The Maldives Police Service (MPS) have sent a case involving nine people to the Prosecutor General (PG), alleging the group was involved in blackmailing people after acquiring nude pictures and videos of them through Facebook.
Last year in February, police arrested 14 persons including a minor for alleged involvement in the blackmailing ring, after the group used a fraudulent Facebook account to acquire videos of politicians, businessman and other members of the public and used the material to blackmail them for money.
In a press briefing held yesterday, police revealed to media the details of the nine persons facing charges, all of them from Hithadhoo in Addu City: Mohamed Mumin (26), Hussain Shah (24), Ahmed Mohamed (26), Mohamed Minsar (24), Azmeen Ishaag (23), Mohamed Ishaag (27), Ibrahim Ishaag (20), Ali Ishaag (26) and Ahmed Athif (21).
Police stated that during the investigation process they retrieved videos of about 60 to 70 people who were blackmailed.
They also said that they have sent cases involving 10 persons to the PG, concerning the content of videos obtained. Police did not reveal the details of those charged.
Speaking at the press briefing, Superintendent of Police Mohamed Riyaz said that police did not reveal the details because the case concerned a lot of people and there remained “certain things” that still needed to be checked before revealing their identities.
Police earlier told Minivan News that they would be revealing the details of those in the videos as the investigation progressed.
Superintendent Riyaz stated that the blackmailers used two Facebook accounts to blackmail the victims and had acquired large sums of money in the process, transferred it using a shop in Male to a shop in Addu City.
Two Facebook profiles identified at the time as being involved in the ring where those belonging to ‘Lyshiaa Limanom’ and ‘Angelic Sharrown’. Both of these profiles show the same picture of a young blonde woman wearing sunglasses, and each profile had between 1200-1300 Facebook ‘friends’ – most of them Maldivian.
Riyaz also said that the blackmailers had also collected money by personally contacting the victims.
“[Before taking money] they first checked the financial capacity of the person. They took large sums of money from some people while collected money from others on a monthly basis for a very long period,” he said.
Riyaz did not reveal the details of exactly how much money that was laundered.
During the investigation, police questioned several officials from the former government including officials of state minister level.
Local newspaper Haveeru reported that the investigation was halted following pressure from the former government, and the investigations resumed following the controversial transfer of power which toppled the government of then President Mohamed Nasheed on February 7, 2012.
Following the arrests made on February last year, police in a statement said they had begun investigations after the issue came to light two months back.
“Police conducted a special operation from February 13-20, 2011 in an effort to stop this crime and present the criminals before the court,” read the statement.
Police at the time said 10 of the 14 alleged perpetrators were arrested in Addu City while four of them, including a 17 year old minor, were caught in Male’. According to police all persons arrested in Addu City were between the ages of 21-26.
Police stated that they discovered “hundreds of nude pictures and videos of Maldivians” in the laptops and external hard drives of those arrested.
“While some of the pictures were taken of people while drunk, other pictures were taken without the consent of the person,” police said.
Police also stated that they had noticed that some people in the videos were performing explicit acts in the presence of minors, and warned that this “could affect the future and discipline of the minors”.
Police questioning Haveeru journalists
During the investigations, police questioned two journalists from local newspaper Haveeru following an article they published on the blackmailing ring.
Haveeru in the article interviewed a person who claimed to have seen some of the material, who said that MPs belonging to both the opposition and the ruling party had fallen for the scam, as well as prominent businessmen and “national figures”.
Haveeru journalists Ahmed Hamdhoon and Ismail Naseer volunteered to take part in police questioning about an article published by Haveeru on February 22 concerning the content of images acquired through Facebook. The paper maintained that it did not have any of the files that were in question.
Haveeru Editor Moosa Latheef told Minivan News at the time that although police had acted politely and without aggression in requesting the identity of the sources said to have viewed the indecent images – a request he said was denied just as politely – the case could have serious ramifications for the national media in the future.
Latheef stressed particular concern that should police repeat their conduct of looking to question journalists about their sources or stories.
“We are very much enjoying the press freedom in the Maldives right now. But I’m afraid that if the police or other institutions try to interfere with our [press] freedom then they will create an atmosphere where we are unable to fulfill our responsibilities,” he said. “If this repeats then we could have journalists who are afraid to write about issues. No one wants to go to the courts to defend himself or herself [over stories].”
Latheef said that in general, it could become very easy to begin such a case by accusing a journalist – or anyone – of having illegal content such as pornographic images on their computer. Yet on a wider level, the editor was wary about police being able to gain access to the computer files of the country’s journalists and their contents that could include confidential sources vital to break stories.
While the paper’s editor accepted that there were situations such as national security issues that could warrant a court to request the identity of a journalist’s source against commonly held industry ethics, he claimed such requests should remain very rare cases.
Latheef said that the Facebook bribery allegations were a story not about an issue of national security, but one concerning prominent members of the government, parliament and the judiciary, which paled in consequence to some of the stories he said Haveeru has previously published.
Police at the time also obtained a court order to search the computers of some Haveeru staff.
However, police officials later said they ultimately opted not to conduct a search on Haveeru’s premises, but that the questioning of the journalists involved was important to an ongoing investigation.
“Attack on free media”
Following the questioning, Maldives Journalist Association (MJA) condemned the police actions describing the actions as a step to suppress free media in the country.
MJA President Ahmed ‘Hiriga’ Zahir said at the time that the action taken by police in questioning Haveeru’s Ahmed Hamdhoon and Ismail Naseer was unprecedented under the current constitution.
A media officer for the Maldives Police Service following the events said at the time that they were unable to confirm what sort of questions the journalists were asked and if they may be called in for further questioning at a later date.
However, Zahir at the MJA questioned why the police needed to summon the journalists about a story and images already thought to be in the public domain.
“I don’t think this was simply a case of police asking journalists to help them with an enquiry,” he said. “I personally believe it is an attempt to censor and suppress the Maldives media, which has been free.”
The case became a subject of intense political debate and conspiracy against the former government of President Mohamed Nasheed where then opposition figures accused his government of trying to cover up the blunders of his party, Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) activists who were unfit for top government posts.
Dhivehi Qaumee Party (DQP), an opposition party at the time sent a letter to the President’s Office, calling the President Nasheed to remove government officials involved in the case from their posts “or if you do not remove them from their posts it will be taken as meaning that you are supporting such activities.”
The DQP called on the government to take action against those involved “as soon as possible.”
However, former Press Secretary for the President Mohamed Zuhair brushed off the allegations stating that none of the events reportedly depict “would have taken place inside the President’s office.”
“We don’t have Facebook, MSN or any other social networks on any computer of the President’s Office,” Zuhair said. “It is nothing to do with the government or the president,” he responded.
Several blogs at the time speculated on the names of those caught up in the scandal, but police did not confirm the identities of those compromised.