Police retain four suspects in custody as “Facebook blackmail” investigation continues

Police are monitoring four individuals suspected of involvement in the alleged blackmail of several political figures though graphic images obtained via social network site Facebook, as they press ahead with the case.

The Maldives Police Service today confirmed that out of the remaining seven suspects held for questioning over the investigation, three had now been released, while another three had been put under house arrest, leaving one individual in police custody.

The case first came to light in February, when police revealed that 14 individuals including a minor had been arrested on suspicion of obtaining hundreds of nude pictures and videos that were stored on computers and external hard drives.  It was alleged that these images had been obtained through fake Facebook profiles that used the identical image of a young woman.

Police said at the time that two profiles with the names of ‘Lyshiaa Limanom’ and ‘Angelic Sharrown’ respectively were used by the suspects to gather files of individuals pictured in some cases performing explicit acts in the presence of minors. Investigators stated that they would also be investigating people pictured in the files for committing crimes.

Speaking today to Minivan News, Police Sub-Inspector Ahmed Shiyam claimed that despite the release of three suspects, the investigation was “very much continuing” with additional suspects now wanted for questioning.

However, he added that due the “complicated” nature of the case, which relates to allegations of public indecency, police have said that they remain unable to reveal further details of advances that may have been made until the investigation was concluded.

Shiyam added that this could still potentially include actions being taken against any individuals depicted in the seized files if they are found to be in violation of state laws. Unconfirmed reports allege the possible involvement of civil servants and parliamentarians.

“We really can’t say anything yet [about the case],” he said. “However, once the investigation has been completed, we will be sending information to the Prosecutor General’s Office on who to charge with possible offences.”

No arrests have been made in the case as yet, though it was revealed last month that a senior civil servant working at Male’ Municipality has been suspended by the Civil Service Commission (CSC), reportedly in connection to an explicit video obtained by police during the investigation.

CSC Commissioner Fahmy Hassan confirmed to Minivan News at the time that the civil servant had been suspended pending an investigation into the offending video, which had been leaked to the internet and reported to the CSC.

The police investigation has not been without controversy though, with the editor of local newspaper Haveeru questioning the motivation of law enforcement officials in the country over the questioning of two of its journalists.  The questioning was said to concern the identity of sources used in a story said that reportedly identified persons within some of the images and videos.

Haveeru Editor Moosa Latheef told Minivan News that although police had acted politely and professionally in questioning two of its journalists, he believed there was the possibility that the actions taken against his staff could have been “politically motivated” to protect certain reputations.

Police officials responded at the time to the allegations by claiming that the journalists’ questioning was not a ‘political attack’ on media freedom, but a means to try and aid its investigations through interviewing the unnamed sources in the article.

Haveeru said that its journalists had not given the identities of the sources used in the article to police.


Haveeru editor questions motivation of police press probe

Police questioning of two journalists over sources said to have seen indecent images used in the alleged bribery of high profile legal and political figures has raised suspicions that the conduct of law enforcement towards the media may be politically motivated, the editor of Haveeru has claimed.

Amidst ongoing investigations into a blackmail ring that allegedly used fake profiles of a young blonde woman on the Facebook website to obtain indecent and graphic images of a large swathe of Maldivian society, police last week obtained a court order to search the computers of some Haveeru staff.

Police officials 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 investigations into the suspected blackmail ring that has already seen a number of suspects arrested, including minors.

However, the questioning has been condemned by media groups such as the Maldives Journalist Association (MJA) as a step to suppress rights to a free media outlined under Article 28 of the constitution passed in 2008.

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 maintains it does not have any of the files in question.

Haveeru Editor Moosa Latheef told Minivan News 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 fulfil 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.

“Why are the police coming after us? We have written much more serious things about national issues like about corruption in the government, the opposition and the judiciary. This is not so serious news,” he said. “It will not damage any group as much as individual politicians, so if they have done something against their ethics, they can resign. They can submit their resignation to the president, or to the concerned parties or the judiciary. It is not like the national issues we have seen last August during the constitutional crisis.”

Latheef claimed that although he was not happy with the current government and opposition, he added that there had not been any interference with Haveeru’s output from either side of the national political spectrum in recent years.

“They didn’t interfere in anything like this. This why I’m considering why this time are police trying to get these sources? I suspect that the in some way perhaps the president or even an opposition leader may have tried to save someone close to them,” he said. “I am not sure, but maybe, the political influence may be behind this police action. Otherwise I don’t think police would take this kind of thing very seriously.”

Haveeru’s editor added that his suspicions were also raised by the nature of the police submissions to the Criminal Court for a warrant to investigate the paper’s office, which he said mentioned only that the investigation included members of the judiciary as opposed to other branches of state like parliament and the government.

“They did not mention the actual writing of our news report. We included that government officials, those in executive power, citizens and members of the judiciary may also be involved in these videos.  They mentioned in their submission to the court of only the judiciary [being included in the article].”

The editor claimed that he believed the submission was made to specifically ensure a court order against the paper’s staff, conduct which he derided in a Haveeru press release that was published yesterday.

Latheef claimed that no one at Haveeru had any of the alleged indecent images or to his knowledge seen the content; with reports by Hamdhoon and Naseer based on the accounts of “trusted” sources that included political insiders. However, he said it was accepted that police were also required to do their duty.

“They [police] suspected Haveeru had the porn [images and video files alleged to have been collected through the false Facebook sites] that they are investigating. That would be a criminal offense so it is police duty to investigate these kind of things,” added Latheef.

The Maldives Police Service has denied any allegations that its decision to seek a warrant from the country’s criminal court to search the computers of two Haveeru journalists – which was not carried out in the end – was a politically-driven attack on press freedom.

Police Sub-Inspector Ahmed Shiyam said that in light of the ongoing serious cyber crimes investigation into the Facebook profiles, attempts were made to to obtain further information from the sources used in Haveeru’s article.

“For that we needed more cooperation from Haveeru so we sought a court order to go ahead with this,” he said.

Shiyam claimed that the questioning was not therefore a ‘political attack’ on media freedom but a means to see what help the people mentioned in the article would be to the police investigation.