A disappeared Maldivian journalist’s family still waits for closure
Eight years after he vanished, and despite an official report pointing to his abduction and murder, Ahmed Rilwan is yet to be declared dead, and powerful officials allegedly linked to the killers evade justice
"I still see him in my dreams," a family member of Ahmed Rilwan told me, speaking in Dhivehi. "There, he's happy and himself. Always with his wry smile and humour. I believe he died as a martyr, maybe that's why I never have nightmares about him."
For eight years, the unresolved disappearance of the Maldivian investigative journalist and human rights defender Ahmed Rilwan has left his family unable to proceed with the administrative and legal processes that follow bereavement. His final days were consumed by a whirlpool of terror that culminated in his forced disappearance and alleged killing in August 2014. Last December, the harrowing facts leading up to Rilwan's disappearance were yet again confirmed by the Maldives' Commission on Deaths and Disappearances (DDCom) in a press conference. DDCom is a transitional justice mechanism established in 2018 under President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih's administration on his first day in office to investigate unresolved cases of murders, enforced disappearances, and abductions that occurred during the former government's rule, led by President Abdulla Yameen, and provide justice to the victims and their families. Since pledging to recover assets stolen under the previous government, Solih initiated investigations into the allegations against Yameen and his associates. Ex-president Abdulla Yameen, received an 11-year jail term on allegations of bribery and money laundering.
Rilwan was cornered by violent Islamist extremist groups operating in the Maldivian capital Malé. They followed his movements to track him down in the suburb of Hulhumale, where he lived. He was forced into a red car outside his apartment building and taken onto a fishing boat. There he was decapitated, and his body was then disposed of at sea, the DDCom proclaimed. To boot, he directly received endless death threats from salafi-jihadist groups overseas, including Maldivian foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq. Even in this time of acute desperation, Rilwan kept reporting from the frontlines, covering the Maldives in a way that made powerful criminals and politicians febrile.
The US-based watchdog group Human Rights Watch states, in its World Report 2023, that Solih has "failed to bring essential reforms to the justice system" despite promises made during his campaign in 2018. The report says the government remains malleable to pressure from Islamist extremists and political leaders, and has rolled back fundamental rights and liberties such as freedoms of speech, expression, assembly and association. In cases such as Rilwan's, where Islamists have targeted people opposing religious extremism, the government's failure to provide accountability "has meant that gangs, powerful religious groups, and their political patrons increasingly exercise a chilling effect on free speech in the country."
Yet, instead of scrutinising Solih for his failure in delivering justice for Rilwan, in October the UN General Assembly elected the Maldives to the UN Human Rights Council. The Maldives may look good on tourism brochures, but its politics is sometimes no different than that of a cartel-run town in a failed state. As documented in Al Jazeera's 2016 investigative documentary 'Stealing Paradise', it is a place where gang members, politicians and religious leaders discuss hit lists over text messages, and judges and police officers take bags of ill-gotten money to destroy those who dare to speak out. Rilwan's gruesome death, and the official callousness towards his bereaved family, underline the deep rot that remains in the system.
Rilwan's family has been fighting for justice for too long. They can now see right through the country's malevolent politics. Journalists, activists and civil society actors now resort to self-censorship as a form of self-preservation. It has become the only way for journalists to make a living and stay alive at the same time.
For families living this reality, it is a daily struggle. Their movements in the capital are at times a spectacle for onlookers. According to another member of Rilwan's family, "Everyone stares at Rilwan's mother when she is out. They come up to her, ask questions – even if well-intentioned – it is all very triggering." For this article, the family members who spoke to me asked for their exact identities not to be revealed, fearing threats and repercussions.
Yameen Rasheed, a close friend of Rilwan, personifies the fate of those left to fend for themselves while facing credible threats. Yameen was brutally hacked to death in his home in April 2017, three years after publicly campaigning to seek truth and justice for Rilwan. Rilwan's alleged abductors repeatedly told Yameen he would suffer a similar fate. Again, the authorities were criminally inactive, doing nothing to prevent or protect.
A member of the family told me that they can only move on from this once they can hold funeral prayers for Rilwan. But to do so, a court of law must first declare that he was killed. In the absence of this, they only have the government's word and no room to proceed with the religious and administrative processes that would ordinarily follow a burial. "To date, there's been no official written communication of his death," this family member said.
At this moment, the number-one priority for Rilwan's family is their religious and familial duty to him. "We are desperate for closure", a member of the family stated. Unlike other families' grief, theirs is entangled in an intricate web of injustice in the Maldives.
Justice delayed, and denied
The detention and prosecution of three individuals who openly threatened Rilwan and monitored his movements for years was the result of the DDCom's hard work over the past four years. However, the DDCom still has a long way to go, both to demonstrate its independence from politics and to close all the loose ends of this case, as well as 27 others.
The Association for Democracy in the Maldives (ADM), a local human rights organisation, responded to the DDCom press conference by expressing deep concern over the incomplete investigation, calling for the final report of it to be made public in full. The president has yet to make even a redacted version publicly available. In response to the DDCom's findings, in December 2022, the ADM called out the fact that the conclusion that the cause of death was decapitation was based on uncorroborated information, and that there has been no official correspondence to Rilwan's family confirming his alleged death.
"When it comes to Rilwan's case, there's no sign of his clothes, or injuries – where is the body?" one family member said. This is also a concern the ADM raised on behalf of the family.
The shadow of impunity has hung constantly over investigations involving religious violence in the Maldives. Powerful politicians and criminal gangs seldom face criminal, civil, administrative or even disciplinary proceedings, or any inquiry that might lead to their being accused, arrested or prosecuted. Even on the rare occasion when politicians are found guilty, the sentences them are often without consequence. They do not include appropriate penalties for perpetrators or reparations to the victims of their families. Key political actors who were active participants in the Yameen government's five-year assault on human rights, including the former home minister Umar Naseer and former police commissioner Hussain Waheed, remain unscathed.
The Yameen government was aware of the imminent risks to Rilwan's life from extremist groups. The police even intercepted Rilwan's phone after asking for a court order that let them do so. Tellingly, the authorities viewed Rilwan as a threat, not those actively trying to kill him. If there was no political bias against Rilwan, the authorities would have viewed him as a journalist under fire from violent groups. The Maldivian authorities cruelly and capriciously chose to deny Rilwan the internationally protected right not to be forcibly disappeared, violently taking away his most fundamental of rights, the right to life.
The Yameen-led government allowed six of those allegedly involved in Rilwan's disappearance to flee the country for Syria, with the last one reportedly leaving in 2017. According to DDCom's presser in December 2022, he confided in Yameen before leaving the country, sharing incriminating details of the gruesome way they killed Rilwan. His killers reportedly imitated the preferred execution method used by Daesh, the Islamist terror group, against journalists in Syria and elsewhere.
To this day, I believe Rilwan was one of the first journalists with whom politicians shared caches of data linking the then-president, judges, police and army officials to a massive corruption scandal. Yameen became the subject of multiple investigative reports exposing him and his aides. Pristine, lucrative islands in the Maldives were sold without any bidding process, with the corrupt proceeds siphoned off to top government officials and their associates. As one of the few investigative journalists in the country openly and consistently challenging the widespread culture of corruption, Rilwan would very likely have been approached by politicians who had fallen out of favour with the former president.
Months after his abduction in 2014, a website linked to rogue police circulated a twisted story along with a forged copy of Rilwan's passport. It implied that he too had fled to Syria and had been killed there. During Yameen's presidency, violent groups functioned as parastatals, taking the law into their hands, intimidating and abducting government critics, labelling them enemies of the state and of Islam. These violent non-state actors either had tacit government support or knew they had the backing of powerful individuals who would help them evade inquiry and punishment.
Through the lens of these atrocities, the Maldives is a country that works best for corrupt politicians and their gangs, where it is easy to abduct and kill a journalist to conceal corruption. Despite Solih's promises when he took office as president, there is selectivity in investigation and prosecution of corruption and criminality, leaving out key individuals who benefited from the questionable dealings. Ahmed Mahloof, a politician accused of corruption and facing criminal charges, retains a position in the cabinet. Solih is seeking reelection when the next presidential polls, due later this year.
Solih has a growing crescendo of critics within his party accusing him of compromising the party's democratic values to placate more conservative actors within the coalition government he has led for the last four years. The multiparty democracy introduced to the Maldives in 2008, after decades of autocratic rule under Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, is increasingly meaningless when a multiplicity of political views welded together into a coalition means that core democratic values are corroded.
As Maldivians that do not enjoy access to power and the privileges of the Malé-based elite, Rilwan's family sees only one route to closure – through a reopened trial, meeting international standards, based on new evidence from the DDCom that can confirm his alleged killing. Rilwan's family members told me that they have been extremely cooperative with the authorities for years. The process has been "very slow, very slow – but we are patient," one of them said. "The irony is that justice for Rilwan was part of the pledges the president aimed to deliver on within the first 100 days in office."