Maldivians across the atolls were glued to state broadcaster Television Maldives (TVM) one week ago, awaiting the results of the country’s second multi-party presidential election.
As counting from the 470 ballot boxes continued throughout the evening, live updates were accompanied by news bulletins keeping all up to date on this historic event – even the deaf.
Members of the Maldives’ deaf community were glued to the bottom corner of their television screen, where Shaheez Abdulla communicated in sign language for those with impaired hearing.
What was not communicated through Shaheez’s hands that day was the intense pain still coursing through his legs, his arm, and his back – the result of a stabbing just 72 hours earlier that he alleges was linked to one political party’s election preparations.
I met Shaheez on the roof of his building. On my way up to the terrace, traces of blood were still visible outside the lift where three youths attacked him the Wednesday (September 4) before the election. The first witnesses to the scene describe a bloodied but furious Shaheez, keen to expose those he sees as responsible for his assault.
He sits awkwardly, shifting in his seat – his determination to expose his wrongdoers unabated.
“They tried to kill me, but they could not. I am not afraid – for the truth, I will do anything,” he said.
Learning to interpret
Eight years ago Shaheez worked in one of Male’s CD/DVD shops and – like many Maldivians – dreamed of travelling abroad to study. Eventually however it was his interactions with the deaf customers he encountered that would decide the direction of his career – in particular, meeting his future-wife, Adhila.
Having admired her from afar, it was only when Shaheez plucked up the nerve to approach her that he realised she too was deaf.
“I finally approached her and tried to talk to her, but she didn’t respond – finally, a woman came over and said to me, ‘Don’t you know she’s deaf?’ I was shocked,” Shaheez explained.
This marked the point at which Shaheez began to learn sign language, leading to eventual fluency in British, Arabic and international signing, as well as the more unusual Dhivehi dialect. He also got married to Adhila and they now have two children.
Shaheez soon became one of the first deaf interpreters in the Maldives and today offers interpretation assistance in the courts, hospitals, and even trains members of the police force to sign. Shaheez regularly lectures at the Education Development Centre, and is contracted by the Maldives Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) to provide interpretation services on TVM.
During our interview, Shaheez proudly shows Minivan News the registration certificate for his new project – the Maldives Disabled Federation – which will act as an umbrella organisation for the country’s separate disability civil society groups.
Shaheez’s tireless activity across Maldivian civil society – working on many different disability related projects – could have been halted on September 4, however, as his work became tangled with the country’s internecine politics.
The events leading to the attack began around one month prior to the elections, when Shaheez says he was contacted by the Jumhoree Party (JP) about potential projects for disabled people. Full of ideas, and never without a sheaf of papers outlining his many projects, Shaheez was able to produce proposals for a number of schemes at the very first meeting.
“I told them I can help, but I can’t be a political tool,” he recalled. “There are so many projects that need doing.”
Two days after this initial meeting, Shaheez claimed that a JP member gave him just under MVR 300,000 (US$1,948) for three projects – including an instructive video to help deaf people learn the Salaath prayer, the creation of a Dhivehi sign-language dictionary, and the development of a sign-language font.
A call on speakerphone to a JP member during the interview confirmed that the party had given this cash to Shaheez. He was also able to show paperwork outlining the agreed projects and their cost, as well as a contract which agreed the projects would be launched by JP leader, Gasim Ibrahim.
However, Shaheez claimed the relationship started to go sour when he was given two day’s notice to prepare for the official launch of the projects.
“After I told them the launch could not be done in that time, they asked for all of the money back,” Shaheez recalled, despite much of the work having already been carried out.
“I said I would give the money back, but that I would also then do anti-campaigning against Gasim.”
It was on his way home from this meeting on September 3 that Shaheez says two young men on a motorbike threatened him.
“They said ‘Don’t even dare do anti-campaigning – if you do, you’d better watch out’, ” he alleged.
The following day, on his way to return to the cash – moments after arranging to meet with a JP member over the phone – Shaheez was confronted by his attackers on the way out of his building. After demanding Shaheez’s bag – containing the JP’s money – the youths attacked, taking the bag with the money inside.
Shaheez was keen to point out that his blame for the attack was not aimed at Gasim himself, noting that the leader’s close associates had warned Shaheez not to return the money to anyone other than them.
Response to threats
Minivan News was unable to obtain a response from the JP member named by Shaheez as the person responsible for his attack, and so his name has been left out of this account. Another senior party member, cited as being involved in the initial agreement, has denied all knowledge of any projects involving the JP and disabled organisations.
Shaheez is aware of rumours that he had stolen the party’s money himself, but rejected these accusations, citing his lack of a criminal record.
“I know who I am and God knows who I am,” he says.
Asked whether he was intimidated by the threats, he said that this was not the first time this tactic had been used, as he seeks to expose the persistent abuse of disabled people in the Maldives. He recalled one shocking example of such abuse he encountered when conducting surveys in Haa Daalu Atoll.
“There was one lady everyone said was mad. When I spoke with her, I found that she was just deaf. But the men in the island had already been abusing her – she had seven or eight children with unknown fathers. Men had used her, raped her, and even drugged her.”
“I will hold a big event one day and all these abuse cases will be publicised,” he vowed.
When asked about the difficulty of interpreting for the election coverage so soon after his ordeal, Shaheez remained defiant.
“I don’t care if both legs are stabbed, if even one of my hands can move I will interpret for the deaf until my last breath.”
Video taken by a bystander following Shaheez’s stabbing on September 4: