Feature & Comment
Ahmed Rilwan, four years on
The police and Prosecutor General’s Office have said nothing about the trial verdict.
Maldives Independent journalist Ahmed Rilwan went missing on August 8 2014.
Two men were found not guilty over his abduction earlier this month, with Judge Adam Arif blaming authorities for failures in the investigation and prosecution. He described the crime as a “dangerous atrocity that seemed to have been conducted by a network of several people.”
Prosecutor General Aishath Bisham was asked – before the verdict – what the challenges had been in the case.
“Right now, I don’t want to make any comment because the case is ongoing in court,” she said. “Yes, there were many difficulties. We faced so many obstacles and I really want to make a comment on this but I can’t because it’s still ongoing in court. I’m ready to comment when the case concludes in court.”
She was contacted after the verdict for comment on what the judge said and the family’s vow to sue.
The Maldives Independent also wanted to know if there would be an appeal and if she thought the Prosecutor General’s Office still had the public’s trust. There was no response.
The police were also contacted before and after the verdict. There was no response from them on either occasion.
His family will Wednesday mark the fourth anniversary of his disappearance. They have learned little since he went missing.
– ‘Shocked to the core’ –
His disappearance had a huge impact on Maldives media outlets which, in the last four years, have been fighting to tell the country’s story even as the government tries to stop them.
The country has slid down press freedom rankings, from 112 to 120, and Reporters Without Borders has been documenting the erosion of media freedom in the Maldives for 15 years.
It has fared worse in terms of press freedom and freedom of information, but that was when former dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom was in power.
Although Rilwan did not have a specific reporting beat, he wrote about corruption and extremism.
He was known locally as an advocate for religious tolerance and a critic of government policies and radical Islam. His work made him a target.
It was no longer arbitrary arrests and jail time the media faced, as they had under the Gayoom regime.
“There was a general feeling of insecurity,” says Zaheena Rasheed, who was working at the Maldives Independent at the time of her colleague’s disappearance. “There was a rise in attacks on and threats against journalists.”
In 2013 Ibrahim ‘Asward’ Waheed from Raajje TV nearly died after being beaten with iron rods. The station’s headquarters had been torched.
A study from the Maldives Broadcasting Commission showed that political parties, followed by gangs and religious extremists, were the leading source of threats against journalists.
Days before his disappearance, Rilwan reported on 15 journalists receiving threats for their coverage of gang violence in Malé.
“For us, as a news room, it was the hardest story to report on,” she says. “Because we were also part of the story. We were reporting and writing about something that was happening to us.
“We were also separately investigating the incident, along with members of his family. So we had a lot of information that we did not make public because the police were already accusing us of undermining their investigation.”
It was a difficult position to be in, she recalls. There was also the emotional toll of losing a colleague, someone they saw every day.
“Rilwan’s abduction shocked the Maldivian media to the core,” says former Maldives Independent reporter Mohamed Saif Fatih. “The risks associated with writing and journalism suddenly became all too real.”
“I had to consider my safety and that of my colleagues,” adds Fatih. “But I also hated having to exclude the byline on pieces about extremism and jihadis.
“In writing about about Rilwan’s disappearance and radicalisation I always questioned myself if the article would attract too much attention to the paper, my colleagues and myself.”
It was difficult to interview sources about Rilwan’s disappearance because they were hesitant and cautious.
They were unwilling to provide specific information and were deliberately vague. “No one was willing to go on the record and everyone wished to remain anonymous,” he says.
A defamation law passed in 2016 tightened the grip on the media.
The bill’s passage led to the abrupt closure of the Maldives’ first private TV station, DhiTV, and news outlets said they were being forced to practice self-censorship to avoid lawsuits.
– ‘No one is safe’-
People who spoke to the Maldives Independent say the last four years have damaged their view of state institutions, even the country.
“Finding out the truth is a remote possibility now,” says photographer Sharif Ali. “I really hope someone who knows something about it speaks up someday. I don’t know how the perpetrators and those withholding information sleep at night.”
Nooshin Waheed, co-creator of a website that documents murder in the country, said she held onto the hope that Rilwan would emerge and say sorry for the anxiety. But she could no longer sleep once it became clear it was an abduction.
The case, she believes, is more frightening and painful because of the unanswered questions about his fate.
“It has been designed in such a way as to strike terror in our hearts,” she says.
“Now extremists are emboldened enough to carry someone off in the night, do harm to him and get away with it. The derailment of the investigation by the police and their harassment of Rilwan’s family has proved they are aiding those responsible.
“Who are we to turn to when those who are supposed to protect us fail to do so? No one is safe anymore.”