The Maldives Independent’s Saya Ahmed and Hassan Moosa sat down with murdered blogger Yamin Rasheed’s mother Mariyam Shafeega and sister Yumna Rasheed to remember the young man who inspired so many with his writing, empathy and activism.
Saya: Could you tell us about who Yameen was as a person, as a brother, as a son. Can you describe him from childhood onwards?
Mariyam Shafeega: He was a very good boy, as a person, as a brother, and even as a son. I’m not saying this because I’m his mother, a lot of people who knew Yameen would agree with that.
When we lived in India, our home was a house many people visited, so quite a lot of people would know that. People would say everyone would see their child as good, but truthfully he was a very mild-mannered person, even from the beginning from the childhood, he was very quiet and good.
Even at the age when children get bubbly, he was very quiet, he wasn’t loud or didn’t run around even from the beginning. Even now, he is like that, very quiet and mild-mannered, doesn’t talk that much.
We lived in India almost all his life, we moved there before he was even two years old. We stayed there till he finished his degree. We went there in 1990 and stayed till 2010.
Yumna Rasheed: We came back when he was 19 or 20-years-old. After he finished college.
MS: And he was very good in studies. He finished school before he was 15.
YR: He studied Bachelor in Computer Applications, BCA. After he came back, he applied to Dhiraagu and Ooredoo.
MS: He got accepted from both places. But Dhiraagu offered him the job first.
YR: Dhonbe [older brother] was never an ambitious person, not in his work or even in his studies. People use their skills to achieve success. Dhonbe always wanted to do the right thing, he wanted to do good things, he empathised a lot with the next person’s feelings. Even when he was working on the Rilwan campaign, he had highlighted that he understands how his mother would feel in this situation.
MS: He used to draw very well too. When he was in India, he used to draw a lot. But now he’s mostly on Twitter.
YR: His art is on Facebook too, he was very creative.
MS: He had a lot of talents, in speaking, and making speeches, so many talents…
SA: How would you describe his personality?
YR: He was very silent and very observant. He’s very warm. As a person, he’s very warm to anybody.
MS: He wanted to live very simply, he didn’t want a lot of things. I have told him to change his bed for so long. He would say it’s okay, I can sleep in this okay. He wanted a simple life, but he wanted to do a lot of good things.
Hassan Moosa: You mentioned he joined Dhiraagu after he moved back here. Could you explain what else he was doing during that time?
YR: Dhonbe started blogging on his own when he was in India, he started it in his teenage days, and he got in touch with other Maldivian bloggers, and he became friends with them. After he moved back also, he hung around with those friends.
MS: I think that might be how he became friends with Rilwan, too, because he wouldn’t have had any friends in Maldives, he spent his whole life in India. Because he used to blog, he became friends with these kids.
YR: He was a very intellectual person, so he would connect with similar intellectual people, they would have communications. He was a software developer in Dhiraagu. And when he was in Dhiraagu also, he used to write for Minivan.
MS: He used to write for foreign papers as well.
YR: Yeah, that was later, he wrote for Indian Express. His hobbies are going swimming, he used to go snorkelling. He wasn’t that interested in sports. He used to go for a run though. He used to enjoy nature with his friends, trekking. When he goes to holidays, he used to go to places he could enjoy nature.
MS: He used to hang out with his blogger friends, and the friends of those bloggers.
YR: At that age, enjoying friends would involve going to coffees, and partying but Dhonbe would have intellectual friends, friends in creative fields.
MS: We didn’t know a lot of his friends from before, but when he started getting the threats I asked to give me a contact of a friend because if we had a number of a friend we could call. When Rilwan was disappeared I was very tense too, especially because he was involved in it [the campaign] I was feeling a lot of tension.
One day his phone was off, and I couldn’t call and I was very worried. When he came home I asked him that. So he said he’s giving me [former Maldives Independent editor] Zaheena’s number, he said they’d made a Viber group because of Rilwan’s disappearance and he said call Zaheena if we couldn’t contact him. So we would call Zaheena if something happened during that time.
He wouldn’t bring his friends home that often, but it was very bad for him when Rilwan was disappeared. He would say it’s disturbing him, and that he couldn’t sleep, he didn’t eat properly for two weeks.
My birthday was on 15th, Rilwan was disappeared on 8th and it was so soon he was so sad in that birthday too. He left the gifts on the bed, and he couldn’t show the energy and joy, he was so devastated. So I knew he was a very close friend of him. We learned about his friends through such incidents, he wasn’t that talkative, I think he was writing everything.
YR: He was very workaholic, he would spend a lot of time working. Even in free time, he would read books.
MS: Even from the beginning, even as a child he would read a lot. He would fall asleep reading a book. He would never sleep without a book. There was no Internet and things then, he would read books. Now he would read from the phone. And my husband, their father, was also a very avid reader, Our house would be like a library, there would be a lot of books, when we lived in India. But now that we don’t have that much space.
YR: It’s e-books now. He was very friendly at home too, he would watch movies with our nephew and put him to sleep, read them bedtime stories.
MS: He was very funny, he would tell a lot of jokes, in his talking he would have this way…
YR: .. he was sarcastic.
MS: That’s very memorable.
YR: He was a very positive person.
MS: He would be home most of the time. After he finished work, he would mostly be home. He would only go out if it’s important, he’d go to coffees very rarely. Even on weekends, he would mostly be home. Even last Friday, he came back from Friday prayer, and only went out at six. After he came back also, he didn’t go out of the house. He was home all of Friday night also, he went swimming at around 3:30.
On Saturday, he didn’t get out of the room at all. He came out at around 5:30, and I prepared him food and he said he didn’t feel like eating so he would drink tea. So he made a cup of tea, and he laid on the sofa. I went out at around at 6:30.
YR: Dhonbe was never political at all, he had his own vision for everything, he didn’t go for any party.
MS: Many people think he’s an MDP activist, but in reality he didn’t have much interest in any party, but he cared about the issues.
YR: Even if you read what he wrote, you would notice that he had his own voice, his own opinion, he’s never biased towards a person. I think that’s why foreign journalists also wanted to talk to him, they consider his opinion because it’s not biased.
SA: Did he voice out his opinion when he was little? Was he an activist?
YR: Dhonbe started writing when he was in high school. When he was in grade 11,12 he started taking part in poetry writing, he started winning things. In college, he was the president of the literary club. He used to host programmes.
MS: He won a lot of awards in college.
YR: He won best outgoing student award from the Bangalore Presidency College.
MS: He went to school in Sarvoviya School, that’s in Trivandrum.
SA: Were you concerned about the threats he got?
MS: The first time he got threats he shared it with his sister and Yumna. His sister told me. I was very scared. Even when he was in India. He was living alone then, living with a relative but they have children to take care of, so they can’t check when he went out and came back.
I used to tell him then also, don’t go out at night. But because of his work, he had to work at night, I used to ask him a lot of questions, why do you choose to work at night when there are these threats. He would say ‘Mom, it’s easier to work at night’
I didn’t really know that he got threats later. But when we talked to a lawyer today, the lawyer told us he discussed these threats very seriously. That was 22nd December. Maybe he told his siblings, but he didn’t tell me. It might be because I get worried.
The threats started coming so much after Rilwan’s disappearance. He wasn’t involved in politics before Rilwan’s disappearance, he wouldn’t go out on the streets, for protests and such. It was after Rilwan’s disappearance that he went out for protests.
YR: Even when he was arrested on May Day in 2015, Dhonbe was there to meet a friend. Not participating in it.
MS: He went there to meet a journalist. He was waiting there for his friend and when people started coming there people blocked the area, and when he went to get out, police said you can’t go that way, go that way. And the police stopped him again. And he could see his friend then. And the police took him away. His friend also told the police he went there to meet him, but the police said, ‘It’s okay, he’ll be released tomorrow.’
YR: That day, a lot of unrelated, innocent people were arrested anyway.
MS: But they thought he was there taking part in the protest.
YR: Because Dhonbe was there Tweeting what he was seeing. He even tweeted, ‘I’ve been arrested.’ People might think he was there for the protest.
MS: That was also a punishment he got unjustly.
YR: Even then, the family was very worried, Dhontha [older sister] was…
MS: Aisha was very shaken,
YR: Even now, Dhontha is very disturbed.
YR: All in all, he was fighting for freedom. People might think he was anti-religious but he always stressed that no one should be hurt for expressing an opinion. Even if you read his tweets, you would know that he wasn’t against religion.
MS: Whatever he tweeted, I didn’t see that he didn’t believe in religion. He used to fast, he used to go for Friday prayers. If he was that against, he wouldn’t fast. I remember very clearly this one instance, when he lived in India, I was going there very urgently, on the way his father got a bit paralysed on one side.
So we went to the hospital. I told him, go to Trivandrum. We were living in Trivandrum, Yameen was in Bangalore doing his degree. It was the evening, and the bus was at four. So, the fasting time would be during the journey. So, his father told him, son, drop the fast and eat something before you leave. But he didn’t let it go, he said he’ll buy something and go.
If he was that against religion on such small thing. Even when he was little…We are Muslims too, we pray and go on with our lives. Everyone who lives in this age is not so religious and pray all the time…Even if it is my child or someone else’s child it is the truth in this country. Not everyone in this country prays five times a day, but everyone is Muslim. So I don’t understand why people are making it so big of a problem.
YR: If he was against religion, he would be against Christianity, against Hinduism…
MS: These people who are saying he was against religion…
YR: …they are using it as an excuse.
MS: He talked against what religious extremists say. I used to tell him don’t write it, that people in this country would not understand. In a community like this, if something like that is written people will make it a big deal. But he wouldn’t mind what people might say.
YR: Fundamentally, he was fighting against using religion as a tool. But even with this, they are still using it.
HM: How do you feel now, because people are using it and spreading that narrative?
MS: It makes me very sad really, but the thing is people will say what they want to, it’s their right. But I think about how brutally he was murdered, I don’t believe that the people who killed him were religious. From the photos police released also, they don’t look religious at all.
They had a very thug style, but my son was much better. He was responsible, in a job, and he lived a good life, earning money by working without harming anyone. So, I feel like my son was much better than them. They are saying he’s bad because they feel that way.
He would never harm anyone, he would never disturb anyone. Even at home, he would never disturb anyone. Kids disturb their parents too, but from him, nothing like that ever happened. That is the truth. Many people in this country would agree with me because people visited our home.
Even the owner of this house said he hadn’t even noticed he lived here, he’s been living here for two years. He didn’t make trouble at all. Even in this home, he wouldn’t get out of this room unless it is to eat. He was a very quiet person.
YR: All the places who employed him also described his character. Dhiraagu, he volunteered for [the Maldives Red Crescent], he gave lectures in Clique College.
MS: The people in the places he worked at would know what kind of a person he was, at work what kind of a person he was. Even in school, and college everyone loved him, teachers and lecturers.
YR: Dhonbe was a very emotional person. Even on the day Raudha died, he posted that he could not read the news any further. He was that kind of emotional person. He’s a totally harmless person, that’s why it makes me sad so much, he can never do harm to a person. So there is no point.
HM: What Yameen wrote and blogged about reached a lot of people, a lot of people felt it. How do you personally feel about what he did, about the message he gave?
MS: I am very proud of what he did and the courage he had, as a mother. To be truthful, when he was freed [from jail], I was very proud of his courage. But because a son has been taken away, I have those feelings too. I told him not to do it not because I was unhappy about it, but because of all the threats. In a country like this where there is no justice, there is always that fear.
There are people like that in all countries, but courts, institutions and media are very strong in their countries. So you know that the people who would do those things would be a bit hesitant, that there might be some punishment for doing it.
But in this country, media doesn’t have any power, courts don’t have any power, independent institutions have no power, so anyone can do whatever they feel like. The powerful person is powerful, the brutal person can brutalise, they do not get punished.
Rilwan’s case and Afraasheem’s case, these are highlighted because they are high-profile but many such cases are happening every day, no one is getting justice. So, the perpetrators would have no hesitation, they can keep doing it. That is why I sometimes say stop it. It makes me very happy, the courage he has, his determination, and his refusal to give in to the risk, it makes me happy. But there is the other side too, the risk makes me sad and afraid.
I told him we lived in India, in a very free environment, in a place democracy was much stronger, where you can get justice through courts. I told him that this place would be very different, so keep that in mind.
I used to tell him a lot, to be careful while out on the streets, but he would say, ‘Mother. If someone wants to hurt, they would do it anywhere, even if you are at home.’ And that’s what eventually happened.
YR: When he was arrested on May Day, we went with the footage, it proved his innocence, it showed police arresting him while he was standing separately, without taking part in the protest. Even when we submitted all that, we couldn’t get him released. They said ‘however’ and just remanded him. We had a lawyer, we couldn’t get him justice.
MS: We got the footage from Raajje TV and showed where he was standing and that he had nothing to do with it. Aisha was very concerned about it, she went and requested the footage from Raajje TV and got it and went to court. Even then they remanded him.
YR: The accusations were that he threw rocks and bottles, a police [officer] actually gave witness statements.
MS: So we do not have hope that we can get justice.
YR: I think even now, they can get video footage after all that happened and we are still not getting justice.
MS: No one has been arrested still. Malé is a small space. I feel like [nearby police barracks] Iskandharu Koshi here can cover this area, police can find out if people planned this. And it must have been planned.
He left this house at around nine, and then he came out [of the office] at two something. So they would know how to get him, only if they were following very closely. At that time of the night, in this small space, not many people would be out on the streets at this time, but police couldn’t get any intel that people were planning to kill.
If people were going this way and the other, it should be suspicious. There wouldn’t be that many things to check in cameras. It’s my belief that the police could see the movements happening in the streets at that time. If people were coming in and going out of this house at that time, I think they should check it. And that too after threats were reported, and no action had been taken.
I criticise that very much because I strongly believe that if police had taken some action, his life could have been saved. I know everyone would die, but dying and being killed are two very different things. I’m not complaining because he died wishing he would stay alive forever, but it wouldn’t have been this heartbreaking if he hadn’t been brutalised like that. Everyone would die, but he was that brutally murdered because of their negligence. I hate to say it, but that’s how it is.
SA: Are the police sharing any information on the progress of the investigation?
MS: We called them before the press conference and told them that we are very sad that we weren’t getting any information about the investigation. They told us to go to police station. It’s hard to go, but I went because I wanted to know so badly. We stayed there but we couldn’t get any details. They said they were looking, and they believe they can get some progress. The didn’t say anything else. We asked them if the people who were arrested had anything to do with it, but they said they are not aware that anyone had been arrested in relation to this. They gave an indirect answer like that.
We stayed there but we couldn’t get any details. They said they were looking, and they believe they can get some progress. The didn’t say anything else. We asked them if the people who were arrested had anything to do with it, but they said they are not aware that anyone had been arrested in relation to this. They gave an indirect answer like that.
We told them everything that was suspicious to us, asked about things we requested to look at, we’d been researching a lot, we didn’t know when he came into the house.
They said it was reported to police at around 2:50, we only learned about it 4:36. That was quite a while later. I was very sad because of that. I told them that our floor is the first floor. Even if they didn’t know him, they’d call after they saw the ID card, they could have gone to each floor and asked if a person called Yameen lived here. We only knew about it when we got the news from the island, then we opened the door and saw the tape.
That messed me up. I thought the attack must have come from the street. But because there was tape inside the house, I asked them was he killed here? And they said yes, that made me very sad because he wasn’t even safe inside the house.
YR: Dhonbe was very environment-friendly, he wouldn’t ride a motorbike
MS: I used to tell him to get a bike, especially after he changed office. Before, the office was near here, and he used to tell me, ‘Mother, why do you keep talking about motorcycle all the time? It’s only a five-minute walk.’ And when he changed [to the Maldives Stock Exchange], I told him, ‘It’s very far now.’
It makes me very scared because he walks at night. But he said, ‘Why motorcycle? It’s not such a good thing. Don’t you see how it is out in the streets.’ He didn’t want to ride a motorbike, he would walk.
YR: And he wanted no one to ride motorbikes. But when he was arrested in Mayday, his criminal record listed traffic violations.
MS: But he never rode any vehicles. I knew even then, because of the Rilwan case he would tag police on Twitter and write about it. So maybe police wanted to keep him in custody for longer. A councilor who was arrested with him was released, but they didn’t release him. They just kept extending his remand and finally when he was released, it was house arrest for five days,