Two journalists from the opposition-aligned Raajje TV have been found guilty on controversial charges of obstructing police duty.
However, at a closed hearing Monday afternoon, Judge Ahmed Shakeel postponed the sentencing to January 24. The judge previously announced that verdicts will be delivered on December 19.
Mohamed Wisam and Leevan Ali Nasir are the first journalists to be convicted in more than a decade.
At today’s hearing, the state prosecutor asked for a jail sentence of four months and 24 days. But defence lawyer Abdulla Haseen reiterated that the prosecution was unable to prove the charges. He also appealed for the judge to impose an MVR12,000 (US$778) fine in lieu of imprisonment.
“We asked the judge to take into account that Wisam and Leevan have no prior criminal records and are responsible members of the society and to consider the lightest punishment possible,” Haseen told the Maldives Independent.
Haseen noted that the gap of more than a month between a guilty verdict and the sentencing is not the normal practice.
“It is not something that cannot be done, as in it is not illegal. It is for the judge to decide when he wants to have the sentencing hearing,” he said.
“But it is not the usual practice. It is in very few cases that the sentencing hearing is scheduled this way.”
Wisam and Leevan were arrested on November 2, 2015 along with a third journalist while covering a bomb scare in the capital. They were accused of tackling a police officer to prevent the arrest of Hussain Fiyaz Moosa, Raajje TV’s chief operating officer.
All three later alleged physical abuse in custody.
The prosecution’s case was based on the eyewitness testimony of four police officers.
Family members, journalists, and opposition figures meanwhile gathered outside the courthouse in solidarity with the pair this afternoon, but riot police quickly arrived in the area and pushed them back.
Raajje TV previously dismissed the charges against its staff as “baseless in its entirety,” describing the trials 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.”
A third Raajje TV reporter, Adam Zareer, is also on trial on charges of obstructing police officers during the station’s coverage of an anti-government protest on March 25 last year.
Wisam, who was arrested along with Zareer and held for five days, was also charged over the incident. The court heard closing arguments in Zareer’s case on November 29.
Hearings in Wisam’s second trial have been stalled as one of the prosecution’s witnesses is out of the country.
The withdrawal of charges against 24 journalists arrested since President Abdulla Yameen assumed power in November 2013 was among nine demands outlined in a petition submitted to the authorities by some 183 Maldivian journalists last April.
The Maldives is now ranked 112th on the France-based Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom index, which said the country remains “very hostile for independent and opposition media”.