Ismail ‘Hilath’ Rasheed got out his mobile phone and called for a taxi, but no sound came from his throat.
Instead the Maldivian blogger, journalist and former Amnesty prisoner of conscience, infamous for his willingness to tackle taboo subjects, particularly religious tolerance – felt air escaping from his neck.
“A very bad kind of panic came at that moment. I knew my trachea was cut. I knew it was a deep cut, and not just on the surface of the skin,” the journalist told Minivan News, prior to fleeing his own country in fear of his life.
Moments before, on the evening of June 4, Rasheed had turned into the dark alleyway leading to the door of his apartment block to find a man in a yellow shirt waiting for him.
“Then I heard someone call me by name from behind, and two more entered the alley. As I was turning the guy in a yellow T-shirt came up beside me, grabbed me from behind, put a mid-size box cutter to my neck and started slashing.
“I put my hand up to try and stop him, but he kept slashing.”
Rasheed holds up his hand – besides the jagged slash mark across his neck that almost claimed his life, the blogger lost a digit of his index finger trying to protect himself from the knife.
“That was why they missed a vital artery. I tried to prevent it – they cut the finger to the bone.”
Job done, the three men walked “very calmly” out of the alley in separate directions, leaving Rasheed to bleed to death in the alley.
“I got a look at their faces, but it was too dark to identify them,” he says. “They all had beards, and they were very young – I would say between 18 and 24. When the man in the yellow shirt was slashing my throat I smelled his breath – it smelled of alcohol.”
Acting on instinct, Rasheed held his neck and did not let go.
“I didn’t know how bad it was – because it was a box cutter, it was a very clean cut – it wasn’t painful,” he says.
“I thought about going upstairs to inform my parents, but I thought I better go straight to hospital rather than go up all the stairs.”
Leaving the alleyway, holding his head down to prevent blood loss, Rasheed tried to flag down a passing motorcycle. In the distance, he saw two of his attackers ride away on a motorcycle, while the walked round the corner.
“I knew it was pointless to go after them as I needed to get to the hospital,” he recalls.
Three motorcycles passed without stopping to help him, even though the front of his shirt and trousers were by now drenched in blood. That was when he tried to call the taxi, only to realise the extent of his injury.
“Even at that moment, a thought came into my mind. All the people who brought change to the world, most of them died for that cause – they didn’t live to see the fruits of their effort.
“When this thought came into my mind, survival instinct took over and I felt a rage: ‘I am going to survive, I want to live to see the fruits of my work – the fight for human rights,’” he tells Minivan News.
A young couple walking down the street noticed him – and the girl began screaming. A young man on a motorcycle motorcyclist heard the sound as he came around the corner, and stopped so Rasheed could get on behind him.
“I was still holding my neck, and not talking, and pointed in the direction of the hospital. With my right hand I held onto his shoulder – I was afraid I might faint because of the blood loss and fall off. There was so much blood – there was a pool forming in front of me.”
Fighting off unconsciousness, Rasheed stumbled into the lobby of ADK hospital, the young man behind him.
“I was very appreciative but I couldn’t talk to thank him,” Rasheed says. “Because I couldn’t say thank you I just gave him a thumbs up and walked into the hospital. A doctor later said the guy promptly fainted in the doorway.”
Still holding his neck, Rasheed walked into the the emergency room: “The people waiting in the lobby started screaming as I went passed – I think they were shocked,” he says.
A Maldivian girl and a couple of foreign nurses took Rasheed to a bed – “I saw a lot of ADK officials and police officers coming in. The Maldivian girl asked me to show them the injury. I knew I had to show them the extent of the damage so they knew what kind of treatment was needed,” he says.
“I lifted my head all the way back. And quickly back down. A doctor later told me that a nurse and a police officer fainted.”
The foreign nurses quickly inserted a tube into his neck so he could breathe, and pressed bandages to his neck to try and stem the blood loss.
The staff put him on a bed and rushed him to the operating theatre.
“They gave me anaesthetic. It took a while for it to work, but I didn’t feel any pain. I could see them opening my neck, putting their hand inside. I knew they were trying to assess the damage and from what they were saying, that my trachea was severed.”
The hospital kept Rasheed under anesthetic for 48 hours – “they didn’t want to wake me up,” he says.
“My father later told me that I happened to go into the hospital when the new shift was coming in All the old shift doctors stayed on – there were 6-8 of them. My father said at that moment they told him that I had a less than one percent chance of survival, but that they would try everything they could.”
Rasheed was later told by friends who had gathered outside the operating theatre that while he was undergoing emergency surgery, one of the men who had attacked and hospitalised him during a protest for religious tolerance on December 10 – Human Rights Day – came and waited outside the emergency room.
“A relative spotted him and asked him what he was doing there – he said he was there for scans – so the relative asked him why he was waiting in front of emergency. He was the guy who attacked me with a stone on December 10 and fractured my skull, and his excuse was that he was there for a scan,” Rasheed says.
That was the first of several unsettling incidents to happen while Rasheed was in hospital. Conscious of security concerns, ADK staff forbade access to Rasheed for all apart from his parents.
“While I was under anesthetic, I was told by a friend of a friend – a gang member – that someone had been sent into the hospital to kill me – to pull the plug. Nobody would have noticed,” Rasheed says.
“This bearded guy came into the Intensive Care Unit posing as my father. While he was near me a doctor who knew my father just happened to come into the ICU. The doctor was suspicious, and asked him who he was – he said he was my father. The doctor said ‘I know Hilath’s father, you are not his father,’ and called security to have him thrown out. He’s on the hospital’s CCTV footage.”
Four days later, Rasheed woke up on a ventilator, astounding doctors at his miraculous recovery.
“They said they had never seen anyone recover so fast from such an injury,” he says.
Rasheed has no doubt in his mind as to the motivation behind his attack – the third in just a few months. The attack was unusual in that most of the wave of recent gang stabbings in the Maldives have involved multiple stab wounds to different parts of the body – targeted throat slashing is new.
In July 2009, Rasheed broke news of a story on his blog concerning an under-age girl allegedly being kept by a family as a ‘jaariya’ – a concubine. Concerns were initially raised when the girl was taken to Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital (IGMH) and was found to be pregnant.
“Ever since I reported the story on my blog I have received death threats. Things like: ‘If we see you on street we will slash your throat’, ‘we will behead you’, ‘don’t walk in a dark alley,’ things like that,” says Rasheed.
One of only several Maldivian bloggers to write under his own name, Rasheed courted controversy by continuing to tackle taboo subjects in the Maldives – particularly religious intolerance, and the constitutional provision that all Maldivians were required to be ‘100 percent Sunni Muslim’. This was at odds, Rasheed argued, with the country’s Sufi history and new-found commitment to freedom of expression – which had ironically, he argued, also given a voice to more extreme interpretations of the religion.
The attitude of many to Rasheed’s work was summarised in comments made by spokesperson for former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and newly-appointed Minister for Human Resources, Mohamed ‘Mundhu’ Shareef, who told AFP following the attempt on the blogger’s life that while the government condemned the attack, “Hilath must have known that he had become a target of a few extremists.”
“We are not a secular country. When you talk about religion there will always be a few people who do not agree,” Shareef said.
Both the administrations of Nasheed and Waheed showed little interest in prosecuting those who threatened and attacked Rasheed – regardless of the number of photos and witnesses.
“I reported the threats to police. In fact an intelligence officer met me after the concubine story. Nothing came of it. The man who attacked me with the stone on December 10 – there were photos of him, I gave his identity and everything. Police never arrested him, and as far as I know he’s still roaming free around Male.”
Police are investigating the latest attack on Rasheed, but despite claiming to have access to CCTV footage of the area, no arrests had been made at time of press. Police Sub-Inspector Hassan Haneef told Minivan News that while the investigation was proceeding, the case was “sensitive”.
The reason for that, Rasheed says, “is very obvious.”
“This coup government is collaborating with Islamic extremists. The extremists together with the Adhaalath party are now in power. I don’t think they will arrest my three attackers, even this time, and I don’t think I will get justice as long as Waheed’s coup government is in power,” the blogger says.
Days before the attempt on his life, Rasheed and a friend were passing the Furqan mosque in Male’ on their way to the swimming tracks. Six members of the same gang who attacked him on December 10 – who were inside setting up a sermon – came out and began punching him in the face.
“They cornered me, and pushed me into the wall. And started punching my face. As they were punching me I told them I had repented and was a Muslim. One of them said: ‘We don’t know that. You have to make a public announcement that you are a Muslim. Otherwise we will kill you.’”
The sight of a passing police jeep caused the group to cease their attack and scatter – “apart from one. He was one of those who threw stones on December 10,” Rasheed says. “Right in front of the police, he punched me in the face.”
The police saw the incident, came out of the jeep and arrested his attacker, says Rasheed.
“They asked me and my friend to come to the police station. We filed a case. That night they took him to court and extended his detention by five days.”
However while Rasheed was at home one of the gang members “called me, and told me to withdraw the case, and that in return I would never be attacked by Maldivian Wahabis again.”
The following morning Rasheed went to the police station and withdrew the case. He rang the gang member, “who said he was very happy.”
“A few days later this happened,” says Rasheed, pointing to his scarred throat. “I guess they are not good at keeping their word,” he laughs bitterly.
While Rasheed cannot identify his attackers in the June 4 attack, he claims that besides calling out his name, the assailants told him the attack was “compliments” of three senior political and religious figures in the country.
“I was told by a friend of these gang members that [two of these figures] met this gang and told them to murder me, and that it would not be a sin, and that in fact they would go to heaven because I had blogged about freedom of religion and gay rights,” Rasheed says.
“The friend also told me via the gang member that the extremists have drawn up a list of MDP members and supporters who are advocating secularism on Facebook and Twitter. I haven’t seen this list, but I’m told it exists. I have advised all my friends to be extra careful about their personal safety.”
Both sides of the political spectrum in the Maldives have on occasion accused the other of employing gangs for political purposes, such as attending and disrupting political rallies, in exchange for money and alcohol. However, Rasheed’s allegation that radicalisation is now being used as a control technique is new.
“These gangs are very easy to radicalise,” Rasheed explains. “They have committed all kinds of evil acts and sins, and it is very easy to brainwash them. These Sheikhs go and tell them that because they have done all these activities, the only way for them to get salvation is to subordinate themselves to Allah and undertake jihad against secularists and unbelievers. It is very easy.
“I think because the Islamists are now in power these people feel powerful and immune, and protected by this new culture of impunity. They are doing what they want to do, and what they are told to do. As long as this coup government is in power, this country will be lawless with gangs and Islamic extremists dictating our lives and murdering their opponents who disagree with them.”
Some of the more conservative Sheikhs have even privately expressed concern about the growing radicalisation of gang members, Rasheed says.
“One of them told a relative of mine that it was a disgrace – that these were gang members, taking heroin, abusing alcohol, that they were just criminals posing as Salafis,” says Rasheed.
“He said he was really concerned about groups taking over mosques because it was giving a bad name to Salaf and all the other Wahabis.”
The attack on Rasheed has been widely condemned by international human rights NGOs, as the first apparently targeted murder attempt of a journalist in the Maldives.
Several human rights NGOs raised the attack during a recent debate at the UN Human Rights Council with UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, Frank La Rue.
During the debate, NGOs led by the Centre for Inquiry and the International Humanist and Ethical Union criticised the growing “climate of intolerance and impunity for such crimes” in the Maldives.
“The government of the Maldives has made no effort to arrest Rasheed’s attackers despite credible photographic evidence of the attack,” the NGOs contended, expressing alarm at the growing influence of extremists in the Maldives.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemned the blocking of Rasheed’s blog – www.hilath.com – in 2011 by Communications Authority of the Maldives (CAM) on the order of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs. The Ministry had made the request on the grounds that the site contained anti-Islamic material.
Rasheed at the time described the crack-down as “just the beginning”, claiming there was no material on it that contradicted his Sufi interpretation of Islam.
“If Sunni Muslims are the conservatives, then the Sufi Muslims are the liberals,” he told Minivan News. “I think this is a conservative attack on the site. They think if you’re not a Sunni, you’re an unbeliever.”
After his attack, RSF issued a statement noting that it had “all the hallmarks of a targeted murder attempt.”
“Rasheed has made many enemies through his outspoken blogging. The authorities in charge of the investigation should not rule out the possibility that this was linked to his journalistic activity. He is a well-known journalist who has repeatedly been censored, arrested and threatened.
“The police must, as a matter of urgency, put a stop to the harassment of Rasheed and take the issue of his safety seriously. Any lack of response on their part will constitute a criminal failure to assist a person in danger,” RSF stated.
Amnesty International also issued a statement, noting that “religious groups opposed to Ismail Rasheed’s long campaign for religious freedom are suspected of being behind the attack.”
“People linked to these groups hit him with stones in December 2011, fracturing his skull, because he had arranged a rally to call for religious tolerance. Although that attack took place in front of onlookers and there is photographic evidence that can be used to identify the attackers, no one has yet been brought to justice for that attack,” Amnesty said.
For his part, Rasheed is no longer in the Maldives and has said he has no specific plans to return.
“In my opinion, I can never return to the Maldives. Right now, with the coup government hand-in-hand with Maldivian extremists, I believe the Maldives is a terrorist state. We need elections as soon as possible to bring back democracy,” he said.
The apparently newfound willingness of some politicians to use radicalised groups for political gain was “a devil’s pact”, Rasheed warned.
“Expect more political murders in the near future. It is not just me they want to get rid of – there are a lot of people. I forsee a lot of bloodshed.”