Slain blogger Yameen Rasheed’s family attended a hearing of his murder trial for the first time on Thursday.
Preliminary hearings were held behind closed doors from September 2017 to April this year. The first open hearing took place in late July after a series of cancellations, but his family was not allowed into the courtroom.
At Thursday’s hearing, the court allowed only five members of the public to attend – three members from Yameen Rasheed’s family and two family members of the seven suspects.
Five ‘criminal court trainees’ were allowed into the seating area.
“You’re allowing in students into the hearing, but not the families of the suspects or the defendants,” defence lawyer Maumoon Hameed objected.
The court heard pre-trial motions during Thursday’s hearing.
A motion on behalf of defendant Ismail Rasheed requested hearings in a larger room at the High Court to allow more people to observe proceedings. The court was also asked to authorise a live broadcast.
Defence lawyers also expressed concern over Yameen Rasheed’s family not being allowed into the first eight hearings.
The victim’s next of kin can seek the death penalty in murder cases, they noted.
Judge Ibrahim Ali said he would make arrangements to allow more people into the courtroom. He denied the request for live broadcasts, citing legal hurdles.
He assured Yameen Rasheed’s family they would be allowed entry to future hearings.
Defendants Ismail Haisham Rasheed and Ahmed Zihan withdrew their pre-trial motions, saying they did not wish to prolong the trial.
State prosecutors asked for a stay order to conceal evidence related to forensic doctors, analysts and police officers who worked on reports. They also asked to protect witnesses and to allow secret witnesses to testify in a manner that they could not be identified by the defendants.
After the last hearing on July 30, the trial was due to resume on August 28. But it was cancelled after the judge went on leave.
The judge said Thursday he intends to hold hearings regularly.
He also repeatedly asked to keep the hearings limited to one hour, saying he did not want to “see things get out of my control, as I have experienced before.”
Previous closed hearings lasted up to five hours.
The judge also ordered the Maldives Correctional Service to facilitate meetings between lawyers and the accused, warning that he would have to order their release otherwise.
The six suspects in custody – Ismail Haisham Rasheed, Ahmed Zihan Ismail, Ismail Rasheed, Mohamed Dhifran, Hassan Shifaz, and Hussain Ziyad – deny the felony murder charges.
According to the prosecution, two of the suspects stabbed Yameen to death in the stairwell of his apartment on April 23 last year. The other suspects are accused of following Yameen and keeping watch outside.
A seventh suspect, Mohamed Yashfau Rasheed, was previously charged with aiding and abetting murder and transferred to house arrest.
The Prosecutor General’s office declined to press charges against an eighth suspect.
According to police, the group of radicalised young men believed the 29-year-old satirist and human rights defender was guilty of insulting Islam.
Police claimed to have found no evidence to suggest the attack was funded or organised by an outside group. But there was information “about people who fed them these ideas, or supported them in some form.”
Yameen’s family previously questioned the ability of the police to conduct an impartial and credible investigation due to the failure to convict or arrest suspects in the abduction of Maldives Independent journalist Ahmed Rilwan and the near-fatal attack on blogger Hilath Rasheed.
Like Yameen, both Rilwan and Hilath were prominent liberal voices against radicalisation.