The judge presiding over the trial of Raajje TV Chief Operating Officer Hussain Fiyaz Moosa questioned the legality of the charges against the veteran journalist at a first hearing this morning.
Fiyaz was accused of assaulting a police officer while reporting on the military’s attempts to defuse a bomb on November 2 last year, but he was charged with touching an individual without his consent – a class four misdemeanor.
Judge Adam Areef asked prosecutors why the journalist was not charged with the more serious offence of assault, which carries a four-year jail sentence.
Today’s hearing was adjourned after the judge granted the prosecution more time to clarify the charges. He did not announce a date for the next hearing.
Fiyaz is the fourth journalist from the opposition-aligned TV station presently standing trial amidst an unprecedented crackdown on freedom of the press in the Maldives.
Hisham Wajeeh, the Prosecutor General’s office spokesperson, told The Maldives Independent that the prosecutors opted for the lesser charge “because the defendant will be sentenced for touching a person without consent in the event he is not convicted of injuring an officer.”
A credible source told the The Maldives Independent that the police do not have sufficient evidence to prove Fiyaz harmed the policeman.
Fiyaz was accused of hitting a police corporal when he was asked to leave the Maafanu stadium area, where the military’s explosives experts were defusing the bomb while the police cordoned off a large area in the capital’s southwest.
A small group of journalists gathered outside the criminal court building this morning in solidarity with Fiyaz.
Journalists Mohamed Wisam and Leevan Ali Naseer, who were arrested along with Fiyaz on November 2, are also standing trial on charges of obstructing police officers.
At the first hearings of their trials last month, Wisam was accused of grabbing a policeman from behind while Leevan was accused of trying to remove the officer’s hand from Fiyaz.
The three journalists had accused the police of beating them in custody.
Lawyers representing the journalists said Wisam’s left eye was swollen and bloody. He had difficulty speaking and moving and had told the lawyer that he was repeatedly beaten by five police officers.
Wisam said the policeman continued to beat him him inside the Iskandhar Koshi barracks, located in front of the sports ground. Fiyaz meanwhile has difficulty hearing as a policeman had struck him hard on the ear and face, lawyers said.
A police spokesperson, however, denied that the journalists were beaten either during or after their arrest.
A fourth Raajje TV staff, Adam Zareer, is also being prosecuted on a charge of obstructing police officers.
The withdrawal of charges against 24 journalists arrested since President Abdulla Yameen assumed power in November 2013 is among nine demands outlined in a petition submitted last month to the President’s Office, the People’s Majlis and the Supreme Court.
Signed by some 183 Maldivian journalists, the petition urged the authorities to tackle threats to press freedom, including the withdrawal of a bill criminalising defamation and ending impunity for crimes committed against the press.
Raajje TV has meanwhile expressed “shock” and “disappointment” over the Prosecutor General’s decision to file criminal charges against its staff.
“The charges brought against all four journalists are baseless in its entirety, and thus, can only be justified as an attack on press freedom and an attempt to impede, harass, and psychologically torture Raajje TV journalists with the objective of stopping Raajje TV‘s independent broadcasts,” the station said in a statement on April 17.
Press freedom groups including Committee to Protect Journalists, International Federation of Journalists and Washington-based National Press Club have also expressed concern over declining press freedom in the Maldives.
Correction: May 3, 2016
This article previously misquoted Prosecutor General Office’s Spokesman Ahmed Hisham Wajeeh on the state’s reasons for pursuing a lesser charge against Hussain Fiyaz Moosa, and has been amended with the correct quote. The Maldives Independent regrets the error.