” and sought to justify his killing.

Death threats were openly made against human rights defenders and civil society activists, including human rights NGO chief Shahindha Ismail, who was probed for “anti-Islamic” tweets.

Siruhan is known for posting screenshots of tweets and photos of human rights activists and accusing them of being atheists or secularists.

He confirmed on Facebook last Wednesday that he was questioned by the police.

“Thank you Maldives Police for the cooperation. I applaud the work you are doing for the safety and security of the country. Just as you summoned me for the investigation, I call on you to arrest and punish the people trying to spread irreligious and secular philosophy in Maldives,” he wrote

In a press statement last week, police said it has met and “advised” some people.

“Conversations taking place on social media recently has dialogue that disrupts the social unity and public interest. In response to these conversations, dialogue that promotes hatred and violence has been used,” police said.

“The Maldives police has met with people doing these things and have advised not to repeat it and reminded that police will take action against those who compromise the religious unity, public interest and safety.”

Social media users and the general public were advised to “maintain a culture of respecting each other’s emotions and social interests of the country.”

Police also urged the public to report threats of physical violence. 

In a policy paper published last April under the previous administration, the Islamic ministry listed apostasy and openly mocking Islam as some of the biggest challenges facing the country and recommended expulsion from Maldivian society, financial penalties, and even a prison sentence.

In 2010, self-declared apostate Mohamed Nazim publicly repented and reverted back to Islam after government counselling when religious groups called for his death.