By Zaheena Rasheed
November 23rd, 2014
During President Abdulla Yameen’s first year in office, one journalist was disappeared, four people were stabbed to death, dozens suffered near fatal injuries in knifings and criminal gangs began harassing and abducting individuals they deemed un-Islamic.
At least four Maldivians were reportedly killed while fighting with Islamist groups in Syria, and dozens left the country to join the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS).
Yet, Yameen at a rally on November 14 said: “We now have peace and order in Malé and all regions of Maldives. We have peace. However, this is not to say that isolated and significant dangerous crimes do not occur.”
His solution for the allegedly isolated cases of violence is the death penalty and restriction of fundamental freedoms such as the right to remain silent and right to legal counsel.
“I want to say tonight as well in your presence, this government will have no mercy at all for those who slaughter Maldivian citizens with no mercy,” he told supporters at a rally to mark the government’s first anniversary on Thursday. .
The president’s words ring hollow after a year of refusal to even acknowledge the dangers of radicalism and a failure to address increasing criminal and vigilante action by Malé’s gangs. Further, offering draconian measures while ignoring the Maldives Police Services’ inability to ensure minimum standards of public safety raises further doubt over the president’s sincerity.
Yameen has refused to publicly comment on the increasing numbers of Maldivians fighting in foreign wars, saying in September that the government was unaware of Maldivians fighting abroad. If they were fighting in foreign wars, it was not being done with the government’s consent, he said.
At the time, three Maldivians had been killed while fighting with the Jabhat Al–Nusra Front in Syria. A fourth was reported killed in November.
Soon afterwards, on September 18, Maldives police said there were only 24 Maldivians associated with foreign terrorist groups, but refused to provide further details.
Yameen’s comments came in the same month that hundreds of protestors took to the streets of Malé carrying black ISIS flags, calling for the implementation of the Islamic Shari’ah and rejecting the laws of the 2008 Constitution.
‘We want the laws of the Quran, not the green book [Maldivian constitution]‘, ‘Islam will eradicate secularism’, ‘No democracy, we want just Islam’, ‘To hell with democracy’, ‘Democracy is a failed system’, read some of the placards, which were all written in English.
Police were reportedly unable to stop the protest, despite foreign minister Dunya Maumoon and Islamic minister Dr Shaheem Ali Saeed condemning ISIS’ actions in the Middle East and pledging to ban their supporters’ activities in the Maldives.
Since then, numerous reports of Maldivians leaving the country to join the dozens of Maldivian militants in Syria have surfaced. In October, 23 year old Ahsan Ibrahim, his wife, mother and 10-year-old sister left for ISIS territory, claiming the Maldives is “a land of sin.” Three weeks ago, three Maldivians were apprehended in Sri Lanka on their way to Syria via Turkey.
Although Dunya and Shaheem have spoken out against ISIS, without the president’s acknowledgement of the issue and a comprehensive deradicalisation policy, their statements appear to be mere lip service.
The government has consistently labelled former President Mohamed Nasheed’s vocal criticism on the issue as an attempt to tarnish Maldives’ reputation abroad.
As concerning is the government’s refusal to acknowledge growing radicalism among Malé’s criminal gangs and failure to address frequent death threats against journalists and opposition politicians.
Several gangsters, some of whom were seen at the forefront of the ISIS March, reportedly abducted several young men in June to identify advocates of secularism and atheism online.
They forced the young men to hand over their Facebook details before hijacking and shutting down a Facebook group called ‘Colourless’ – among one of the many vibrant forums for discussion on politics. A similar abduction occurred earlier this month.
The police, however, have made no move to investigate the abductions.
The same individuals have been implicated in the disappearance of Minivan News journalist Ahmed Rilwan. Today is the 107th day since he was abducted. Days before his disappearance, Bilad al-Sham, the self-proclaimed voice of Maldivian militants in Syria, warned Rilwan that his days were growing short when he contacted them for comment on a story.
Death threats have become a common occurrence. In August, an estimated 15 journalists from across the political spectrum were threatened with death should they report on a spate of street violence that saw one dead and at least nine grievously injured. The killing was the third fatal knifing in Malé this year.
Since then, journalists and politicians have continued to frequently receive death threats via an anonymous web SMS caster service.
On September 25, a journalist from Haveeru was warned she would be killed if she named the gangster, Ahmed Muaz, responsible for vandalising Minivan News office security cameras. The threat came after she had made a phone call to the police and before she published her article. It is not clear how those who made the threat came to know she was working on the story.
That night, the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party offices were firebombed and Nasheed’s family residence was vandalised. The police, again, have made no move to investigate the death threats or vandalism. Muaz was released within 24 hours of his arrest.
More worrying is that the government’s youth policy appears to be aimed at controlling and appeasing Malé’s gangs.
In August, Yameen intervened and halted a police attempt to dismantle gang huts in Malé. The police had claimed the demolition would curb gang activity. Yameen has also erased 2000 criminal records.
The President’s Office has declined to reveal names and criteria used for the policy decision. The lack of transparency and failure to enact rehabilitation programs signal the move may simply have been to buy the loyalty of a vulnerable sector of youth rather than a genuine effort at rehabilitation.
Meanwhile, government officials including Tourism Minister Ahmed Adeeb and Defense Minister Mohamed Nazim have been photographed with several gangsters who have records of murder and assault, at several government and PPM functions.
The Maldives Police Service’s performance this year has been dismal, as evident by their poor handling of Rilwan’s disappearance.
An abduction at knifepoint was reported in front of Rilwan’s building at the time he would have reached home on the night he disappeared. Eyewitnesses immediately informed the police.
A team of officers confiscated a knife that abductors dropped on the scene. A couple of officers reportedly went after the car, but failed to stop and search it. If the abduction had been investigated in a timely manner, Rilwan’s fate may be clearer.
Meanwhile, police involvement in crime has been growing this year, with three officers arrested in drug busts in Malé, Hinnavaru, and Addu. Police officers were also accused of cutting down all of Malé City’s areca palm trees.
Minivan News has also learned that the police’s Serious and Organised Crime Department only forwarded 53 of the 465 cases that were lodged this year for prosecution.
Combined, these events suggest a Maldives far removed from the peaceful and orderly country described by the president.
Yameen’s draconian punishments will do little to deter violent crime without a competent police force. Instead of enforcing the death penalty and restricting constitutional freedoms, Yameen must acknowledge and address rising radicalism, and prosecute criminal activity by Malé’s gangs instead of courting them.