The droning rumble of traffic through the heart of the Maldives’ capital city, Male, was interrupted on 8 August 2018 by a procession of question marks. A protesting parade of doubt coursing past fuschia campaign flags which confidently boast of five years of national development: of roads, airports, land reclamations, giant mosques and the country’s first ever inter-island bridge – all accompanied by pledges to protect the Maldives’ Islamic faith and the country itself, under the Dhivehi language slogan ‘dheen & gawm’.
“Where is the knife?”, “who owned the car?”, “what about the DNA?” queried the hundreds who had joined the protest march. “4 years 4 that?” questioned one placard; “4 years of failure”, read another. “Same old questions, no new answers,” determined another. At the head of the queue marched Aminath Easa, the 72 – year old mother of Ahmed Rilwan who ‘disappeared’ four years ago. “Four years since Rilwan was disappeared. The investigation isn’t complete! Conduct a fair trial!” demanded the largest banner, brandished by Easa and her daughters. The fourth annual Suvaalu (Question) march marked exactly 1461 days since he was last heard from, just after midnight on 8 August 2014.
The big question
While the big question currently marching towards all Maldivians is how they will vote in the presidential elections on 23 September, the questions posed by demonstrators striding through the cramped island capital are, in fact, crucial as citizens prepare to judge the country’s real progress under the governance of President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom. For the future of the ailing democracy, the answers could not be more important. For the family of one gifted young writer, only one really matters: where is Ahmed Rilwan Abdulla?
Six days earlier, on 2 August, the country’s Criminal Court had acquitted the only men to be charged in connection with Rilwan’s abduction in 2014. Few were surprised at the result, the conclusion of 48 months of obstruction and incompetence by investigators. Describing the crime as a “dangerous atrocity that seemed to have been conducted by a network of several people”, Judge Adam Arif’s closing comments hammered state prosecutors for an incomplete investigation and negligence in failing to put together a credible case. Failure to follow-up prominent leads or to adhere to basic procedure, stated the unusually forthright judge, had given him no choice but to find the defendants not guilty.
The day prior to the demonstration, President Yameen had become the first public figure to say what most have come to terms with, but none dared utter aloud: “Rilwan, who is dead, no doubt”, he declared from the campaign trail. A sharp media outcry later, Yameen’s rare comment on the missing writer was clarified, explained away as a clumsy riposte to his jailed former vice-president, Ahmed Adeeb, who alleged that the investigation had been thwarted at the highest level of government. In a far cry from Rilwan’s case, both Adeeb and the many other politicians jailed over the past five years – which include former presidents Mohamed Nasheed and Maumoon Abdul Gayoom (the current president’s half-brother) – were recipients of a ruthlessly effective criminal-justice system.
But the president’s words, whether misspoken or not, inadvertently pointed to some bitter truths about the state of governance, politics and society. Ten years after the country transitioned to a multiparty democracy, there is a general indifference among politicians to anything but bitter political finger-pointing, leading to a ‘justice’ consistent only in its inconsistency. The flood of political, social and economic changes washing over the low-lying islands in recent decades have swept in waves of violence previously unheard of in the once-peaceful archipelago. While many journalists are attacked in Southasia each year, the mysterious disappearance of Ahmed Rilwan was the first case of its kind in Maldivian history. This ominous combination, of careful planning, failed investigation and a botched trial challenges the proffered image of a confident democracy, of gleaming tourist resorts and bold infrastructure projects, revealing, instead, a network of broken institutions and shadowy groups hell-bent on developing a regime headed by a kleptocratic elite.
Disappeared without a trace?
A well-known journalist and pioneering blogger, Rilwan was better known to many people by his Twitter handle ‘moyameehaa’ (crazy person), humorously observing the daily hypocrisies of a once-sleepy Islamic country jolted awake. Pompous politicians were regularly skewered on his timeline, and the false piety often used to mask myriad social ills was a regular target of Moyameehaa’s acerbic wit. His final few tweets were typical examples, skillfully satirising the oft-rumoured complicity of politicians in the islands’ heroin trade, or the mistreatment of fellow Muslims at home amidst collective hysteria over their suffering abroad. His interests spanned a wide range of social issues and his writing was eclectic, even though he was later characterised as someone who wrote extensively about religious affairs. At a younger age, Rilwan had drifted into a crowd of local Islamists before his insatiable thirst for knowledge, as well as his love for poetry, saw him outgrow their narrow interpretations of the faith. It was this same thirst, coupled with intricate knowledge of Maldivian extremists, that would come to the fore in his writing from early 2014, after reports of Maldivians travelling to Syria for jihad began to emerge.
No stranger to threats, including from the jihadis about whom he was now often writing, in the months before his disappearance, Rilwan told friends he was being followed by individuals he thought had taken part in violent attacks on perceived secularists in the past. In May 2014, his employers at the local paper Minivan News received an anonymous tip that his arrest by police was imminent, supposedly for promoting secularism in the 100-percent Muslim republic. Rilwan seemed unconcerned. “I hear that all the time,” he shrugged, though he soon announced on Twitter that he would not speak about Islamists anymore, writing, “I consider being alive a blessing worth too much to risk.”
Threats, intimidation and surveillance – almost impossible to detect in one of the world’s most densely populated islands – had become just another part of life in Male. Similarly, it was normal for Rilwan to drop off the radar for a few days each month, seeking refuge from the city’s ceaseless assault on the senses. He had moved to a flat on the artificial island of Hulhumale, a 30-minute ferry ride away from the capital, maybe for the same reason. Usually, he would re-establish contact with those closest to him in his own time. That was perhaps why there was no immediate alarm when he dropped out of sight for a few days. It was when five days had passed without any contact that the worried texts and phone calls began. “Have you seen Riz?”, “No, have you?” Sufficiently concerned, his family entered his apartment in Hulhumale on 13 August to find no sign of life other than some mouldy cereal, and no indication Rilwan had been home at all. They immediately informed the police he was missing.
Friends and colleagues feared the worst. As well as the previous combination of threats and rumours targetting Rilwan, there had been a number of incidents in the preceding weeks involving supposed secularists being kidnapped and interrogated by radical gangs in the capital, though all had subsequently been released. Above all, however, was the nagging thought that, in a nation of more than 99 percent water, people don’t usually go missing on the land. Seven days after he was last seen, Rilwan’s friends gathered with trepidation in Hulhumale, to search the 1.8 sq km island for their friend. Their failure to find him appeared to be a reprieve as many had feared finding him dead, but the first details of foul play had already begun to emerge.
During the search, Rilwan’s brother was stopped by a man outside a mosque who warned him to stop looking, before he melted away into the crowd. Another member of the search party was asked to pass the phone to one of Rilwan’s relatives who then received the same advice. If these troubling incidents could be dismissed as not being sinister, the CCTV footage obtained from the ferry terminal could not. Rilwan was not hard to pick out in the week-old footage: large for a Maldivian, wearing dark clothes, carrying a rucksack, and with the lowered head and careful gait of a natural introvert. The timestamp from the video, taken at the Male terminal of the inter-island ferry service, showing Rilwan walking up to the ferry counter, read 00:44. He briefly disappeared from view, into the bathroom, before passing the camera’s gaze once more to take his seat in the waiting area. This would be the last time most would ever set eyes on him. CCTV footage from Hulhumale has remained either unavailable, or unobtained by investigators.
For those viewing the Male footage, the initial relief at having determined some of his final movements was quickly quelled by the accompanying images. Imperceptible on first viewing, but increasingly clear when studied closely, were at least two men who had lain in wait that evening. Rilwan’s unsuspecting approach prompted coordinated movements between the pair, one of whom had been waiting for more than 30 minutes. The other arrived approximately two minutes ahead of Rilwan before following him into the waiting area and off camera. Further footage from Male obtained by the police later would confirm that he had been stalked for up to two hours before he boarded the ferry that night.
Piecing together what happened next has consumed those closest to Rilwan, and apparently confounded investigators, for the past four years. Witnesses reported seeing him on the 1 am ferry, one person even speaking with him briefly, while his third to last tweet at 01:02 am joked about taking the “ferry for Gaza”. His journey from the Hulhumale terminal to his nearby apartment is less clear, as no one reported having seen him on the local bus, which often took longer than the short walk. One friend reported receiving a final message from him at 01:42 am, and Rilwan’s mobile would last contact a nearby phone mast at 02:36 am.
Just as the gravity of the situation began to dawn, there was talk about an incident outside Rilwan’s Hulhumale apartment building in the early hours of the morning. Nervous witnesses reported having heard a scream on the street at around 2 am, and looking out to see a man being bundled into a red car which then sped off with one of its doors still hanging open. One resident retrieved a knife dropped on the road, and handed it over to police who were called to the scene. Realising that this was a nightmare from which they were not about to wake, his colleagues filed a report they had hoped they would never have to: “Minivan News Journalist Feared Abducted”.
To say that local trust in the Maldives’ police service and the judiciary has been somewhat frayed in recent years would be an understatement. Relations have yet to fully recover from the controversial role played by both institutions in the ouster of the country’s first democratically-elected leader, Mohamed Nasheed in early 2012. Following months of political unrest, inflamed by the judiciary’s failure to enact its constitutionally-mandated reforms, it was the refusal of police officers to follow government orders that finally forced President Nasheed’s resignation on 7 February 2012. A commission of national inquiry later cleared the police of taking part in a coup on the grounds that there was no coup, though it did conclude that widespread acts of police brutality were committed against the public in the days after. The commission called, in vain, for immediate police reform, while a UN special rapporteur warned in early 2013 of “serious implications on the effective realization of the rule of law” without a fully independent and impartial judiciary.
Along with this suspected partisanship, the criminal justice system had also proven itself unable or unwilling to penetrate the burgeoning alliance between Male’s plentiful gangs of underemployed youths and many of its equally superfluous politicians. Persistent rumours of a third body in this axis of lawlessness, in the form of radical Islamist networks, now appear increasingly credible as a steady supply of Maldivian recruits decamp to Syria. The prevailing atmosphere of fear and vulnerability to violent reprisals from these groups has left local journalists unable to write about them.
Prior to Rilwan’s disappearance, prominent examples of this increasing deterioration of law and order included the attempted murder of the writer Ismail Hilath Rasheed in 2012, (the case remains unsolved) as well as the devastating, yet fully anticipated, arson attack on opposition-aligned Raajje TV the following year. The brutal murder of Progressive Party of Maldives MP Dr Afrasheem Ali in 2012, following intimidation over his comments on religion, was undoubtedly the most shocking of the first acts of violence in recent years. Hussein Humaam Ahmed, a local member of the Kuda Henveiru gang, was subsequently convicted in a trial roundly criticised for its gross violations of due process. Humaam now faces the death penalty, a sentence reintroduced, if not yet implemented, by President Yameen in a futile attempt to stem the blood flow.
Given this environment, it was perhaps natural that the initial police response to Rilwan’s disappearance caused concern among friends and family. Despite clear evidence of foul play, investigators appeared unwilling to follow the most pertinent leads as the crucial hours and days slipped away. The lack of progress prompted the family to petition the People’s Majlis (Parliament), asking MPs to question the police over their refusal to investigate the link between Rilwan’s disappearance and the red car incident. Though the family obtained over 5000 signatures on the petition in a just a few days (approximately 1.5 per cent of the Maldivian population), the parliament rejected it on a technicality, even while international organisations and the Maldives’ own human-rights commission began to express concern over the investigation.
“Please don’t do this. Help us. Please,” Easa begged authorities from outside the Majlis on 25 August 2014. “I don’t know where he is. I do not know if he is alive. I do not know if he is dead”. Inside, pro-government MPs described the efforts to find Rilwan and the tears of a distraught mother as a political stunt. Conscious of the need to move quickly, well-wishers engaged the services of a private investigator in early September 2014 after Male’s usually-reliable rumour mill had failed to reveal anything more about Rilwan’s fate, despite the offer of a reward of MVR 50,000 (USD 3240).
The findings of the UK-based investigator released on 22 September 2014 confirmed what family and friends had been claiming – that the police were not investigating the obvious links. The police, however, dismissed the report terming it politically motivated and used the occasion to criticise the government’s opponents, accusing them of obstructing the investigation. In a chilling warning, the newly-installed CCTV camera outside the Minivan News office was vandalised and a machete lodged in a door of the same building. The paper’s deputy editor received death threats. Four individuals were arrested in connection with the abduction of Rilwan at the end of September, but were released early December 2014 with no charges. Atleast one of these men would be re-arrested 16 months later as part of the same investigation.
After initially acknowledging gang involvement in the abduction, the Home Minister Umar Naseer performed an about-turn 90 days into the search, questioning whether Rilwan had not perhaps voluntarily disappeared, a statement he followed up with further acrobatic obfuscations. “Not all crimes in the world are solvable… It has been more than 50 years since American citizens have been asking who killed Kennedy”, noted Naseer, going on to compare the disappearance of Rilwan with the missing aircraft MH370. The minister’s statistics on the hours of CCTV footage analysed, phone records checked, and his comment on “no stone left unturned” at the same November press conference soon rang hollow after a leaked text message from President Yameen showed the minister had in fact been told there ten weeks earlier that there was “no need 2 b overwhelmed by Rilwan case”.
Meanwhile, a concerted campaign of misinformation had begun, designed, it seems, to cast doubt on the increasingly obvious facts of the case. As well as false reports that the red car abduction involved a young woman, reports also emerged suggesting that police did not believe Rilwan had gotten off the ferry at all. Perhaps the most elaborate attempt to divert attention came in the form of a fake blog, supposedly written by volunteers in Syria’s Kurdish militia, YPG. In a post dated March 13, 2015, and titled ‘Martyr of Paradise’ the site claimed that Rilwan had been killed while fighting in Kobani in northern Syria that same month. In addition to the use of an image clearly photoshopped from his passport (found by his family among his belongings) which had been copied by the police a few days earlier, the blog’s few entries were all copy-pasted from other parts of the web. Examination of the website’s code revealed the content was posted just a few days earlier and had been backdated to give the appearance of authenticity. The blog remains accessible, but has not been updated since that time, suggesting that it was created solely for the purpose of planting this false story. Police, would later announce they were investigating an attempt to falsify Rilwan’s passport.
The growing evidence suggested a cover-up rather than ineptitude. Attempts by the family to move the investigation forward were met with official silence or contempt; the Suvaalu march to mark one year of disappearance was countered by the police with pepper spray.
After more than a year and a half during which they maintained that there was no link between the red-car abduction and the disappearance of Rilwan on the basis of DNA evidence obtained from the car, the police changed their mind. In a press conference on 2 April 2016, they finally acknowledged that a carefully orchestrated plan had resulted in Rilwan being forced at knifepoint into a red car owned by senior members of Male’s Kuda Henveiru gang. It had taken the police more than 600 days to admit that Rilwan had been the victim of a crime.
Alif Rauf and Mohamed Nooradeen were arrested within days of this press conference and charged under the 1990 Anti-Terrorism Act, while the family of a third man, Mohamed Suaid – seen pursuing Rilwan that August night – would tell the court the accused had been killed fighting in Syria, though no evidence of this was presented. Suaid who had been arrested in 2014 in connection with Rilwan’s abduction before being released, had left the country immediately after authorities had unfrozen his passport more than a year before. When asked why it had taken so long to corroborate information already established by a private investigator, the response was familiarly dismissive: “The police will decide when and how much information we will reveal to the public”. An inquiry from the UN Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearance into state negligence, was met with a similar indignant response from the government which maintained that the investigation’s slow progress was partly due to the initial five-day delay in reporting Rilwan’s disappearance. Events in the courtroom would tell a different story.
When preliminary hearings in the ‘State versus Alif Rauf, Mohamed Nooradeen and Mohamed Suaid – began on 20 September 2017, few were holding out any hope of locating Rilwan. But it was thought that the trial might take the family a step closer to finding out what happened after Rilwan stepped off the ferry in the small hours of that fateful Friday. The delivery of justice could begin to restore badly-shaken confidence in those trusted to uphold law, order and public safety. The process could also restore confidence in the Maldivian court system, which had received a battering. Perhaps even more than their partners in (tackling) crime, the police, the judiciary has continued to take a prominent place throughout the seemingly unending crises that have embroiled the country in recent years. This has included controversial micromanagement of the 2013 presidential poll and the internationally-derided convictions of former President Mohamed Nasheed and other opposition leaders. More recently, the Supreme Court’s erratic rulings saw the convictions of Nasheed, Adeeb, and others overturned, in what is viewed as a political ruling, an action that led to President Yameen declaring emergency and arresting two previously pliant judges.
Indications of whether the trial would be fair were evident early on in the legal tussle over whether the accused would be held on the island detention facility of Dhoonidhoo before the trial, or under the notoriously lax terms of house arrest. It was the latter. The suspects would present themselves to court for the trial – a freedom previously unknown to those facing terror charges as well as a constitutional breach due to the obvious flight risk of individuals associated with jihadis, the flight of one of the accused, and the well-documented attempts at witness intimidation.
Needless to say, morale was low amongst Rilwan’s friends and family at the start of proceedings. The most devastating development by far, however, was the absence of the ‘Find Moyameehaa’ group’s main pillar of strength. Rilwan’s close friend and the leading light in the campaign to find him, the charismatic blogger Yameen Rasheed, was murdered by religious extremists on 23 April, 2017. Taken from his friends and family, just like Rilwan, yards from the safety of home after months of intimidation.
The prosecutor general’s case appeared flimsy from the start, having taken three years just to establish the defendants’ ownership of the red car, and link the car to Rilwan via mitochondrial DNA found in the trunk. This was no case at all, argued defence lawyers in the trial’s second hearing, suggesting the state could not establish a clear connection between the abduction and the defendants, and that there was no case unless it was known what had happened to Rilwan. Things would subsequently go from bad to worse as the state proceeded to fail spectacularly even in the modest task it had set itself.
After having delivered a handful of anonymous witnesses who reported seeing the abduction, a number of hearings were cancelled, some without explanation, and others due to the state’s inability to produce further witnesses. It was becoming clear to all that the case was falling apart. After presenting analysis of the DNA tests, the state was unable to provide the court with a clear chain of custody report, while the simple task of eliminating the possibility that the DNA could have belonged to another relative of Rilwan’s mother descended into farce. Family members made samples available, but investigators failed to collect, as the well-publicised concerns of police negligence over the past four years were borne out in the courtroom for all to see.
The final humiliation came with the prosecutor’s failure to obtain registration documents proving the defendant Rauf’s ownership of the suspect red car. After having initially admitted to owning the vehicle, Rauf subsequently recanted his statement, no doubt after the prosecution’s failure to produce any registration evidence. “Why did police not follow basic protocol?”, “What happened to the knife found at the scene?”, “Why was nearby CCTV not checked?”; the chorus of questions from both judge and defence counsel could have been lifted word-for-word from the pepper-sprayed placards at the annual marches to mark Rilwan’s disappearance, from the rejected petitions, ignored reports and dismissed public statements produced by the Find Moyameehaa campaign. The only thing proven in the criminal court during this trial, they agreed, was that the investigation and prosecution of the case had been careless and negligent.
With the prosecution having spent almost two years rejecting all evidence that Rilwan had been forcefully disappeared, or that this disappearance involved a red car outside his home, it seemed less than surprising that it was unable to prove any of these things in court. Both Rauf and Nooradeen were acquitted, leaving the courtroom just as they had entered it – as free men. “It’s a very sad day for our family. It’s a very sad day for our nation,” tweeted Rilwan’s sister Shehehnaz at the trial’s conclusion. “Suspects of #Findmoyameehaa case are free. To abduct another citizen. Police negligence and the governments involvement in this crime is clear”.
Rilwan’s family and friends left the trial no closer to the truth, with the judge’s validation of their struggle granting them just enough strength to pick up the placards one more time. “This unsatisfactory conclusion clearly indicates, at a minimum, state complicity, and at worst, active involvement in Rilwan’s abduction and disappearance,” read a statement released by the family on 7 August 2018, which also announced their intention to sue the police. “In the light of Judge Adam Arif’s ruling, we reiterate our call for a transparent, impartial and international investigation into Rilwan’s abduction and disappearance, one that also identifies those in positions of authority who were involved in the cover-up and their reasons for doing so.”
Despite having promised comment after the trial’s conclusion, no explanation of the state’s gross procedural misconduct has been forthcoming thus far. The state has declared its intention to appeal the decision in the higher courts, though the ineptitude of the prosecution raises legal questions as to what now constitutes new, and therefore inadmissible, evidence. Appeals to the country’s human rights, police integrity and national integrity commissions during the investigation have already proved fruitless, while the government’s souring international relations make outside assistance in the search a near impossibility.
But, for those still left searching for Ahmed Rilwan Abdulla, the questions, the banners, and their voices will continue to be raised until they finally hear some answers. Can the state really boast of true development if it cannot, or will not, protect its own people; if it cannot find Moyameehaa?
“What does gawm mean to you Mr President”, asked Rilwan’s beleaguered search party as they headed out into the streets once more, “Getting Away With Murder?”
~ More readings:
What you need to know about upcoming elections in the Maldives.
Yameen Rasheed, a journalist from Male, who was murdered last year, on how Islam is used as a political tool.