On Monday, several police officers stormed the home of a 66-year-old man in southern Gaaf Alif Atoll Villingili Island and confiscated several of his books. Hours later, he was arrested.
“They said he had been practicing black magic,” said his daughter, who was reluctant to give her name.
On the same day, another 61-year-old man from the same island was also arrested for practicing black magic.
The pair’s arrests comes amidst a wave of detentions of suspected black magic practitioners across the Maldives. The day before, a 69-year-old man was arrested from the island of Dhiyamigili in south-central Thaa Atoll.
At least nine other people have been arrested since November.
According to a statement on Monday, the police arrested the pair on an intelligence tip-off after an extensive operation. Some 90 books, eight files and several documents were confiscated from their homes.
The police did not identify the suspects. Family members who spoke to The Maldives Independent also asked for their relatives not to be named.
The daughter of the 66-year-old man said: “My father likes to read a lot. They took all the books that were written in Arabic, including prayer books and palm reading books that you could buy at any bookshop. They told us that they did not know what the books said but that they would send it to Islamic Ministry.”
Belief in sorcery and black magic, locally known as sihuru or fanditha is common and widespread in the Maldives. Arabic verses are often used in fanditha. Most Maldivians do not understand Arabic, despite being taught to read and write in the language.
Lawyers have questioned the legality of the arrests, noting the new penal code does not explicit practice of black magic as a criminal offence.
The 66-year-old man has diabetes, kidney issues and just recently underwent a surgery on his eye, his daughter said. “But they insisted that they take him to the police station without a family member on these unfounded accusations.”
Family members were not informed of his remand. When they found out, several of his relatives went to the police and demanded to know how books could be considered tools for black magic.
Upon the family’s insistence, the man was released to house-imprisonment today.
Islanders who spoke to The Maldives Independent said they suspect the government fears sorcerers had been commissioned to oust President Abdulla Yameen.
Hussain Shameem, the former deputy prosecutor general and an expert on the new penal code, said sorcery could be prosecuted under penal code provisions on criminal attempts. “But prosecutors have to prove there is a direct connection between the suspect’s “sorcery” and harm caused to someone else,” he added.
Lawyer Mahfooz Saeed said that a law that requires traditional medicine and fanditha to obtain a license from the ministry of health prohibits the the use of ‘black magic’ and ‘sorcery’
“Cases like this used to be prosecuted on a charge of disobeying state orders, which carry a six-month jail term at the most,” he said.
Even today, police in northern Noonu Atoll Velidhoo Island confiscated “tools used in the practice of black magic.” Most of them were books in Arabic. A week ago, police searched several homes on Alif Dhaal Atoll Omadhoo Island claiming they suspected residents were practicing black magic.
Two men from Haa Alif Ihavandhoo and a 66-year old woman from Gaaf Alif Gemanafushi were arrested last week on sorcery charges. In December, three people including a government staff were arrested from Thaa Atoll Vilufushi.
In November, three men were arrested from Baa Atoll Thulhadhoo on a charge of attempting to kill another using black magic.
Commenting on the case, Husnu Suood, a prominent lawyer and the former Attorney General, questioned how the state could prove the cause of the crime when the means of the crime were supernatural.
“If the state could prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the actions of the defendant caused the death of the victim, and that the defendant intended such death, he could be convicted of murder. The question, then, becomes one of evidence – is there sufficient evidence of the connection between the defendant’s actions and the result to convince a judge beyond a reasonable doubt?”
The Islamic ministry last month ordered the privately-owned Sangu TV to stop a weekly programme on sorcery and black magic, saying it posed a threat to religious unity and societal harmony.
In August, the Maldives Figh Academy, an advisory body of religious scholars, warned against the promotion of black magic in local media after opposition figures linked uprooting of old trees at the Republic square and removal of the republic monument in Malè to President Abdulla Yameen’s alleged fear of sorcery. At the time, the government has declined to comment on the issue.