Police officers obstructed a march held in Malé today by family and friends of missing Minivan News journalist Ahmed Rilwan, pepper spraying family members at the front line and arresting one man.
The ‘Suvaalu March’ (Question March) was held to mark one year after Rilwan went missing. The 29-year-old was last seen on CCTV footage entering the ferry terminal in Malé around 12:45am on August 8, 2014 and is believed to have been abducted at knifepoint outside his apartment building in Hulhumalé.
The march began near the social centre and headed east on Majeedhee Magu, the capital’s main thoroughfare. Police officers attempted to block the march twice, the first time near the Maafanu cemetery and then at the Chandhanee Magu junction, but the participants walked on.
The police officers were not in riot gear and had not set up barricades.
During the second attempt, about eight police officers barged into the crowd, pepper sprayed Rilwan’s family members and others in the front line, and arrested one man, Rilwan’s brother-in-law, who went past the police line. Rilwan’s brother-in-law and his wife fell to the ground before he was taken away on a police jeep.
Police officers had told participants that they could not move forward. The constitution, however, guarantees the right to freedom of assembly without prior permission from the state.
The march ended near the artificial beach stage on the eastern end of Majeedhee Magu with speeches by Rilwan’s family and colleagues and a prayer for his safe return.
Main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) MPs Imthiyaz Fahmy and Eva Abdulla along with Jumhooree Party (JP) MP Ali Hussain as well as journalists from various media outlets joined the march.
Last month, the police had claimed that there is no evidence linking Rilwan’s disappearance with an abduction reported outside his apartment around the time he would have reached home.
the police said they have received DNA analysis of samples taken from three cars suspected to have been used in the abduction, but could not “conclusively state” that there was a connection between the incident and Rilwan’s disappearance.
“We also note that this analysis did not provide any evidence of a link to the suspects previously arrested in this case,” the police said.
Four suspects had been arrested in September and one suspect was held in police custody for five weeks, but the Criminal Court transferred him to house arrest in November.
One of the suspects was among a group of 12 Maldivian jihadis who traveled to Syria in January. The group also included Azlif Rauf, a suspect in the murder of MP Dr Afrasheem Ali in October 2012, who reportedly died while fighting in Syria in mid-May.
An investigative report published by Maldivian Democratic Network had identified Azlif’s brother Arlif Rauf as the owner of the red car which may have been used in Rilwan’s suspected abduction.
The report implicated radicalised gangs in Rilwan’s disappearance and confirmed evidence of possible “hostile surveillance” at the terminal conducted by two known affiliates of Malé-based Kuda Henveiru gang led by the Rauf brothers.
Home minister Umar Naseer had also also acknowledged involvement of criminal gangs in the case.
A petition with 5,500 signatures calling for a speedy investigation was submitted to the parliament last year, but is stalled at a parliamentary committee.
Rilwan’s family has also submitted a petition with the UN Working Group on Enforced Disappearances in September last year.
New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) on Friday sent a letter to President Abdulla Yameen calling on the government to ensure a credible and independent investigation into his disappearance.
“President Yameen, if no independent investigation is launched into Rilwan’s disappearance, Maldives risks joining the ranks of violent or repressive states like Syria, Mexico, and Russia, where journalists go missing and anti-press violations are at a high. We ask that you take this opportunity to demonstrate that the Maldives is committed to ensuring full justice for all of its citizens,” the CPJ said.