Three Maldivian men arrested from the Turkey-Syria border in February appeared at the criminal court in Malé today to answer charges of terrorism.
Ahmed Latheef, Ahmed Suhail Moosa, and Munawwar Abdulla are the first to stand trial for traveling abroad with the intent of joining a terror group after the offence was criminalised by the controversial 2015 Anti-Terrorism Act.
At the beginning of today’s hearing, Judge Adam Arif asked each defendant individually if they wished to appoint legal counsel.
Latheef quickly rose to his feet and requested time to hire a lawyer. But Suhail and Munawwar insisted that they did not understand the terrorism charges.
“Is this about us going on a trip abroad?” asked Munawwar.
In response, the state prosecutor explained that leaving the Maldives to fight in a foreign civil war is now a criminal offence.
If found guilty, the three men could face jail terms of between 10 to 20 years.
After the charges were clarified, Suhail and Munnawar also told the court that they wish to seek legal representation.
The three defendants were granted seven days to hire lawyers and the prosecution was asked to submit case documents within three days.
Concluding proceedings, the judge announced that the next hearing will take place on June 28.
The accused were brought to court in handcuffs. They looked at ease and chatted with each other in apparent good humour.
According to the opposition-aligned station Raajje TV, the three men were arrested while trying to cross a mud ditch dug between border fences as a buffer to prevent illegal crossings.
The group comprised of five Maldivians and only one managed to cross the border. A fourth man, identified as Anas, remains incarcerated in Turkey, Raajje TV said.
The rest were extradited to the Maldives in March by the Turkish authorities.
The prosecution of the would-be jihadis comes nearly two years after the first reports of radicalised Maldivians leaving to fight in the Syria civil war.
Days after the state raised charges against the three, a popular teacher was arrested on a southern island on suspicion of links to terrorist organisations.
The current administration had been under fire from the opposition both over its inability to stem the flow of Maldivians leaving for Syria and its refusal to acknowledge the gravity and scale of the problem.
The government had previously downplayed the threat of extremism while accusing the opposition of endangering the economy with“exaggerated” claims.
The opposition claims as many as 200 Maldivians have joined militant groups in Syria and Iraq – which would make the country the highest per capita supplier of jihadis – but government officials have offered various lower estimates.
In early February, Foreign Minister Dunya Maumoon told CNN that Maldivians leaving for the Middle East is “not a hugely growing issue” while Tourism Minister Moosa Zameer lambasted “scare stories of religious extremists threatening tourists”.
The government has also touted the anti-terror legislation and the 2014 Prevention of Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing Act as “concrete actions [taken] to curb the stem of foreign terrorist fighters.”
Meanwhile, the Mumbai Mirror reported in April that a 100-hour Indo-US operation failed to stop a family of 12 Maldivians from traveling to the Middle East last December after transiting in Bangalore.
The newspaper cited an estimate of 150 Maldivians fighting with extremist organisations and claimed five young men from the family of 12 were radicalised by the Malé-based NGO Jamiyyathul Salaf.
In March, OGN Syria interviewed three young Maldivian men fighting with the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat Al-Nusra Front.
At least six Maldivians fighting with the Al-Nusra Front are believed to have been killed in battle.