Comment: Happy Independence Day

“The United Kingdom, which always wanted to colonise Maldives with the co-operation of the Athireege family, finally came to Malé in the form of the HMS Britain, on 22 Feb 1887. The captain of this ship was Rodney M Lloyd. As a representative of the Governor of Ceylon came Rear Admiral Fredrick W M Richard. Accompanying them were Athireege Annabeel Ahmed Didi, and Abdul Kareem Mudhuliar.

This delegation went upstairs in the Palace and asked Sultan Mohamed Mueenudheen III, the Prime Minister Sumuvvul Amir Mohamed Rannabandeyri Kilegefaan, and the Chief Justice Naibu Thuthu to write an agreement between the English and Maldivian governments which would provide ‘protection’ to the Maldives. According to this agreement Maldives would become a colony of the English.

The whole of Maldives opposed this. This proposal to become the protected servant of anyone other than the Great Allah was rejected by the Sultan, the Prime Minister, the Chief Justice Naibu Thuthu, the military, and the people. About six days later the ship returned to Colombo.

There, in Ceylon, the British and their Maldivian friends arranged for Abdul Rahman Alim Sahib to write a letter of agreement in Arabic in which Maldives would become a full colony, or at the very least, a country which came under colonial authority. It was written in such a way that the Sultan seemingly requested British protection on his own initiative, and made the annual tribute ceremony the formal recognition of this new relationship. In the document, the Sultan was given a voice of abject humility, admitting weakness and an inability to stabilise the country.

The delegation, this time with the addition of Abdul Rahman Alim Sahib, then returned to Malé in two large warships. The British delegation went upstairs again to Mathige. This time the document, which the Chief Justice had refused to write, had already been written and only the signing remained. The Sultan, the Prime Minister, the military, and the people… all refused.

The delegation returned to their warships and the guns were aimed at Malé, and the people ran to the edge of the reef. The British and their friends came ashore once again and said if the agreement went unsigned, then Malé would be smashed to pieces. The Sultan and the prominent people agreed to sign the agreement to escape from death. The Chief Justice Naibu Thuthu said that Maldivians ‘should prefer to be martyred rather than accept that thing.” –Abdul Hakeem Hussein Manik

It was 78 years later, on 26 July 1965, that Maldives finally freed itself from the agreement signed, regardless of what the people wanted, on that day in February 1887. 26 July has since been marked as ‘Independence Day’. Sunday will be the 50th anniversary of the occasion. Much has changed since. At this moment in time, it is difficult to see a scenario in which, faced with a situation where parts [or whole] of the country is to be owned by a foreign party, ‘the president, the vice president, the military and the people…all refuse’.

On Tuesday night, PPM submitted a motion to the Majlis: add a clause to the Constitution to allow the sale of Maldivian territory to foreign parties. The proposal was accepted and passed within 24 hours, with minimal debate, with the consent of 70 MPs. President Abdulla Yameen ratified the amendment the very next day. Public consultation was never part of the momentous decision, which has the potential to change the very identity and culture of the Maldives.

Broadly speaking, there is nothing wrong with non-nationals owning land – it happens in most countries in the world. Where the Maldives is concerned, the problems are many: only two percent of its territory is land, the rest is sea; roughly 99 percent of Maldivians cannot afford to buy off the public land registered in their names; there is no independent judiciary or legal expertise to handle cases of such complexity; rule of law is emphatically absent; the corruption among government officials is unprecedented; and there is little room to expect any benefit from such sales to trickle down to the ordinary person.

The natural beauty of the islands has been to Maldives what diamonds were to Sierra Leone: a disaster for the ordinary men and women; an impediment to democracy; an obstacle to human development; and a pathway to massive corruption. Most owners of tourist resorts in the Maldives are rich beyond the ordinary person’s wildest dreams; many pour their money into the dirty pit of Maldivian politics to ensure the people elected are puppets whose strings they pull in whichever direction is more lucrative for them; they help block the opening up of the tourism industry in ways that would allow more even wealth distribution; all the money they earn from tourism are squirrelled away in foreign banks, little of it allowed to go through Maldivian economic system; and, in more recent times—as a way of appeasing their ‘Muslim guilt’ for benefitting from trading in services and goods considered haram—they have been funding extremist individuals and organisations that encourage people to hate ‘the infidel’, successfully ensuring the ordinary person would not want a share of the tourism wealth.

Who cares if large numbers of people are joining radical organisations like ISIS and dying in dozens? As long as they are not a threat to the tourism magnates’ personal wealth, it’s not a problem.

And now, it’s not sufficient that islands can be leased as tourist resorts for 99 years that are developed with all imaginable modern luxuries while locals live on islands often with no drinking water, waste disposal systems, electricity or proper sewerage systems. It is no longer enough to have Special Economic Zones where rich foreign investors will not be subject to any Maldivian laws, the proceeds of whatever they do on these islands of no benefit to Maldivians. Now lagoons and reefs are to be sold off to any billionaire with a dredger. They will own ‘for perpetuity’ 70 percent of the land they reclaim and, as freeholds, Maldives will have little or no control over whatever happens on this new land—dug up from the bottom of the sea destroying for the sake of its existence the life that thrives underwater, the life that sustains Maldives and Maldivians.

Life as Maldivians have known it for centuries is coming to an end.

Running parallel to the plan to sell the lagoons and its life to the highest bidders is the plan for forced migration of the people. 60-70 percent of Maldivians are to be moved from the 200 odd islands they occupy to around two or three islands in what is to be called ‘The Greater Male’ Area’. They are all to be housed on high-rise flats built on these designated islands, families crammed into tiny little spaces like hens in a battery farm. This is what has happened in Male’ already – once an idyllic island, now one of the most crowded—and often the dirtiest—cities in the world. Traditional ways of life are not just going to change as everything inevitably does; they will be forced to disappear. There have been no studies or analyses done of what the social and environmental impacts of such a migration of people will be. Such considerations are for wimps, not ‘a government with guts’, as this one describes itself to be.

The consequences will be dire, but work has already begun to seduce people into thinking it is a good idea, with computer generated 3D images of a city with sky scrapers and swimming pools, vast roads and theme parks. An urban artificial ‘utopia’ a-la Singapore or Dubai. Few are asking why, when we have 1200 islands, can we not find a solution that allows the Maldivian people to live on those islands, why there are no efforts being made to provide the services they need on the islands they have existed on for centuries. No one is asking why such damage is being done to our fragile environment by dredging holes in the reef, by moving sand from the bottom of the sea from here to there, when we already have enough islands for just 400,000 people to live comfortably on. In the 21st century, where eco-friendly solutions are being invented to accommodate living life with the environment, when sustainable development is trending, where innovative scientific minds are finding ways for man to adapt to their own environments rather than the other way around — Maldives is being forced to turn around and walk doggedly in the opposite direction.

Independence Day celebrations this year ring hollow. From the plastic palm trees that line the main street of Male’ (the capital island of a country where the coconut palm is the national tree!); the fairy lights tastelessly thrown onto every available surface of the city; the Majlis’ removal of the Vice President in a political deal reeking of vengeance and personal glory disguised as a democratic ‘impeachment’; the Majlis ‘debate’ on the same night to float the idea of selling off Maldivian territory; the earlier ‘Adeeb Amendment’ to the Constitution to allow a specific person to become Vice President — it all smells of oppression, not independence.

Where once state and people together resisted until left with no choice to sign agreements that would infringe on Maldivian sovereignty and identity, today only lone voices are raised even in the face of serious national security breaches—such as foreign submarines making incursions into our territorial waters for no apparent reason. Instead of guarding borders and boundaries, the Maldives National Defence is deployed to repair broken generators and, at all times, protect the president and his government. Individual freedoms have been taken away, the Maldives Police Service dispatched 24/7 to ensure the people cannot—at any time—freely exercise their rights to freedom of assembly or expression.

The People’s Majlis has been turned into a place to fast-track documents loosely called ‘legislation’ that allow rulers to act with impunity, but under the legitimising veil of ‘democracy’. On Tuesday, the Majlis changed its procedural rules to say it is no longer necessary to discuss, analyse or debate a Bill before putting it to vote. As long as the ruling party has a majority, it can make anything law, without the people having a clue about what the legislation is for or what the rationale behind it is.

There is no judiciary to right any wrong, to provide justice where it is required. In its place is a state apparatus designed and implemented to control society the way rulers want. All substantial opposition have been robbed of their liberty, incarcerated in jail, put into solitary confinement, or held under house arrest. Their freedom is nothing but a bargaining tool of those in control.

The Maldivian Democratic Party is at its weakest since inception: it voted for the Constitutional amendment that allowed Tourism Minister Ahmed Adeeb to become Vice President, and citing its position as a ‘centre right party’—a position which it has not relied on to justify much of anything to its members before—chose not to issue a three-line whip in the vote to amend the Constitution allowing sale of Maldivian property. Only a handful of MDP MPs voted against the amendment rushed through the parliament with such haste and absolutely no public consultation.

MDP’s weakness is the majority’s weakness. The party has led the Maldivian democracy movement for the last decade; for a majority of its supporters, the meaning of democracy itself is ‘MDP’s vision’. And when MDP’s vision is clouded—by force or not—followers are lost in the fog, directionless, unable to see the road ahead with any clarity.

As Maldives marks its 50th Independence Day, the Constitution, and the people, are both hostage to the whims and desires of the rulers. People are but mere spectators in games played among and between the rich, the elite, and the powerful. The future holds the prospects of foreign military bases on Maldivian territorial waters; becoming embroiled in Indian Ocean security issues and potential naval warfare; forced internal migration; living in slum cities; absolute loss of way of life and identity; and total subjugation to a ruthless dictatorship that will always put money before people.

We need to revive the spirit of collectively saying we’ll do anything but ‘accept that thing.’

Happy Independence Day.

This article was originally published on Dhivehisitee.com. It has been republished with permission. 

Dr Azra Naseem is a former journalist who now works as a Research fellow in Dublin City University. 

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to editorial@minivannewsarchive.com

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Comment – 48: 24 In and out of prison

It was May 1991. On the small island of Dhoonidhoo, by the beach, stood a windowless corrugated iron shed 4ft wide, 6ft long, and 6ft high. During the day, the hot tropical sun beamed its rays directly onto the tin roof, making the air inside as hot as the inside of an oven on full blast. Under the moon, damp air from the sea wrapped itself around the shed, chilling the atmosphere within. Entrapped inside, in solitary confinement since November 1990, was a young man of 23 years. On 17 May 1991, exactly 24 years ago today, he turned 24.

Mohamed Nasheed, from G. Kenereege, Male’, had spent the previous year and a half inside the confines of the small shed. For 18 months his existence had been strictly controlled and designed to cause maximum pain and humiliation. He was allowed one shower a week. Everything he did had to be done inside the confines of the shed. His water was rationed – one litre every 24 hours for all his needs: drinking; cleaning; and ablutions.

The only ‘break’ from the relentless routine came when he was taken out for ‘interrogations’. Prior to each, he was allowed a bath and given a clean shirt to wear. All the sessions were videotaped. Instead of being asked questions, however, he was provided with a list of offences to which he was to ‘confess’: attempts to overthrow the government; inciting violence through distribution of subversive literature; concealing information on alleged anti-government terror plots; immorality; and un-Islamic behaviour.

His refusal to ‘confess’ resulted in a litany of punishments: his food was laced – sometimes with crushed glass, sometimes with laxatives, sometimes both at once. The laxatives caused diarrhoea; the glass cut him from within. It was a bloody combination, intended to cause optimum harm. At other times he was kept chained inside the shed; his water rations cut from one litre to half a litre every 24 hours. Once he was chained to a chair outside for 12 consecutive days, exposed to the elements; be it the merciless tropical sun or the ceaseless monsoon rains. He spent 14 days tied to a loud, throbbing electric generator, breathing in its fumes. For an entire week, he was subjected to sleep deprivation; allowed only 10-15 minutes’ sleep a night.

After 18 months of such inhumane treatment, on 8 April 1992, about a month before his 25th birthday, Nasheed was brought before a summary court and sentenced to three years and six months in prison. This time he was held captive on the island of Gaamaadhoo. Due to external pressure—mainly from the British government and Amnesty International—and changes in the domestic political landscape, Nasheed was released in June 1993, two years and four months before the end of his sentence.

By then he had spent another birthday, the third in a row, in jail. He was suffering from severe back pain, the result of police beatings in custody. He was bleeding internally, the result of food laced with crushed glass he had been forced to eat. He had just turned 26.

Journalism is a crime

Nasheed’s crime had been journalism. In the dictatorship of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom (1978-2008), where the State and its cronies tightly controlled all media output, Nasheed’s was the first voice that refused to be sweet-talked, bought, coerced, or threatened into silence.

On 24 January 1990, at the age of 22, Nasheed published the first issue of, Sangu, the first magazine to be openly critical of the regime in 12 years. It was banned almost immediately. Nasheed responded by publishing the very article, which the government had objected to most, in Sri Lanka’s The Island newspaper. For this, Nasheed was put under house arrest, the first of many times in which he would be deprived of his freedom. He doggedly persisted on his chosen path as a public watchdog, willingly meeting with foreign reporters in his house, including correspondents from the BBC and ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) who, with Nasheed’s contributions, reported on the burgeoning political corruption and oppression in the Maldives. His 18 months of torture in Dhoonidhoo began the day after ABC broadcast its report.

There was more journalism, more writing, more threats, and more jail time to come. The next prison term was in November 1994 when he spent two weeks in solitary confinement for having written about yet more political arrests and repression by Gayoom. In February 1995 he spent another two weeks in prison where it was made clear to him that unless he stopped writing, he would be back behind bars yet again. Faced with the stark choice, he relinquished political journalism, and concentrated on writing longer, historical works.

In 1996 Nasheed published his first book, Dhagandu Dhahana, an account of the domestic affairs that culminated in Maldives becoming a British protectorate in 1887. Despite the book’s focus on history, he was ordered to have it removed from the shelves. He refused. Gayoom’s response was to charge him in relation to an article published two years previously, in November 1994. It was back to jail for another three months, then house arrest for a long period while his appeal was being considered, followed by another three months in jail. For the fourth time he was in captivity for his birthday. He had turned 29.

Free again in 1997, he stayed home to look after his first-born and write. His wife, Laila Ali, was the breadwinner. Writing under a pseudonym, he published Hithaa Hithuge Gulhun (A Connection of Hearts), a non-political novel. It became a best-seller.

Into politics

Nasheed’s first foray into politics was not pre-planned but initiated by Gayoom’s archrival, Ilyas Ibrahim, in October 1999, ahead of scheduled parliamentary elections. Hearing about a meeting between the two men, Gayoom had Nasheed’s house raided. Police took his computer along with several unpublished manuscripts. They were never returned. By then Nasheed had made up his mind to run for one of two seats as a Male’ Member of Parliament. He was successful. Two years later, after many efforts at reform as an MP, he was back in jail.

This time, the charge was theft. Among the documents police found when they raided his home in October 1999 was an old school notebook belonging to former President Ibrahim Nasir’s son. Nasheed picked it up from dumpster outside the Nasir residence which the government had emptied of all contents. Having been in school with the younger Nasir, the notebook, destined for the bin, was of sentimental value to Nasheed. Nevertheless, charged with theft—a Hadd crime in Shari’a—Nasheed was stripped of his parliament seat and sentenced to two years banishment to An’golhitheemu, an island with a population of just 30. After six months in virtual isolation on the island, he was transferred to house arrest. With pressure from Amnesty International, Reporters Sans Frontiers, the International Parliamentary Union (IPU), and other international bodies, he was free again after three months. By now it was August 2002, and Nasheed was 35.

A year of relative calm and more writing followed. Nasheed published two more books,Enme Jaleel, a historical novel, and Dhan’dikoshi, a genealogy of leading families in Male’. In English, he wrote two more, A Historical Overview of Dhivehi Polity 1800-1900, and Maldives in Armour: Internal Feuding and Anglo-Dhivehi Relations 1800-1900.

Trouble, and more jail time, was not far away. On 20 September 2003, the National Security Services (NSS), killed Evan Naseem, a young prisoner in Maafushi jail. Nasheed was instrumental in exposing Evan Naseem’s death for the murder that it was. He beseeched the examining doctor to deviate from what was then a standard procedure of signing prisoners’ death certificates without examining the body first. Naseem’s battered and bruised body, once examined by the doctor and seen by his family and the public, brought most of the public’s endurance of Gayoom’s regime to an end; and lit the fire of the Maldivian democracy movement that refuses to die to this day.

Much of what happened between then and now is well documented. The Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) was declared as an entity in exile in Sri Lanka on 10 November 2003; Nasheed and several other close associates, in danger of losing their lives, sought asylum in the UK; and party leaders, members and activists continued their highly effective non-violent civil resistance actions in Male’. There were several heavy and brutal crackdowns, including the event now known as Black Friday on 12-13 August 2004 when the now infamous SO police brutally cracked down on thousands of protesters injuring hundreds and arresting 200.

Nasheed returned to the Maldives not long after, on 30 April 2005. Within a month—during which time he turned 38—he was back in Dhoonidhoo jail with several other MDP members and activists. This turned out to be a brief overnight stay, but it was not long before he was back in jail, dragged into custody from the Republic Square on 12 August 2005 where he was leading a mass gathering to mark the first anniversary of Black Friday. He remained in prison for about a week, then brought to court to face a battery of charges from inciting hatred against government and ‘creating fear in people’s hearts.’

Nasheed was back in jail—in solitary confinement—for the 80 days in which the ‘trial’ was held. It was followed by 324 days under house arrest. Mounting external pressure forced the government to withdraw the charges against Nasheed and release him on 21 September 2006. Another birthday had passed in captivity.

The freedom was short lived. Six months later, the people of Male’ were confronted with another dead body—another prisoner last seen alive in police custody. The body of Hussein Solah, carrying marks of torture was seen in the sea, near the remand prison where the police had held him. Large crowds gathered near the cemetery to view Solah’s body. Police dispersed the crowd brutally. They singled Nasheed out, pushed, shoved and beat him up, then dragged him into jail for another night. Released the next day, he left abroad to seek treatment.

Sweet but short

In November 2008 Nasheed became the first democratically elected leader of the Maldives. Both he, and the Maldivian people, experienced true freedom from tyranny for the first time in decades. Freedom of expression and assembly flourished. It was safe to speak, to criticise, to write, to draw, to feel, to debate, to dissent.

But, just like the many short-lived moments of liberty in Nasheed’s own history, this freedom for both him and the people was short lived. The beginning of its end came with the coup on 12 February 2012. In the year and nine months that followed, caretaker ‘President’ Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik, genuflecting deeply, held the door open for the Gayoom family to return: to occupy the seats of power; shut the door on civil and political rights of the people; and to lock Nasheed away in prison. The new regime did not waste much time. Nasheed was back in Dhoonidhoo in October 2012, and again in March 2013. He was released on both occasions, pending a ‘trial’. On 13 March 2013, after what the entire world sees as a sham trial–charged and found guilty of ‘terrorism’ for the custody of a corrupt judge during his presidency–the regime threw Nasheed into jail yet again. This time to serve a 13-year sentence.

Today Mohamed Nasheed turns 48. It is the fifth birthday he marks in jail, 24 long years since he marked his first, 24th, birthday in jail back in 1991. And just as his fortunes have changed, so has the country’s. Counting the days behind bars today are many dissidents, critics and writers. Protesters as old as 70, and children under 18, are being brutally assaulted, pepper sprayed, arrested and tortured. Opposition leaders are being detained solely for being opposition leaders.

Once again, it is not safe to criticise the government; it is no longer allowed to freely assemble to peacefully protest without prior permission from the authorities; journalism is, once more, a crime. Journalist and writer Ahmed Rilwan was abducted in August 2014 and has been ‘disappeared’. Several prominent social media critics were dragged into jail, picked up from anti-governments protests like baitfish in a drag net. Dozens of Twitter users were detained for days and held in inhumane conditions. Some have been released, others like Shafeeu and bloggerYameen Rasheed, remain in custody for no other reason except for their dissenting voices.

The trajectory of Nasheed’s life and that of the Maldivian democracy movement are closely intertwined. Every birthday he marks in jail marks another year in which the country’s struggle for democracy remains under captivity. Without Nasheed’s freedom, there would be no freedom for the majority agitating for a government of the people by the people–they are bound together, like ‘a connection of hearts’.

This article was originally published on Dhivehisitee.com. It has been republished with permission. 

Azra Naseem is a former journalist who now works as a Research fellow in Dublin City University. 

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to editorial@minivannewsarchive.com

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Comment: May Day! May Day! May Day! Maldives

“When dictatorship is a fact, revolution becomes a right.” – Victor Hugo.

By many accounts, the atmosphere in Male’ is both festive and fearful right now. And so it would be. Today, supporters of democracy in the Maldives and those who want to prolong the increasingly autocratic regime of Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom are going head to head. Both sides are ready to give it their all, whatever happens, whatever it takes.

For democracy

There is little doubt that the country is heavily divided. On the side of democracy supporters are at least 48% of the electorate who voted for Mohamed Nasheed in the 2013 election stolen by Yameen Abdul Gayoom through the Supreme Court. Added to this are a majority of the 23% who in 2013 voted for Qasim Ibrahim, the tourism tycoon who helped fund Yameen’s win and is now being persecuted by him. Also among the democracy supporters are those aligned with the religious Adhaalath Party who voted either for Qasim Ibrahim or Yameen. One of their leading figures, Sheikh Imran Abdullah, so zealously effective against Nasheed in the 2013 presidential campaign, is also now campaigning against this government. All in all, Yameen–and the autocratic values that he represents–has the support of less than 25% of the electorate, if that. A conservative estimate would, therefore, put the percentage of the Maldivian electorate against the government at around 65%. A higher figure is likely to be more accurate.

A large share of these people will be out on the streets of the capital Male’ today for what is likely to be the biggest demonstration in the history of the country.

People have come on boatloads from across the 1200 island archipelago. ‘We have travelled on different ships, but we are now all on the same boat’, observed one such protester on social media. They will all be congregating in Male’ at 3:45 in the afternoon, under the hot tropical sun. They want to rise up against the government that has refused to listen to any of their multitude of woes and worries: murders that have not been solved; abductions that have not been investigated; corruption that has been encouraged; islands that have been sold to shady businesses; lagoons that have been signed away for centuries; atolls handed to foreign governments for unknown purposes; medical care that has been negligent; basic services that have been inadequate; streets that have become too dangerous to walk; children who have not been protected; living that has become too expensive to afford; freedoms that have been severely curtailed; promises that have been unfulfilled; and lives that have become too joyless and filled with fear to enjoy. They want a government that would listen; a government of the people, for the people. And they are ready, in their tens of thousands, to come out on the street and demand all this, all theirs by right.

Against democracy

‘I do not want to rule with force,’ President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom has said. But short of using his own fists, he has done nothing but. All three powers of the State are entirely in his hand, though he continues to insist they are not. Some of the claims are laughable, such as his insistence that the judiciary is independent from his influence. The entire world has seen and said otherwise after the courts prosecuted and jailed opposition leader Mohamed Nasheed in the manner it did. With Yameen’s Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) holding an absolute majority, the parliament is his toy, too. As is the Prosecutor Generals’ Office, almost all independent commissions, and also the country’s armed forces.

With clear evidence of the partiality of these institutions laid bare on a daily basis, Yameen’s claims of not exercising undue influence makes him frequently look like Iraq’s Comical Ali: Maldives’ own Comical Abdulla.

The government has been preparing for the protest by banning civil servants from attending the rally, by firing pro-democracy staff in government-run institutions, and by producing and repeating the narrative that to protest is to destroy the country’s peace–as if there can be peace when a majority of the people are refusing to be ruled against their will. None of it is working. Desperate, it has wheeled out religious clerics to say it is against Islam to rise up against an elected leader. Sadly for the government, a majority of Maldivian clerics–having helped instigate the February 2012 coup which brought down the country’s first democratically elected–government, has little credibility left in this department.

In the meantime, Yameen’s right hand man, the financially rich but morally bankrupt Tourism Minister Ahmed Adeeb, has tried to heat things up further, challenging the protesters to ‘bring it on!’ He has said the government is ready to take on anyone that disagrees with it. There is fear, as well as compelling room for conviction, among democracy supporters that Adeeb–’bro’ to hundreds of gangsters–would not hesitate to bring the ‘boys’ out on the streets today. The plan would be, as has been executed many times before, to get his thugs to pretend they are part of the protest, and commit acts of violence in response to which the SO can unleash their own violence against the peaceful thousands marching for their rights.

The security forces

Police

The Maldives Police Service has become one of the country’s least respected institutions. With a Police Commissioner of little education and even less knowledge of policing at the helm–appointed solely for his loyalty to Yameen–the force has become even more disliked than it was after the 7 February which a group of them facilitated. Since Hussein Waheed became Commissioner, the police have been deployed to do a lot of Yameen’s dirty work–framing political opponents, freeing criminal allies, and brutalising democracy activists. Members of theSpecial Operations police (SO)–supposedly an ‘elite’ group–have become such lackeys of the president that they are even attending to the president’s superstitions, carrying out ‘top secret’ midnight operations to cut down trees that were supposedly cursed against the government.

The only people looking forward to the protests as much as, or even more, than the protesters themselves today are the police. From everything they have said and done since today’s protests were announced, they have been preparing for this day. In the last week there have been almost daily press briefings all of which have included threats, intimidation and announcements of new measures to curb the right to freedom of assembly. They have all but imposed visa requirements on people travelling to Male’ from other islands for the protests, demanding they have accommodation, food and other arrangements pre-booked before travelling. They have instigated stop and search operations targeted at boats en route to Male’; paraded troops with imitation guns, banned batons, and gas canisters to perform ‘training exercises’; and they have used ‘intelligence reports’ to arbitrarily arrest leading opposition activists. They have arbitrarily banned the media from certain areas; and banned protests ‘between two prayer times’ — as if there is any time that’s not between one of the five daily prayers. They have warned that caution must be exercised near mosques and schools – as if there is any area on the two square kilometres of Male’ that is not near a mosque or a school. They have said no sound systems can be used after 11:00p.m and that it must all end at sharp midnight. They have declared the protest, yet to begin, ‘not peaceful’. They have announced a strategy of zero tolerance. Any infringement of the growing list of illegally actions, at anytime during the protest, by anyone, and ‘we will crackdown’, they have said.

Strength in unity

Not everyone who supports democracy, wants to protest the unjust incarceration of Nasheed, and rise up against the current government, can join the march today. There are many valid reasons to hold people back–mothers who cannot leave their children; the unwell; people who believe they simply cannot risk their livelihoods; people who cannot be in Male’ for various reasons; and more. But, no matter how hard the government and the police would like to believe otherwise, fear is the last reason holding any democracy supporter back from the streets of Male’ today. Together, the people are stronger than any government, no matter how brutal.

This article was originally published on Dhivehisitee.com

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to editorial@minivannewsarchive.com

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Comment: ‘It’s not political’

Mohamed Nasheed, opposition leader and former President, was jailed for 13 years on charges of terrorism for an act that does not fit into any of the over 300 definitions of terrorism that currently exist across the world. One of the five co-defendants in the case, Moosa Jaleel, the current Defence Minister and Nasheed’s Chief of Staff at the time of the said act of ‘terrorism’, was cleared of the same charge yesterday. For Nasheed, the conviction came because he could not prove he was innocent. For Jaleel, the acquittal came because the prosecution could not prove he was guilty. Neither of the verdicts, according to the government, was political.

Rtd Col Mohamed Nazim, Defence Minister until charged with conspiracy to overthrow the government in February 2015, was found guilty of a lesser charge of smuggling weapons into the country. The evidence against Nazim could not have been any more frivolous or, frankly, any more ludicrous. Allegedly, he was planning to shoot and kill Yameen, his right-hand man Tourism Minister Ahmed Adeeb, and a few others in the current government. He laid out detailed plans of how to do it and supposedly saved them on a pen-drive. More sophisticated event planning can be found in a primary school exercise book. Nazim’s legal team pointed 12 gaping holes in the evidence against him. Yet, he was pronounced guilty and jailed for 11 years. Nothing political about it, maintained the government.

Next came Mohamed Nazim, MP for Dhiggaru area, and, until Ahmed Adeeb weighed into the relationship, Yameen’s closest political ally and partner in all businesses above and below board. Yameen and Nazim went way back, even founded a political party together – People’s Alliance – which later merged with Gayoom’s PPM. Adeeb’s presence somehow muddied the waters between the friends and, before Nazim could say ‘jangiya’, he had been sentenced to 25 years (life) in prison for corruption worth 1.4 million Rufiyaa. The fraud was committed when Nazim was working in the Atolls Ministry back in 2004. When things were good between Yameen and Nazim, the same courts had said about the same allegations that ‘Nazim had no charges to answer.’ But now, out of favour with Yameen, not only were the charges worth answering, they were also worth life imprisonment. Meanwhile Adeeb, who is basking in the sunshine of Yameen’s approval, can happily ignore allegations of corruption worth millions of US dollars. Not only that, the Auditor General who dared expose the allegations, was removed from his positionand a more ‘friendly’ figure put in his place so Adeeb does not have to put up with listening to such ‘drivel’ against him. On top of it all, news came yesterday that theTourism Ministry is to have ‘extended powers’. ‘It’s not political’, says the government.

Meanwhile, life keeps getting harder to live on the islands of Maldives. Taxes have gone up, along with living expenses. Salaries, however, remain as low as ever. While each tourist who arrives in the Maldives – and according to Tourism Ministry figures there were over a 100,000 in February alone – spends an average US$350 a day, the average monthly salary of a civil servant remains below that amount. While the price of fuel has gone down dramatically across the world, electricity bills have become impossible for people to pay. Not only are the bills remaining as high as ever, the government is also cutting subsidies which made it possible for people to pay them in the first place. ‘Don’t make this political’, says the government.

Amidst all this came the news that the President’s Office has given each of the five Supreme Court judges, along with the president of the Anti-Corruption Commission, newly built apartments in Male’ at a discounted rate. Land is the most precious commodity in the Maldives, especially in and around Male’. Decades of centralisation has meant all essential services such as healthcare and education are only available in the capital city with even a modicum of satisfaction. People are desperate for housing in the area – the apartments in Male’ are meant as some sort of a solution for this problem. Yet, instead of the desperate, they are given to the already flush. ‘It’s to protect their integrity’, said Adeeb, speaking for the President’s Office. ‘It’s not political.’

While coping with the hardships of surviving in the messed up economy, half the country is out on the streets attempting to save, through peaceful civil resistance, the last remaining vestiges of democracy. The government has responded by describing civil and political rights enshrined in the 2008 democratic Constitution as ‘loopholes’ through which people are abusing the ruling party. Laws will be made to close them holes, it has said. So the authorities first moved to ban protesting in certain areas, then at certain times, then at certain decibels and, most recently, without prior permission of the police.

The police have taken into custody close to 200 people in less than a month, and the courts have taken to imposing unconstitutional conditions on their release, demanding that they don’t protest for days, weeks or even months, if they want to remain free citizens. Those who defy the bans are locked up, deprived of basic rights and even abused psychologically and physically. Opposition parliamentarians are often the victims. Most recently, MP Ahmed Mahloof defied the conditional ban on protests only to see his wife being physically, and she alleges sexually, abused by a group of policemen as he was hauled away to detention without charge for an undefined length of time. ‘Don’t make this political’, says the government. ‘It’s rule of law’.

To prove that ‘it’s not political’, the government continues to behave as if none of these events are taking place. It has announced plans to prettify Male’ with flowers all over the city; the Clock Roundabout is to get a new clock; one part of the land-sparse Male’ is to be turned into a show area of ‘what it used to be like’; buildings are to be painted; and a dozen or so Maldivians are to sky-dive into the national stadium in a grandiose gesture. Meanwhile, a travelling band of PPM activists are to tour the country setting off fireworks on various islands, when they are not travelling to award air-conditioners and other bribes ahead of by-election votes, that is.

Of course, none of this is political. These are not attempts to pretend that everything is fine. These are not attempts to show that only a few dozen mad people are out protesting, trying to upset the smooth running of a democratically elected, benevolent government which is only trying to do best by its people.

Of course not. All these activities are to celebrate 50 years of independence. Independence? Where is the freedom? you ask. Oh, don’t get political.

This article first appeared on Dhivehisitee.com. Republished with permission. 

Azra Naseem is a former journalist who now works as a Research fellow in Dublin City University. 

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to editorial@minivannewsarchive.com

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Comment: Getting away with murder

This article first appeared on DhivehiSitee.

In the early hours of this morning a 24-year-old Bangladeshi waiter, Shaheen Mia, was brutally murdered at a Male’ café he was working in. A group of masked men stabbed him to death. The day before, on the island of Mundoo in Laamu Atoll, another young man, 29-year-old Ali Ziyadham, was knifed to death allegedly in an argument among a group of men who were drinking home brewed alcohol.

Last month, on 22 February, a 24-year-old was murdered outside his home in Male’, he was almost decapitated. In January, in the island of Vaavu Rakeedhoo, a three-year-old boy was beaten to death by his mentally ill mother, herself a victim of sexual abuse over a long period of time.

All in all, since November 2013, there have been 12 murders and three abductions in the Maldives. Few have received justice.

Ex-Defence Minister Mohamed Nazim was fired on 20 January. Police raided his home in the middle of the night and ‘found’ weapons. Charged first with conspiracy to overthrow the government and later with importation of weapons into the country, he was remanded in custody. Before being imprisoned Nazim gave a press conference in which he said, ‘no Maldivian citizen will have safety and security.’ He could not have made a truer statement. Law and order are now non-existent in the once peaceful islands.

Just a short decade or so ago, a murder in the Maldives was a rare occasion that got the whole country talking. Back in the early 1970s, a German tourist killed his girlfriend in a Male’ guesthouse. Throughout the eighties and well into the 1990s, Maldivian people still spoke of the murder in hushed tones—killing was such a rare occurrence that people could not forget even the smallest details about the event. Today, killing is so common it is hard to remember who, when or why.

The blame must be taken squarely by the failed criminal justice system of the Maldives. Investigations are set to fail—often deliberately—at all stages: the police never seem to find evidence; when they do, they charge the wrong person; or when the right person is charged, the courts release them for ‘lack of evidence’ or wrongfully obtained evidence, or to teach the government a lesson. In 2011 Judge Abdulla Ghazee, whose continued releasing of violent offenders had made him a national security threat, released a suspected murderer, Shahum Adam, to teach the Health Ministry a lesson. He went on to kill again.

In the year that followed Ablow Ghazee’s release from custody on 7th February 2012, after Mohamed Nasheed was deposed on the pretext of having acted unconstitutionally by having the lawless judge taken into military custody, there were nine murders.

The first was of 21-year-old Abdulla Muheeth (Bobby), killed by gangs in what turned out to be a case of mistaken identity. On the night he was killed, there were three other violent attacks in Male’. Muheeth’s killers are awaiting the death penalty. Less than a month after Muheeth’s death, 33-year-old Ali Shifan was attacked and killed by two men on a motorbike in Male’. The next victim was a 75-year-old woman, Fathimath Zakariyya, attacked and killed in her own home on the island of Neykurendhoo; the next a 65-year-old man, Hassanbe, on the island of Maafaru, also attacked and killed in his own home; he was followed by a 16-year-old schoolboy, Mohamed Aruham, attacked and killed while sleeping on a park bench in Male’; 65-year-old lawyer Ahmed Najeeb came next, killed and thrown into a garbage bin; he was followed by a 26-year-old policeman, attacked and killed while on duty on the island of Kaashidhoo; then came the murder of 46-year-old MP Afrasheem, brutally attacked just outside his own apartment; followed by Moneerul Islam, a Bangladeshi worker, also killed in his own home in November 2012.

There was a drop in the number of killings after that, with three in total in the year 2013 – one in March, in July and in December of that year. In 2014, however, the number of killings went up again—five lives were taken violently that year. In 2015, only in its third month, this morning’s murder of Shaheen Mia is the year’s fourth.

The police are not doing their job of law enforcement, and of protecting and serving the community. As observers have pointed out, their main focus seems to be on the political rather than the criminal.

Hundreds of policemen and women are deployed to man every peaceful protest; a flurry of press releases and media briefings precede and follow any demonstration; and dozens are taken into custody from each of them. The gangs that operate on the fringes of these protests, meanwhile, get away with throwing crude oil, chilli water and even petrol at the demonstrators; and with attacking them physically. The only purpose of the police seems to be to stifle opposition to the government, to enforce the government’s power, and to keep people from rising up against it.

The current Home Minister, Umar Naseer, competed in the PPM primaries as a presidential candidate in the 2013 election. He lost to the incumbent president Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom. According to Umar, Yameen rigged the primaries to win. In the subsequent fallout, he alleged that Yameen has deep connections with the gangs of Male’; and also that the President was connected to the murder of MP Afrasheem Ali.

Once made the Home Minister in Yameen’s government, however, he has gone silent on whatever it is that he knows about the president and his gangs. Not only is he silent on Yameen’s alleged criminal activities, but also on any criminal activity. He is Home Minister in name only, his wings cut and vocal chords either bought or being held to ransom. He has no power over the police either. This week, he resorted to issuing orders to the police through Twitter, so powerless is he.

More recently, former PPM MP Ahmed Mahloof who has now been kicked out of the party, has come up with similar allegations of Yameen’s criminality. He implicates Yameen’s right-hand man in government, Tourism Minister Ahmed Adeeb, of being as closely connected with the gangs of Male’ as Umar accused Yameen of being. According to Mahloof, Adeeb knows what happened to journalist and blogger Ahamed Rilwan, abducted at knifepoint from outside his home in August 2014. Pictures of Yameen and Adeeb with members of Male’s various gangs are everywhere. Pictorial evidence shows Adeeb’s connections with gangs exist not only at the local level but also the international – he posed shamelessly with the notorious Artur brothers from Armenia, implicated in arms and drugs smuggling worldwide.

The fact is none of these people with information—Nazim, Umar or Mahloof—are willing to share what they know with the public. It may be because the information is their only bargaining tool, it could be what keeps them alive. According to what Nazim has been revealing in his sham trial, police acts as thugs when commanded by Adeeb, Yameen’s proxy. In October 2014, a group of masked men wielding machetes cut down the areca nut palms lining Male’s main streets. The perpetrators were never identified by the police. According to recent revelations by Nazim during his on-going trial, it was the Special Operations police, pretending to be gang members who committed the crime. Rumour has it that Yameen suspects the trees have been used to put a curse on him using black magic.

The police are also implicated in enabling, and the cover-up of Afrasheem’s murder—they were on duty, closing the roads to his home when the murder occurred. Did they let the killer in, then closed off the road so there would be no witnesses? The public widely suspects they had a role in the abduction of Rilwan. An eyewitness to his abduction called the police immediately after seeing a man being bundled into a car at knifepoint from outside Rilwan’s apartment on the island of HulhuMale’. They did not respond, and never publicised the event allowing Rilwan’s disappearance to go unknown for days. They are still deliberately neglecting the investigation, hiding, obfuscating, impeding any progress. In the killing of Ziyadham on the island of Mundoo on Friday night, according to local media, people reported unrest to the police repeatedly, suspecting something was about to go very wrong. The police did not respond, arriving on the island hours after the killing despite having hours to have prevented it from happening. Less than an hour ago, in response to the latest killing, the police have told local news outlet cnm.mv that it ‘believes’ all citizens are safe.

A deadly mixture of deliberate collusion with violent gangs, the country’s incompetent law enforcement authorities, and the unqualified corrupt judiciary, has made life in the Maldives hell for its inhabitants.

This government is an utter failure on every level. Yet, half the people are fighting to keep it, and the judiciary, in place.

Dr Azra Naseem has a PhD in International Relations

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to editorial@minivannewsarchive.com.

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Comment: Get up, stand up

This article first appeared on DhivehiSitee.com. Republished with permission

It is an extremely tense day in the Maldives as tens of thousands of people wait on tenterhooks for what seems to be the inevitable: the imprisonment of opposition leader, former president and icon of democracy, Mohamed Nasheed.

The outcome of the ‘trial’ which Nasheed has been subjected to is certain, the verdict written long before he was charged with ‘terrorism’ and remanded in custody on the island of Dhoonidhoo on 22 February.

Everything that followed since that Sunday, over two weeks ago now, has been a sham and a travesty against justice. The barbarity was put on full display to the world, when Nasheed was brought to ‘court’ for the first hearing. Policemen, belonging to the notorious Special Operations, pushed and shoved Nasheed to the ground.

Pictures and videos of the event shocked the country, and the world.

The current rulers, led by Yameen Abdul Gayoom, shrugged off the outcry with nonchalance. Locally, the police claimed Nasheed had pulled a stunt, fallen to the ground voluntarily like a footballer faking an injury looking for to be rewarded with a penalty. It did not matter that video and pictorial evidence told a different story.

Internationally, foreign minister Dunya Maumoon was recalcitrant, insisting that Nasheed’s trial is a ‘domestic issue’ that no foreigners have a say in. The government remained impervious to all outside criticism. Even the cancellation of a planned trip by India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a diplomatic slap of substantial magnitude, did not make any impact on its determination to pursue with their chosen path of leading Nasheed to jail. In fact, as time passed, the government grew more belligerent.

Yameen Abdul Gayoom said on March 9 that people in distant foreign lands should butt out of Maldivian affairs. Brushed aside were the many international treaties which the Maldives is signatory to, which gives the international community the right to particular actions during certain circumstances — such as in times of the destruction of rule of law.

‘Trial’

And what a destruction it has been. Every hearing in the court, itself unconstitutional, has dealt a deathblow to the concept of rule of law. The Prosecutor General’s appointment now appears to have been engineered for the very purpose of this prosecution, as are the panel of three ‘judges’. None of them have adequate legal qualifications, and all of them are in each other’s pockets. All of them have close ties to the man at the centre of these ‘terrorism’ charges—Ablow Ghaazee, himself accused of misconduct and corruption—who Nasheed allegedly ‘kidnapped’.

The three man bench has obstructed justice at every opportunity, refusing to give Nasheed’s lawyers enough time to study evidence; giving them evidence on CDs that do not open or have been damaged; refusing Nasheed the opportunity to appoint new lawyers when the current ones objected to their unlawful treatment; and incredibly, refusing to allow Nasheed to present witnesses with the judgement that no witness can disprove the prosecution case.

Every hearing has been held after sundown, and Nasheed brought to court in darkened vehicles under heavy police escort. The lengths to which prosecutors have gone to separate Nasheed and his supporters, and to prevent media from taking pictures of him, have been ludicrous at times.

On 8 March, about an hour before Nasheed was brought to court, the powers that be spread a blue banner across the entrance to the building, placed strategically to cover the camera angle from which Raajje TV usually shoots Nasheed’s court arrival. The banner read ‘Welcome, International Women’s Day.’ A blatant mockery not of justice alone, but also of women.

There has been much anguish among Nasheed’s supporters. On February 27 tens of thousand came out to protest against the court’s decision to remand Nasheed in custody throughout the trial. It was the biggest political gathering the capital island of Male’ had ever seen. People flooded the main street of Majeedhee Magu almost covering it from end to end.

Since then there have been protests every night and every day in various different locations across the country. But the government is refusing to listen to them no matter how many there are; it seeks to shut them down instead.

Every protest is manned by hundreds of Special Operations police, sometimes with reinforcements from the army. Almost every other protest ends in brutality and/or arrests. Scores have been arrested, taken to prison, then released with the unconstitutional condition that they don’t protest for periods of time as set by the court-–sometimes days, sometimes months.

Leaders of the MDP are handpicked for the arrests, making sure that less and less of them will be able to join protests against Nasheed’s arrest. One person—MP Fayyaz Ismail—refused to sign the court’s unlawful protest ban. He was given an extra 15 days in custody. There is no legal basis for such an order.

An increasing number of locations are being declared ‘no-protest zones’ for various reasons: for residents’ peace; for local business interests; for law and order, etc. etc. Freedom of assembly is being rolled back swiftly, and without hesitation. Other associated freedoms are under similar attack. Journalists are being barred from covering the trial without legal reason. Reporters are being banned from videoing places they are legally allowed to. Police are forcing them to delete footage already recorded without legal authority to do so. The state broadcaster is continuing to ignore the biggest ‘trial’ in the country’s recent history, completely ignoring its duty to keep citizens informed.

Thumbs down

Meanwhile, Yameen and members of his ruling cabal are relishing the distress and helplessness of supporters of democracy and Nasheed. Decorum and statesmanship are nowhere to be seen. When MDP MPs protested against Yameen’s inaugural speech in parliament, he gave into his indignation, getting up and waving his thumbs up and down, then up again, like a crazed Caligula in Roman times.

Yameen’s trusted sidekick, Tourism Minister Ahmed Adeeb, who has shrugged off corruption charges amounting to millions of US dollars and engineered the unconstitutional removal of the auditor general who dared bring up the charges, led a motorbike procession on the streets of Malé this weekend, calling to expedite Nasheed’s conviction.

Among the rats led by this pied piper on a bike with a Rolex watch on his wrist and a sapphire ring on his finger, was the current defence minister, ex-military General Moosa Jaleel. Jaleel in his eagerness to belong to Yameen’s cabal, and thus enjoy automatic immunity, forgot that he is himself on trial for the same charges he was calling Nasheed to be convicted for.

To further increase the public disgust level [or degree of impressiveness, if the onlooker is a supporter of Bro Adeeb], Adeeb has led a ‘movement’ that mimics Yameen’s thumbs-down gestures as if it is something to be celebrated and not shamed by. He has posed with his thumbs down with cabinet ministers and parliament members—as well as with his usual string of young, disaffected men on the fringes, and in the heart of, Maldives’ violent gang culture. Everyone in the Motorcade of The Shamelessness wore t-shirts emblazoned with a thumbs-down signal.

This hatred of Nasheed as a person cultivated with relish by Yameen and Adeeb has been embraced by thousands of their supporters. It has blinded them to the fact that what is being destroyed in this sham is not just Nasheed’s personal freedoms but also every single Maldivian’s many civil and political rights and their right to equal justice for all.

The fundamental problem with the Maldives’ transition to democracy was that it was unable, and oftentimes unwilling, to reform the judiciary. Few had the foresight to see where the democratic transition would end without an independent judiciary based on the principles of rule of law. Now, even on hindsight – with the results on full display – many are still too blinded by personal vendettas, grudges and hate to see that this ‘trial’ of Nasheed is the last nail in the coffin for a democratic future for the Maldives.

Years of anti-Nasheed propaganda have closed people’s eyes to the fact that whatever wrong he may have done, if they want themselves to be treated fairly and equally and live in a just society, they must protest against the injustice he is being subjected to.

Today it is the moral obligation for every Maldivian to stand up against injustice. The subject of concern is not a particular individual, be it Nasheed, Nazim, the common man jailed for six years for stealing a jar of fish-paste; or the murderer who is allowed to walk free because he is in the inner cabal. It is justice itself.

Last time the people should have stood up en masse for justice and did not, the Maldives was robbed of a free and fair election. The result is in office, orchestrating injustice, via the courts that engineered his election. This time if the people fail to stand up, it will shut all doors to another election in the foreseeable future; along with the doors to equal justice for all, quite likely for generations to come.

Dr Azra Naseem has a PhD in International Relations

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to editorial@minivannewsarchive.com



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One hundred days of sorrow: Missing Moyameehaa

This article first appeared on DhivehiSitee.com. Republished with permission

“You run back and forth listening for unusual events,
peering into the faces of travelers.
“Why are you looking at me like a madman?”
I have lost a friend. Please forgive me.” – Rumi

Sunday will be the 100th day since Ahmed Rizwan (Rilwan) Abdulla, @moyameehaa, was abducted. Time has dragged, weighted down by the burden of not knowing. Between then and now much, yet nothing, has happened. The posters brightening a thousand walls with Rilwan’s smile have faded with the sun and dissolved with the rain. Five thousand men and women put pen to paper, ‘Good Sir, kind Madam, please find Rilwan,’ they begged. At least as many thousand Tweets have echoed round the world: ‘#Findmoyameehaa, #Findoyameehaa.’ Hundreds of friends and supporters have marched on Male’s streets with the question: ‘Where is Rilwan?’ Scores have met many miles away in Melbourne and in New York, asking the same question.

Rilwan’s mother has said, to any ears that would listen, ‘I am poor, but my love makes Rilwan a priceless treasure. Please find him for me.’ Hundreds have felt her tears roll down their faces. ‘He is alive,’ Rilwan’s father has insisted. His mind has been far from the assorted fruits and vegetables he sells at the local market. ‘How do you know?’ ask customers who have stopped to listen. Without batting an eyelid he has said, ‘I asked a clairvoyant.’

It may seem odd, approaching a clairvoyant to look for a son abducted in this technologically advanced twenty first century. But when the natural world makes no sense, the supernatural often appears the only consolation. In its investigation into Rilwan’s disappearance, Maldives Police Service (MPS) has been more than negligent; it has been willfully perverse. In hundred days the MPS has given almost as many excuses for making zero progress in the search for Rilwan: nobody was abducted; it was a woman who was abducted; it was not an abduction, it was a rape; Rilwan ‘disappeared himself’; Rilwan is an apostate, not worth looking for; Rilwan is playing an elaborate joke; Rilwan is writing his own missing persons reports; Rilwan was abducted by gangs, there are no gangs in the Maldives; we have arrested someone, we have let him go; Rilwan was abducted by violent extremists, there are no violent extremists in the Maldives; Rilwan is not missing, it is all a political drama; no comment; Rilwan who?

Rilwan the journalist who examined the many maladies of Maldives. Rilwan the teenage blogger who gave a damn about the poor and the wronged. Rilwan the ex-radical who understood the extremist mindset better than all official strategists. Rilwan the story-teller whose #FerryTales shortened the distance between Male’ and Hulhumale’ more than any bridge can. Rilwan the well-mannered young man who respected the elderly. Rilwan the friend who listened. Rilwan the writer who inspired. Rilwan the aspiring poet who read Rumi and Neruda. Rilwan the thinker who sought spiritual succor in meditation, Nusrat Fatah Khan and the Quran. Rilwan the friend who laughed; the brother who baked; the uncle who played; the son who loved. Rilwan the Maldivian who cared.

The reasons why Rilwan’s friends, family and supporters want him found are the very reason the authorities want him to remain missing. What Rilwan abhorred in our society, our rulers cheer loudly.

Rilwan wanted a society free of corruption; our leaders revel in it. He wanted to see Jihadist ideologies become less attractive to young Maldivians; our religious clerics encourage it while the government turns a blind eye. He wanted gang violence to have less power over society; senior government officials outsource authority to favoured gang members. Rilwan wanted equal justice for all; our rulers want judgement and punishment to be arbitrary, wielded by them how and when they please. He wanted a society where citizens shared its wealth more equally; our rulers want all wealth to be their own.

Rilwan wanted us all to think more deeply about how to live a more meaningful, spiritual and equal existence; it is the antithesis of all that our rulers desire. For the moment we begin to think more deeply is the moment we begin to regret voting them in. It would be the beginning of our demand for change, the precursor to saying: ‘Enough. I will not let you rule me anymore.’

If the past 100 days has made anything clear, it is that this government will do all it can to stop Rilwan from being found. It is in its interests to do so. The past 100 days has also made something else very clear: we must do all we can to find out what happened to Rilwan. It is in our interests to do so. Our pursuit of a more just, equal and democratic society, as dreamed of by Rilwan, cannot begin if we forget Rilwan’s abduction and the government’s role in it, either by taking him or covering it up.

Let’s not stop our pressure on the authorities to #FindMoyameehaa. We owe it to Rilwan, and to our future.

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Comment: #findmoyaameehaa

This article first appeared on Dhivehi Sitee. Republished with permission.

Thursday night, two weeks ago, was the last time anyone saw Ahmed Rizwan Abdulla, 28-year-old journalist, blogger, human rights advocate and all-round great person.

A lot—yet nothing—has happened since Rizwan was reported missing to the Maldives Police Service (MPS) on 13 August.

On 15 August Rizwan’s family and friends organised a search of Hulhumalé, the island neighbouring Male’ on which Rizwan lives on his own. Starting with the desolate, deserted areas—-of which there are many—-the search party combed the whole island. It was in vain.

On 16 August Rizwan’s friends and colleagues, who obtained CCTV footage from the Malé-Hulhumalé ferry terminal from the night he was last seen, identified him on camera buying a ticket and going into the waiting area to board the 1:00 a.m. ferry on 8 August. This footage has since been made public. For the next twenty minutes or so—-the amount of time it takes for the ferry to reach Hulhumalé—-Rizwan was on Twitter. Between 1:02 a.m. he sent out 11 (mostly re-) Tweets, beginning with this one, which said he had just boarded the ferry:

His last Tweet was at 1:17 a.m three minutes before the ferry would have reached Hulhumalé.  According to Rizwan’s employer, Minivan News, he sent a Viber message at 1:42 a.m. The newspaper further reports that according to Rizwan’s telephone service provider that his mobile phone was last used at 2:36 a.m. at a location in Male’. Since then, nothing.

There was a shocking development to the story a few days after the search for Rizwan began. On the night he was last seen, two witnesses saw a man being abducted from outside Rizwan’s apartment around 2:00 a.m. Minivan News, which withheld the information until it was made public by other news outlets, published details of the abduction on 18 August. The witnesses heard screaming and saw the captive, held at knife point by a tall thin man, being bundled into a red car which drove away at speed. The witnesses contacted the police immediately. They also recovered a knife from the scene. The police took a statement and confiscated the knife.

And that was that.

It is mind-boggling that there were no searches in Hulhumalé after eye-witness reports of an abduction, no sealing off of exits to and from the island, no investigation in and around the area of the abduction to at least ascertain who had been bundled into the car. If the police had done any of this, Rizwan’s family would have been aware of his disappearance so much sooner. Two weeks on, the police still don’t seem to have managed to locate the red car—-this on a 700 hectare island with the total number of cars totalling around fifty, if that.

Outrage at police ‘incompetence’ has grown steadily as days turn into weeks without news of Rizwan’s whereabouts. MPS’ reaction to the criticism has been petulant, like an offended prima donna. It issued a long statement demanding that the public stop criticising police given how brilliant they obviously are; and, unbelievably, proceeded to hold a press conference about Rizwan to which all media outlets bar his own Minivan News was invited.

Speculation that MPS does not want Rizwan found is becoming fact as time passes with no leads. How incompetent does a force have to be to remain clueless about how a person was abducted from a small island? How many red cars can be hidden on such a small piece of land, surrounded by the sea? How difficult would it be to locate the individuals caught on CCTV following Rizwan at the ferry terminal in Male’? It is common knowledge that life in Male’ is now governed by an ‘unholy alliance’ of ‘born-again’ fanatically ‘religious’ gangsters and thugs controlled by politicians and fundamentalists.

Whatever the police is driven by—fear, complicity, support—it is certain the government shares its ‘could not care less’ attitude. President Yameen’s callous response on 20 August to news of Rizwan’s disappearance confirmed this: ‘I cannot comment on anything and everything that happens, can I? The police are probably looking into it.’

It is as if the disappearance of a young man, a journalist and well-known human rights advocate—the first incident of its kind in the Maldives—is as routine as a mislaid shopping list. The President, who campaigned as saviour of the youth population, had not a word to say about the abduction and disappearance a young man of vast potential. Yameen chose, instead, to wax lyrical on his success at begging in China, having procured a 100 million US dollars in aid money for building a bridge between Malé and Hulhumalé, the island where Rizwan is feared to have been abducted from.

Who wants a bridge to an island that is so unsafe? An island where women are raped in broad daylight and young men disappear without a trace? Where gangsters and violent extremists rule, where the police turn a blind eye to crime and where the streets have no lights?

It is quite extraordinary that a president of a country sees no need to express concern for a citizen whose sudden disappearance has led to statements from international bodies ranging from the UN Human Rights Commissionerto media associations such as Reporters Without Borders, CPJIFJ and South Asia Media Solidarity Network as well as news outlets and human rights advocates in the region and across the world.

In some of this week’s news coverage, Rizwan’s name is on top of the world’s missing journalists’ list. According to Minivan News, many foreign diplomats based in Colombo have made the time to listen to its concerns about Rizwan’s abduction.

Perhaps prompted by diplomatic concern, over a week after Rizwan’s disappearance became public knowledge, the Maldives Foreign Ministry finally issued a hastily put together statement yesterday, full of factual and other types of mistakes, expressing a perfunctory concern hard to accept as sincere.

While the politicians, the gangsters and the religious fanatics with their support of Jihad, beheadings and other forms of killing trip over each other to ignore, laugh about, cover-up and prevent knowledge of what has happened to Rizwan, friends, family, and admirers of his deep humanity, are unflagging in their hopes and efforts to find him safe and sound.

It is on social media, where he is known as Moyameeha, that Rizwan has made his widest impact. The Maldivian Twitter community is especially bereft without his presence. It is not surprising. The off-line Maldivian society has been largely taken over by gangs, zealots and bigots. There is no safe place for people like Rizwan—with bold ideas, open minds and creativity—to come together in real life. So they gather on Twitter—the most free of modern media platforms—exchange thoughts, discuss politics, make poetry and music, argue, joke, laugh, and cry, become friends and form the kind of free, liberal and tolerant public sphere they cannot have off-line. Rizwan is a shining star of that community, one of its well-liked and giving members. The community wants him back.

Close friends have set-up a website, findmoyameeha.com, where everything that is officially  said and done in relation to Rizwan’s disappearance is gathered in one place. It also counts every passing second since he went missing. Friends have also set up Facebook pages dedicated to finding Rizwan while existing Facebook pages that support him have created a repository of online tributes:

Bloggers, who look up to him as one of the first to make an impact in the sphere, have been paying homage, re-finding and sharing some of his most moving posts. Rizwan’s friends discuss his poetry, his love of music (and obsession with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan), his enthusiasm for Dhivehi language, folklore and history, and most of all his never-ending good nature and empathy. Even the deeply divided and highly politicised journalistic community appears to be waking from a deep slumber, and putting their differences aside to demand that efforts to find Rizwan be stepped up.

Over the past few years the Maldives Police Service has become highly adept at being ‘incompetent’, at being ‘unable’ to solve the crimes they don’t want solved while putting all their efforts into hunting down bootleggers, cannabis smokers and petty criminals. If they catch any major offenders, the corrupt judiciary lets them go; so why bother? This being police ‘best practice’, a majority of the Maldivian population now choose to ‘forget’ unsolved crimes, stop asking questions, and carry on as nothing happened.

Not this time. Rizwan’s family, friends, supporters and like-minded journalists are not going to stop asking questions and looking for answers. Because if they do, it is the last nail in the coffin of Rizwan’s vision—shared by those looking for him—of a tolerant Maldivian society in which people are free to think, embrace diversity and difference, be creative, live safely and have the right to peace and happiness.

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Comment: Does this government support Maldivian jihadists in Syria?

In the last week two Maldivians died in the Syrian conflict. About twenty more are fighting in the war. The news was brought to local papers by a group calling itself Bilad Al Sham Media, which insists furiously that it is run by a group of Maldivians based ‘in Syria, not in the Maldives’.

Bilad Al Sham refers to what is known as Greater Syria, currently the main attraction for the world’s jihadis who are lured to the conflict by what many believe is a divine promise that jihad there ‘will set the stage for the emergence of the true Islamic state’.

According to the Lebanon-based newspaper Al-Akhbar, the various nationalities currently fighting in Syria—Lebanese, Jordanians, Iraqis, Palestinians, Kuwaitis, Tunisians, Libyans, Saudis, Yemenis, Afghans and Pakistanis—are divided among many factions and schools of thought.

Three among them espouse the most hardline takfiri ideology – al-Qaeda’s Abdullah Azzam Brigades, the Doura Fighting Group, and the Jabhat al-Nusra li-Bilad al-Sham. The Bilad Al Sham Media group, which appears to have been set up for the purpose of publicising the activities of Maldivian ‘jihadis’, has confirmed that the Maldivians are with Jabhat al-Nusra, the deadliest of the three.

Al-Nusra first announced its existence in January 2012, pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda in 2013 and in April 2014, started its own weapons factory. To remove any doubt about Maldivian fighters being affiliated with Jabhat Al-Nusra, Bilad Al Sham Media posted an Al-Nusra issued identity card which it says belonged to the second Maldivian who died in the conflict. Affiliation with Al-Nusra is a matter of great pride for them.

Bilad Al Sham Media has a strong online presence—it has a Facebook page, a Twitter handle, a YouTube channel, and a blog. The group is making full use of all the platforms to bring detailed news of their activities in Syria to the Maldivian public. According to its Facebook page discussions with followers, the decision to go public was not made lightly. It was aware that being out in the open could mean that future jihadists would find it more difficult to leave the country and join others in Syria as authorities crack-down on them. But, in the end, it decided that the gains of going public — calling others to ‘Jihad’ and attracting them to their cause — far out-weighed the potential harm.

Bilad Al Sham Media appears to have been spot on in its calculations – they have got a far bigger response from their followers and wanna-be jihadis than from the government. Whereas the glorification of their ‘martyrdom’ has increased with the publicity, the government response has been virtually non-existent.

Maldivian jihadists, it appears, have nothing to fear from this government. In fact, the government appears to be tacitly condoning the whole enterprise if not actively encouraging it.

Bilad Al Sham Media warned the police not to investigate them, and instructed the Islamic Ministry to stay out of it.

Government’s response

The Islamic Ministry is following the instructions to a tee. Minister Sheikh Shaheem Ali Saeed responded to news of the Maldivian suicide bomber by saying that while he personally disapproved of Maldivians fighting in wars abroad, the Islamic Ministry itself had nothing to say on the matter.

President Yameen, meanwhile, has come out with a statement that makes suicide bombing in Syria sound similar to a minor transgression such as throwing some rubbish on the streets of Singapore where there are strict regulations against such behaviour.

Yameen said that the government had always urged Maldivians to maintain discipline abroad, adding that the responsibility for any crime wilfully committed by an individual must be borne by the individual himself.

Bilad Al Sham Media has made it clear that Maldivians in Syria are well trained fighters killing in the name of God – not ‘a family of Maldivians’ who, while travelling abroad, have somehow found themselves in a bit of a kerfuffle in Syria, as Yameen appears to suggest.

The rest of the president’s utterances on the subject, offering financial assistance to the fighters if they have found themselves stuck in Syria, smacks of someone who is totally ignorant of the phenomenon of violent radicalisation or is having a private laugh about it.

Does the government’s astonishingly blasé attitude to one of the most pressing security concerns in the world today stem from ignorance, or is it calculated? Is the government deliberately turning a blind eye to the radicalistion—both violent and non-violent—of Maldivians? Does it consider the ‘jihadists’ to be engaged in a Holy War to protect Islam?

Its actions, or lack of them, since the news broke certainly suggests this to be the case.

Most people were still reeling from the shocking news of the Maldivians killing and being killed in Syria when the national Martyr’s Day rolled around on Friday, 30 May. The death of the second Maldivian had been announced only three days before. Bilad Al Sham Media was busy putting out statements promoting their deaths as martyrdom, a jihad for Islam, when Foreign Minister Dunya Maumoon addressed the nation on the occasion of Martyr’s Day.

Shockingly, in all the talk of martyrdom, she had nothing to say about the Maldivians dying in Syria. Still conspicuously not remarking on the Syrian ‘jihadis’, she defined martyrdom as ‘loss of one’s life from an attack by the enemy in a jihadi war being fought for religion and for the country’s freedom’. She later said, ‘if we were to lose our lives during a sincere effort to protect our country’s sovereignty, that death will without a doubt be martyrdom.’

Support?

There was no such clarification of whether or not the government considers those killing themselves and others in Syria fits into her definition of martyrs for religion.

Other government officials were even more vague. Here is, for example, Vice President Mohamed Jameel Ahmed’s tweet to mark the occasion:

Which martyrs is he speaking of? The Maldivians ones of days long gone who died fighting for the country’s freedom, or the self-proclaimed jihadis killing and being killed in Syria?

Never the sort to waste an occasion for nationalistic rhetoric, on Saturday evening the government held an official ceremony to mark Martyr’s Day. As Chief Guest, Home Minister Umar Naseer added to the ambiguity. He focused on the changed nature of modern warfare, saying that days of fighting with swords and guns are long gone.

Today’s war, he said, is ideological – what is under attack are ‘how people think of their countries, and their religion.’ There was no mention of whether or not he, or the government, considers Maldivian ‘jihadis’ fighting in the Syrian war as soldiers in that ideological war.

Added to this recurring ambiguity is total inaction. Although it is the Maldives Police Service (MPS) which has a dedicated counter-terrorism department, recent media reports have quoted the police as saying Maldives National Defence Force is responsible. In this case, however, the buck seems to have been passed to MPS.

Bilad Al Sham Media, which has warned the police that probing into their activities is anti-Islamic, is right not to be too concerned. The MPS was unable to identify Justice Abdulla Hameed from the leaked sex videos despite his identity being obvious to the naked eye. And, it was only in last October that the MPS Counter-terrorism chief flew to London with a ballot box for the presidential election and disappeared only to be found when he posted pictures of himself at an Arsenal football match.

In addition to the cluelessness, it is not just Bilad Al Sham Media that is warning police that investigating their ‘jihad’ is anti-Islamic.

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They were recently told the same thing by hardline Salafi preacher Sheikh Adam Shameem Ibrahim (of Andalus fameselected by the government to address the police on the occasion of Martyr’s Day. What he had to say to the police is not the least bit surprising. He recast national heroes of history in today’s Islamist terms— ‘Mujahedin who had martyred for Islam’ and the country.

He said all police should always be determined to become a martyr, and took pains to tell the force just what a glorious position Islam has for martyrs. Nothing, of course, was said about it being wrong to blow themselves up, and kill others, in the name of Islam in the Islamists’ ‘Holy War.’

The government’s non-action, its sanguine reaction to the news of Maldivians fighting in Syria, its complete lack of any counter-extremism or counter-radicalisation initiatives, its failure to state its position on whether or not it regards the Maldivian fighters who died in Syria as martyrs or not, and its sanctioning of an Islamist preacher to glorify martyrdom to the Maldives Police Service all combine to make a very loud statement — this government tacitly supports Maldivians fighting and killing themselves in the ‘Holy War’ to establish an Islamic state in Syria.

Interesting, given that the jihadists themselves have little respect for it – and we have already had some experience of what Islamists do to governments they have no respect for.

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