Government hands back Kaadehdhoo Airport to Villa Air

The government has returned Kaadehdhoo regional airport to Gasim Ibrahim’s Villa Air 38 days after terminating the contract with the tourism ministry.

Speaking to local news outlet Vnews, Managing Director Rilwan Shareef of Villa Air said that the airport had been handed back to the company by the government on Thursday (September 19).

Kaadehdhoo Airport, which is leased out to Villa for fifty years to develop and manage the airport, was taken by the government last month after it cited a breach of the agreement on Villa’s side.

The Villa Group – founded by Jumhooree Party (JP) leader Gasim Ibrahim – suffered adversely from a number of government decisions last month just as Gasim attempted to stall President Abdulla Yameen’s flagship Special Economic Zones Act.

President Yameen denied the setbacks for Villa had been politically motivated after the JP alleged that both these decisions and subsequent death threats received by Gasim had come from political opponents.

The handing back of Kaadehdhoo Airport comes within a week of the reinstatement of Maamigili Airport, also under the management of Villa Air, as an international airport after it was downgraded to domestic status due to security concerns.

A  nearby island which was leased out to the Villa Group for agricultural purposes was also taken by the government at the same time as the airport.


Chinese tourist seriously injured in Malé bike accident

Additional reporting by Ismail Humaam Hamid

A Chinese tourist has sustained serious injuries after being struck by a motorcycle in the capital city Malé yesterday.

Police have confirmed that the incident happened at 2:45pm as the tourist was attempting to take a photograph of the People’s Majlis on Medhuziyaari Magu.

After being taken to ADK hospital yesterday (September 20), Minivan News understands that the man – named by local media as Jiyathai Joo, aged 50 – has been flown to Sri Lanka for treatment of head injuries.

The motorcyclist involved in the incident – a 19-year-old identified in local media as Malé resident – has been arrested by police. He suffered only minor injuries in the collision.

Chinese tourists have become common increasingly common in the capital in recent years, with day trips offering a change of pace from the relaxed island resorts elsewhere in the atoll.

The rapidly expanding Chinese market now accounts for around 30 percent of the one million plus visitors to the country each year.

President Abdulla Yameen last week noted his desire to see further expansion of Chinese visitors during the historic visit of Chinese President Xi Jinpeng.

The occasion also saw the signing of a number of MoUs including one establishing a joint mechanism on dealing with the issue of safety and security of Chinese tourists visiting the Maldives.

The most frequent source of accidents involving Chinese tourists involve snorkelling incidents, with the government having previously acknowledged the need to improve safety regulations in this respect.


President Yameen meets Sri Lankan president to discuss diplomatic relations

President Abdulla Yameen met with Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa on Friday (September 19) to discuss relations between the two nations.

At a meeting held at Rajapaksa’s official residence in Sri Lanka, the two presidents acknowledged the strong diplomatic relations between the two countries and discussed further ways to strengthen ties.

They also spoke of the joint-commission meetings held between the two nations earlier this month and highlighted the main points discussed during the meeting and the importance of implementing the decisions made.

Rajapaksa also praised President Yameen on his recent initiatives such as the Special Economic Zones (SEZ) and ‘ihaven’ aimed at transforming the Maldivian economy.

President Yameen’s visit comes soon after Chinese President Xi Jinpeng visited the two nations on his South Asian tour.

The Chinese visit to the Maldives saw the signing of eight MoUs most notably the agreements on the promotion of the Malé-Hulhulé bridge and the development of Ibrahim Nasir International Airport.


MP death threats too frequent to report to public: MDP spokesman

MPs from the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) have again reported receiving death threats, with the party reporting messages sent numerous members its parliamentary group members on Thursday.

‘We will kill you all. God is great,’ read the most recent message received by MDP Spokesman Imthiyaz ‘Inthi’ Fahmy on Thursday (September 18).

“As far as I know, MDP PG leader Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, MP Mariya Didi, former Speaker Abdulla Shahid, Eva Abdulla, PG Deputy Leaders Rozaina Adam and myself, and MP Ali Azim have constantly been receiving death threat SMS’s,” Inthi told Minivan News today.

Former President Mohamed Nasheed has also received similar messages, said Inthi.

“We live in fear,” he added.

The growing culture of death threats has crossed the political divide, with Jumhooree Party (JP) leader Gasim Ibrahim the most high profile figure to receive such intimidation.

The JP has publicly accused political opponents of being behind the threats, which they have suggested are being sent using online phone duplicating software. The MDP has accused the government of failing to utilise its resources to find the culprits.

Journalists from outlets affiliated with both pro-government opposition parties have also been in receipt of threatening messages, prompting international concern.

Inthi revealed today that he had even received a threat after submitting a motion in the Majlis to discuss the missing Minivan News journalist Ahmed Rilwan last month.

“On the day I submitted the early day motion to Majlis about Rilwan case, I received an SMS to say ‘mind your business or else we will have to slit your throat’,” said Inthi.

Police have been working with local telecommunications companies to trace the messages, though the Communications Authority of Maldives has noted that threats sent from abroad or online are difficult to trace.

Discussing the problem today, the Maafannu North MP noted that such messages were becoming so commonplace that the party had ceased to publicise each and every incident.

“We have officially lodged these cases with the police, the Human Rights Commission of Maldives and the Majlis long ago but no action seems to have been taken by the authorities,” said Inthi.

The Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) noted last month that the official reaction to these threats would be a test of the country’s democratic credentials.

“IPU is deeply concerned by these acts of intimidation against MPs in a country where many parliamentarians have been victims of attacks, harassment and arbitrary arrests in recent years,” read a statement from the organisation.

“[T]he authorities’ response to the threats and their capacity to promote, with the help of the opposition, real inclusiveness and political dialogue will be a litmus test for the democratic process in the Maldives,” said IPU Secretary General Martin Chungong.


Teachers Association calls an indefinite strike on Tuesday

Additional reporting by Zaheena Rasheed

The Teachers Association of Maldives (TAM) has announced an indefinite strike starting on this Tuesday (September 23) should the government not meet its demands for reform.

Members at a meeting held in Ameeniyya School on Friday night resolved to stop teaching indefinitely if the government did not adhere to demands which include revised pay, protection of teachers and students, acceptance of TAM, as well as general improvements to the sector.

“Once we strike, there is no turning back. The options are death or success. God willing, we will only stop once we have achieved success,” TAM president Athif Abdul Hakeem said at the meeting.

Teachers will repeat April’s ‘black protest’ by attending work dressed all in black tomorrow (September 21), and have promised to halt lessons on Tuesday if authorities fail to initiate talks by Monday.

“If the [government] does not make use of the opportunity for talks, we will strike indefinitely,” he said.

Despite repeated requests for discussions, the Education Ministry has refused to engage with the TAM, Athif said.

“We have expressed concern over issues in the education sector and called for talks in six different letters. They did not answer any letter or call for talks or give us information. This means they do not accept Maldivian teachers.”

Athif claimed education sector policymakers had deceived President Abdulla Yameen of the issues facing the education sector, and said he had hope Yameen would address the challenges.

“President Yameen does not know of the issues we teachers face. President Yameen has been deceived. Appointed leaders are showing him a different picture.”

The association has threatened direct action on a number of occasions in recent months.

“We are only asking to be treated fairly. There already is a huge gap between teachers’ pay and the pay for less qualified persons doing less work in other institutions. And now they have increased pay for some,” he told Minivan News in February.

“This is about their children’s rights, improving the education sector is a national issue. The less we spend on this sector, the more we will have to spend on prisons. But if parents don’t act, and if the government refuse to act, we will go on strike. But only as a last resort,” said Athif.

Prior to April’s demonstration, the government reportedly refuted the claims made by the Teacher’s Association, warning against any activities that might negatively affect students.

Athif has previously noted his organisation’s desire to continue teaching until all other options had been exhausted.

Other major issues raised by TAM have concerned improving the education sector and the quality of services provided. According to the association, qualified young graduates are turning away from the sector due to poor pay and working conditions.

In February the organisation also released a report titled, ‘Education sector in a deep pit’ which highlighted the state’s perceived “total disregard” towards the sector.

The report stated that 60% of schools in the Maldives are run without a principal, contrasting reduced spending on education with significant increases in areas such as the military, political posts, and independent institutions.

Individual teachers have highlighted insufficient overtime pay, overdue salaries, inadequate resources. and poor government oversight as major issues of concern,


Human Rights Commission summoned to Supreme Court

Members of the Human Rights Commission of Maldives (HRCM) have been summoned to appear before the Supreme Court next week.

The summons closely follows the HRCM’s report for the UN Human Rights Council’s (HRC) Universal Periodic Review, submitted earlier this week which criticised the court’s growing powers.

“Judicial system is controlled and influenced by the Supreme Court, weakening judicial powers vested in other superior courts and lower courts,” wrote the commision for the HRC’s examination of human rights in the Maldives.

Members of the commission have revealed that the summons, originally for today (September 18) has been delayed until September 22 due to the current absence of members from the capital, Malé.

The President’s Office has today criticised the report, suggesting in particular that sections on the death penalty could mislead international opinion.

Minivan News understands that the letter of the Supreme Court summons says only that the HRCM is being summoned “for the purposes of the court”.

Changes to contempt of court regulations made in June authorised courts to initiate legal proceedings and punish individuals for any expression, action, gesture, or piece of writing “inside or outside a courtroom” that could be considered contempt of court.

Contempt of court charges were also used to dismiss senior members of the Elections Commission (EC) just weeks before March’s Majlis elections.

Constitutionally protected testimonies given to the Majlis was included in evidence used to remove EC President Fuwad Thowfeek and Vice President Ahmed Fayaz for violating article 141 of the Constitution – which prohibits interference with the functioning of the courts.

The HRCM was accused of interfering in the work of the Juvenile Court earlier this year following a report on the infamous case of an abused 15-year-old sentenced to flogging. The court summoned commission members after suggesting the report contained false information.

Through a raft of regulations enacted in recent months, the Maldives Supreme Court has sought to consolidate control over administrative affairs of the judiciary.

The HRCM report to the UN said that “due to shortfalls in judicial system, functioning of the judiciary is often questionable on various grounds including independence, transparency, interference, influence, competency, consistency, and accessibility”.

Criticism and confusion

The report – part of a study of the human rights records of all 193 UN member states – has been criticised by the President’s Office, which has suggested the report was “very confusing” on the death penalty issue.

The ‘Child Rights’ section of the report calls for the abolition of the “death penalty” for minors after moves to end the 60-year moratorium earlier this year.

While the revised Penal Code, passed in April, ensures those under 15-years cannot be held criminally responsible, minors can still be charged for Hadd offences, with death sentences not carried out until 18-years of age.

“The Government of Maldives is not going to give the death penalty to children,” President’s Office Spokesman Ibrahim Muaz told Minivan News today.

Comments from the Swiss delegation on the Maldives’ death penalty policy, made during the general debate session of Tuesday’s HRC meeting, prompted an angry response from Maldivian counterparts.

After being criticised by the Swiss for changing legislation “to permit the death penalty for children as young as 7 years old”, the Maldives itself attacked statements “rooted on misrepresentation and media speculation”.

Legal sources told Minivan News that, while the new Penal Code does include the “immaturity excuse” – removing criminal responsibility from those under 15, Article 15c still allows for minors to be held accountable for hadd offences.

Human Rights Commission member Jeehan Mahmood has defended the overall report submitted for the UPR.

“It’s the one chance we get to bring the world’s attention to issues that the state chooses to ignore on domestic forums”.


Nasheed urges President Yameen to take charge of Rilwan investigation

Expressing concern over progress in police’s search for missing Minivan News journalist, former President Mohamed Nasheed has called on President Abdulla Yameen to take charge of the investigation.

Evidence suggests Ahmed Rilwan was abducted at knifepoint outside his apartment in Hulhumalé on the early morning of August 8. Today is the 41st day since Rilwan disappeared.

“I call on President Abdulla Yameen to have the case of Rilwan’s disappearance investigated under his direct oversight,” Nasheed told the media after a visit to Rilwan’s family on Wednesday.

“Neither Rilwan’s family, nor we, can accept that the government is conducting a thorough investigation into this matter,” the opposition leader said.

“I believe that the Maldives Police and MNDF have sufficient capability to conduct an investigation like this. They have the experience, and the skill support. And yet, as I see it, they are not conducting an acceptable level of investigation in this case.”

Rilwan’s disappearance has caused great distress to his family, Nasheed said.

“Over 40 days has passed since Rilwan was last seen, and there are certain rituals that we must complete even in the religious regard as we are Muslims. Rilwan’s mother is deeply concerned about not getting the chance to do that,” he said.

Increase in violent crime

Rilwan’s disappearance is the most crucial problem facing the Maldives now, he said and called on civil society organisations, political parties, media outlets, the  government, the justice sector and the whole state to put in a more concerted effort to find Rilwan.

“Abductions are on its way to becoming commonplace. Knife attacks are increasing day after day. Dr Afrasheem was murdered. Before that, Hilath Rasheed was attacked. We do not know the truth behind these and many other such attacks,” Nasheed continued.

Police failure to solve multiple cases of violent crime and murder leads to the perception that politicians are involved in violent crimes, Nasheed said.

“As I see it, the Maldives is getting a bad name in the international community due to such crimes, and it will affect the tourism sector in future. If we don’t take proper action immediately, our situation will drastically deteriorate in the coming days,” he said.

“None of us will cease our efforts to find Rilwan. And I personally will do all possible to assist their efforts,” he said.

Rilwan’s brother Moosa Rilwan said Nasheed’s visit had given the family additional strength.

“During his visit, President Nasheed spent a lot of time listening to the concerns that our parents have. His concerned has given us more strength. We are now even more determined to keep working until we get answers,” he told Minivan News.

Suvaalu March

Rilwan’s family and friends have announced plans to hold a “Suvaalu March” (Question March) on Friday, September 19, to call attention to police failure to answer key questions regarding Rilwan’s disappearance.

“We call on everyone to join us in our efforts. It is important for every individual in our society to stand up against the violence and injustice now rampant in our community,” Moosa Rilwan said.

Atleast 31 people have been killed in the Maldives since 2007. Three were killed in August alone.

Rilwan’s friend and member of the march organizing team, Yameen Rasheed, said the aim of the walk was to hold the police accountable over failures in the investigation.

“As citizens sharing this same community, we have to hold the state accountable,” Yameen said.

While the march focuses on shortcomings in the investigation to find Rilwan, it will also raise concern over increase in violent crimes in the Maldives and police’s failure to provide security for citizens, he added.


Comment: Afrasheem, Rilwan, and the future of the Maldivian community

Writing in the 1970s, anthropologist Clarence Maloney remarked that religion in the Maldives was limited to “washing, fasting and praying”.

What he meant is similar to what MB Hooker observed in the Southeast Asian Muslim populations – Islam was characterised by “a ‘non-literally’ Muslim culture”, limited largely to practice without much theorisation and philosophising.

However, since the 1980s – and especially since the year 2000 – the most spectacular change in our culture has been the conscious appropriation and questioning of received religious doctrines and practices. Processes associated with modernisation and mass education have enabled this never-ending fragmentation of discourses, interpretations, and different visions at a larger scale.

This is what Eickelman and James Piscatori described as the “objectification of Muslim consciousness” that has now swept the whole Muslim world. Maldives is no exception to this.


It was in this emerging context of fragmented religious discourses and different religious interpretations that the regime of President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom suppressed both those who embraced Salafi interpretations of Sharia and those drawn toward more pluralist Sharia.

It is in this context – now characterised by extreme political and social uncertainties – that one of the most prominent Maldivian religious scholars, Dr Afrasheem Ali, was murdered in October 2012. It was also in this same context that my friend, journalist, and human rights activist Ahmed Rilwan disappeared six weeks ago.

None of us yet knows the truth about those tragedies. But what we know is that both have significant religious context. Afrasheem had faced harassment and assault on several occasions because of his religious views. Similarly, Rilwan – once a Salafist – received threats because of his criticisms of certain understandings of Sharia.

More importantly, the murder and disappearance sends a chilling message to the rest of us – religious disagreements cannot be tolerated.

The fact of the matter is that, however small and homogenous, ours is now a society characterised by pluralism. We cannot wish away these disagreements on deep questions of what the good life is.

In need of a new moral order…

But ethical and religious disagreements do not mean there is no possibility of a moral order for collective life that we could come to agree upon.

Such a moral order must be based on political and moral principles that we all can – or should – value, i.e. liberty, equality, and peace. These are also among the higher values that Islam stands for.

In this moral order, there should be a maximum and genuine role for religion. It is not a secularist moral order where religion must be privatised, or religion is seen as something that will just disappear with the rise of ‘rationality,’ science, or modernisation.

In my view, both the Maldivian Democratic Party and the Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party/Progressive Party of Maldives have failed to articulate a vision of democracy that genuinely respects the place of religion in democracy.

Officials of both governments have characterised religious people as somehow irrational or pre-modern. Both governments have tried to control or co-opt religion in their instrumentalist and ideological narrowness.

A democracy based on such a moral order does not make a fetish out of ‘secularism’ or ‘separation of religion from the state’. Secularism is not about separation as such. It is about certain moral ends, including liberty and equality.

Sometimes separation and at other times accommodation will promote those values. There is no a priori fixed solution (such as “a wall of separation”) to the relationship of religion to the state in order to achieve those ends.

Context is everything. And contextual reasoning is the way forward.

Thus the moral order the Maldives need is not that of the mainstream secularism we find in France, Turkey, or sometimes even the US – where the value of religion and the rights of religious people are not fully recognised.

In this new moral order, religious parties and religious scholars must have an equal place in the public sphere as their secular counterparts. Laws and policies based on religious values must have a place too. How else could it be, unless we think we can simply separate our religious selves from our political selves?

Only a ‘thin’ liberal conception of citizenship based on a ‘thin’ understanding of epistemology would think moral truth is somehow ‘secular’.

…for a new imagined community

To be sure, in concrete terms, this moral order means freedom of religion cannot be denied – citizenship cannot be denied on religious grounds. How can anyone of us in all religious honesty deny this basic and God-given right?

Even Gayoom, who was the architect of the prevailing insular nation-identity based on ‘sattain satta muslim quam/100 per cent Muslim nation’ had to acknowledge that the denial of religious freedom in the Maldives was in spite of Islam:

The real essence of Islam…is that it is non-discriminatory. Its tolerance of other beliefs and religions is clearly established in the Holy Quran…

We Maldivians…hold freedom of belief as sacred and we abhor discrimination…on any grounds whether of creed, colour or race. It is only that we are such a homogenous…society based on one national identity…that we are convinced that the preservation of this oneness in faith and culture is essential for the unity, harmony, and progress of the country.

Gayoom, Address at the Opening Ceremony of the Seminar on ”The Calls for Islam in South and South East Asia’, 1983

In other words, a universal precept of Quran was overridden by his attempt at creating a homogenous ‘imagined community’. While this imagined community had been homogenous, the real community has undergone fragmentation of religious discourse.

As a result, the national self-understanding that Gayoom – still leader of the country’s ruling political party – created is now being subjected to vigorous contestation from all fronts – both religious and secular. That is why we are in need of a new moral order for a new imagined community.

Why Afrasheem and Rilwan matter

Perhaps one of the biggest immediate challenges for a new moral order in the Maldives is related to the tragedies of Afrasheem and Rilwan.

Besides our human concern for them, the need for a new moral order is the long-term reason why we all must be concerned to find truth about them. That is why everyone should be calling for greater accountability of the government in these cases.

That is why I support the #suvaalumarch taking place tomorrow afternoon (September 19) in Malé.

For the future of democratisation in the direction of this new moral order is contingent on seeking truth and justice for Afrasheem and Rilwan.

Azim Zahir is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Muslim States and Societies, University of Western Australia.


Prosecutor General’s Office drops charges against CNM journalist Haseen

Additional reporting by Zaheena Rasheed

The Prosecutor General’s (PG) Office has dropped criminal charges against Channel News Maldives (CNM) senior journalist Abdulla Haseen for obstruction of police duty during an opposition street protest in July 2012.

PG Muthaz Mushin told CNM yesterday that the decision to withdraw the case was made as the PG Office had found that such a case had not been prosecuted in the past after considering the incident and prosecuting guidelines.

Speaking to Minivan News, Haseen said the Prosecutor General’s Office has not yet formally informed him of its decision to withdraw charges.

“These are false charges raised by the state against press freedom and an attempt to defame me. They have absolutely no evidence. Until the Criminal Court annuls its court summons for September 28, I will go.”

A second hearing of the case had been scheduled to take place on September 28. Haseen had been accused of shoving police barricades at the Chandanee Magu-Orchid Magu junction and using obscene language to address riot police officers during an MDP protest.

At the first hearing of the trial, he pleaded not guilty and noted that he had attended political rallies and street protests to cover them as a journalist.

Haseen expressed concern over a “prevailing climate of press intimidation,” noting an increase in threats against journalists by anonymous sources, politicians, religious radicals and gangs, and arbitrary arrests by the police.

The Maldives now ranks 108th place in the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) Press Freedom Index for 2014, marking a decline in press freedom for the third consecutive year.

Minivan News journalist Ahmed Rilwan disappeared on August 8 and is believed to have been abducted. Today marks the 41st day since his disappearance.

Earlier this month, the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) called on the PG and the government to drop the charges against Haseen.

“We note with regret that this is the first criminal prosecution of a journalist since the adoption of a democratic constitution in 2008,” the main opposition party said.

The MDP expressed concern with the filing of charges over two years after the incident allegedly occurred, noting that obstructing police duty was the most common charge pressed by the state.

“And we note with concern that Abdulla Haseen is being prosecuted at a time when the media in the Maldives is facing serious challenges with journalists assaulted, television stations torched, death threats made against journalists, personal safety of journalists lost, and a journalist believed to have been abducted,” the opposition party said.