Defendants charged over the killing of liberal blogger Yameen Rasheed started planning the murder in a mosque, a secret witness testified on Wednesday.
The prosecution’s key witness gave anonymised testimony via an audio link and told the court that he knew the six defendants well as friends. He claimed to have heard them plotting the murder in various places, including the Furqan mosque and Thoiba mosque in Malé.
Discussions started in November 2016 and meetings also took place in the home of Ismail Haisham Rasheed, the leader of the group, said the witness, whose voice was altered to prevent identification.
Along with Haisham, Ahmed Zihan Ismail, Ismail Rasheed, Mohamed Dhifran, Hassan Shifaz and Hussain Ziyad were arrested within days and charged with felony murder. All six defendants pleaded not guilty.
A seventh suspect, Mohamed Yashfau Rasheed, was previously charged with aiding and abetting murder. But he was later transferred to house arrest. The Prosecutor General’s office declined to press charges against an eighth suspect.
The group of radicalised young men believed Yameen was guilty of insulting Islam, police said.
According to the witness, plans were hatched after an exhibition called Katti Hivvaru featured artwork deemed offensive to Islam.
During the first meeting at the Furqaan mosque, the witness said he heard Ziyad say that “people who mock Islam have to be killed.”
The ringleader Haisham later brought the group together in February 2017. They started going running and swimming in preparation.
The original plan was for Ziyad to help Haisham carry out the murder, the witness said. But Ziyad got injured three days before the chosen date and it was decided that Ahmed Zihan Ismail would take his place.
Other unknown accomplices “facilitated” the murder by providing knives, motorbikes, wigs and phones.
The witness said he was able to identify Haisham and Zihan from photos released by police of two suspects inside Yameen’s building. Police also released a photo that showed the pair getting on two separate motorcycles waiting outside.
Ismail Rasheed kept watch outside the building, the witness said. Mohamed Dhifran and Hassan Shifaz were tasked with following Yameen and reporting back to Haisham. The witness saw Dhifran shortly before the murder around 2am.
He also claimed to have heard Zihan talking about the stabbing inside a shop after the night of the murder.
“He said Yameen Rasheed shouted a lot, and that it rained a little at the time. Haisham was also at the shop. I saw him leave on his motorbike,” the witness said.
“[Haisham] later told [the others] to get rid of anything police could use in an investigation.”
Both before and after the witness spoke, defence lawyers strongly objected to allowing anonymised testimony. They repeatedly cited a 2012 Supreme court order and argued that a suspect in a crime should not be allowed to testify for or against other suspects.
But the judge stopped the lawyers and referred to a ruling on their objections during pre-trial hearings.
During the cross-examination, the witness refused to answer questions posed by the defence, including how he was able to overhear the conversations, if he had been involved in the planning and whether he was among the eight suspects arrested in connection with the murder.
“I can’t say where I was when I heard it, but I was standing in hearing distance,” he said.
“Don’t ask questions about me, ask me about your client,” he replied in response to several questions.
The court also heard testimony from two police officers who first attended the scene following a report around 3am.
They described the crime scene in vivid detail.
The stairwell was dark when they entered and they used the flashlight from their phones. Yameen was lying face down on the floor in a pool of blood.
One of the policemen said he was unable to detect a pulse when he checked, after which they called for backup and an ambulance. The backup arrived within two minutes and the body was taken to the nearby Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital on a police vehicle as the ambulance was late.
Yameen’s mother and sister started crying uncontrollably as the officers described numerous stab wounds to the chest and neck. They left the courtroom accompanied by a court staff during the testimony of the second crime scene officer.
A third police officer who prepared a report about injuries on Haisham and Zihan’s bodies told the court they were signs of a struggle. There were scratches on Haisham’s neck and injuries on Zihan’s leg and feet.
A forensic officer also explained that a light bulb in the stairwell had been loosened from the holder.
The judge concluded Wednesday’s hearing after testimony from the five prosecution witnesses. The next hearing is scheduled for August 7.