Adhaalath Party leader Sheikh Imran Abdulla has been found guilty of terrorism by the criminal court and sentenced to 12 years in prison.
Delivering the verdict tonight, Judge Abdul Bari Yousuf said Imran incited violence against the government in his speech at the 20,000-strong protest march on May 1 last year and “struck fear in the hearts of the people”.
Imran’s breach of the freedom of assembly law as president of the Adhaalath Party – officially the principal organiser of the mass rally – coupled with encouraging violence constitutes an act of terrorism, the judge said.
His conviction marks the first terrorism sentence passed in the Maldives over a speech made at a political gathering.
Imran also joins the ranks of jailed opposition figures and high-profile prisoners, including ex-President Mohamed Nasheed, two ex-defence ministers, a former ruling party MP, a former vice president, and a former prosecutor general.
A handcuffed Imran sat calmly during tonight’s proceedings, silently reciting a prayer and looking directly at Judge Bari. The judge did not return his gaze.
After the verdict was read out and the judge retired to his chamber, Imran cupped his wife’s hand and said with a smile: “Tell the kids that their father has been sentenced and read them the dua.”
Imran’s lawyers have said they will appeal the verdict at the High Court.
In an unlikely alliance with the main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party last year, Imran had spearheaded the opposition’s “Maldivians against tyranny” campaign ahead of the historic May Day rally.
Imran had said in his speech that President Abdulla Yameen must come to the “peace table” to negotiate with the opposition if he wants to remain in power.
Scores of protesters and two police officers were injured during violent clashes on the night of May 1. Nearly 200 people were arrested.
In his verdict tonight, Judge Bari said Imran’s allegations against Yameen and then-Tourism Minister Ahmed Adeeb led to the violence.
Imran had suggested that the pair would know the truth behind the brutal murder of MP Afrasheem Ali, the disappearance of journalist Ahmed Rilwan, and the “framing” of former Defence Minister Mohamed Nazim.
Yameen had vowed to prosecute Imran over the allegations linking him to Dr Afrasheem’s murder.
The judge also said Imran did not act to prevent clashes.
Video footage showing protesters tripping and kicking a Specialist Operations officer and one man hitting the policeman over the head with his baton was submitted as evidence during the trial.
At a previous hearing, the prosecution also showed the court a video of a pickup barging through a line of riot police officers blocking the path to the restricted Republic Square.
Judge Bari heard closing arguments at the final hearing of the trial yesterday.
Imran’s lawyer Ali Zahir questioned the legal basis of the terrorism charge, contending that the prosecution was unable to prove that Imran instructed protesters to enter the “green zone” area.
Zahir noted that a police forensic analysis of an audio clip submitted as evidence had not conclusively identified Imran’s voice in the recording.
But the state prosecutor insisted that Imran must bear responsibility for the violent clashes.
Imran’s lawyers have previously stressed that the fiery speaker had appealed to protesters to remain calm and not to engage in any form of violence.
Online paper CNM’s senior desk editor Misbah Abbas was meanwhile denied entry into the courtroom yesterday on orders from the presiding judge, despite having registered to observe proceedings.
Misbah was also barred from a hearing held on January 25 after CNM reported that Judge Bari had threatened journalists inside the courtroom claiming their coverage of the Adhaalath Party leader’s trial was unfair.
Court officials refused to provide a reason for barring Misbah yesterday and asked the journalist to submit a request in writing.
Imran had asked the Supreme Court to change the presiding judge in his case last month, accusing Judge Bari of being “prejudiced” towards him.
Bari – who was among a three-judge panel that sentenced Nasheed and Nazim to prison in early 2015 – is now acting chief judge of the criminal court.
Imran’s trial also began in June with the same three-judge panel. Two of the three – Judge Abdulla Didi and Sujau Usman – were promoted to the High Court soon afterwards, stalling the trial for months.
When hearings resumed in Imran’s trial last month, Bari announced that the three-judge panel had been dissolved and said he alone would handle the case.
Imran was first arrested on the night of May 1, He was charged a month later under article two of the 1990 Anti-Terrorism Act, which states that creating fear among the public is an act of terrorism.
He was transferred to house arrest in mid-October after being held at a police remand facility and a high-security prison for some 160 days.
After nearly four months under house arrest, Imran was abruptly transferred to jail on February 6 amid heightened political tension in the wake of a damning audit report exposing the Maldives’ biggest corruption scandal.
Three senior opposition figures, including MDP Chairperson Ali Waheed and two senior figures of the Jumhooree Party, were also arrested with Imran on May 1, but had fled the country before facing trial.