Outspoken Maldives Blogger Who Challenged Radical Islamists Is Killed

APRIL 23, 2017
The New York Times

MALÉ, Maldives — A liberal blogger who wrote satirical critiques of the Maldivian government and the spread of radical Islam died Sunday after being stabbed in the stairway of his apartment building.

The blogger, Yameen Rasheed, 29, had complained repeatedly to the police about receiving death threats, he said in an interview with The New York Times this year, adding that the police often failed to return his calls or dropped his complaints without investigation.

“In my case, I get multiple kinds of death threats from different people, because I write and do the campaign,” he said. Mr. Rasheed was a coordinator of a campaign to find his friend Ahmed Rilwan Abdulla, a journalist for The Maldives Independent who was abducted in 2014.

The police said that Mr. Rasheed was found with multiple stab wounds in his apartment building in the capital, Malé, shortly before 3 a.m. He was rushed to Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital and died soon after.

The Republic of Maldives, a nation of nearly 1,200 islands southwest of India, is best known as a spectacular vacation destination. But the country, with fewer than 400,000 people, has also become a source of recruits for the Islamic State. The government said at least 49 Maldivians had traveled to Syria to fight with the group, also known as ISIS; a 2015 study by an international security firm said the number was about 200.

The population, which is predominantly Sunni Muslim, has traditionally been liberal in its interpretation of Islam, with women rarely covering their heads. But a more conservative strain of Islam has spread in recent years under the increasing influence of Saudi Arabia, which sends religious leaders to the Maldives and offers scholarships to Maldivian students to study at Saudi universities.

A spokeswoman for the hospital, Zeenath Ali Habeeb, said Mr. Rasheed had been brought in at 3:15 a.m. with multiple stab wounds, having lost a lot of blood. He was unconscious and had a very weak pulse, she said, and he died while being treated.

His father, Hussain Rasheed, told the local news media that his son had been stabbed 16 times in the chest, neck and head.

Mr. Rasheed was best known for satirical Twitter posts and weekly posts on his popular blog, The Daily Panic, which riffed on the week’s headlines, often criticizing the government’s use of religion to appeal to the public.

He was also a coordinator of the Find Moyameehaa campaign, which was started after Mr. Abdulla was abducted almost three years ago.

Last year, Mr. Rasheed wrote on Twitter that he had reported receiving death threats to the police and had not received a response. Mr. Rasheed posted screenshots of the many threats he received on his social media accounts.

“We condemn this action in the harshest terms,” President Abdulla Yameen said in a statement. “All resources of the state will be utilized to bring the perpetrators of this heinous crime to justice.”

Mr. Yameen said he had ordered a review of the procedures for investigating threats against journalists to make sure they are acted upon “swiftly” and in a “manner that ensures safety for everyone.”

Three former presidents of the Maldives appealed for a speedy and thorough investigation into Mr. Rasheed’s death.

“A brave voice, brutally silenced,” former President Mohamed Nasheed said on Twitter. “Only an impartial & open investigation with international participation can provide justice.”

Atul Keshap, the American ambassador to the Maldives and Sri Lanka, also called for an investigation, adding that he was “still waiting for answers” about Mr. Abdulla’s abduction in 2014.

Amnesty International noted that the killing of Mr. Rasheed took place against the backdrop of the Maldivian authorities’ growing restrictions on public debate.

“This crackdown has intensified in recent weeks and must end immediately,” the organization said. “Authorities should protect those who speak out, not try to criminalize them.”

In his interview with The Times in January, Mr. Rasheed described how bloggers like himself and Mr. Abdulla were targeted by radicalized gangs in the Maldives, from which jihadists recruit fighters for the Islamic State.

Mr. Rasheed said Mr. Abdulla’s abduction followed a pattern of increasingly hostile actions against those who question how Islam is practiced in the Maldives. A couple of months before the abduction, a mob kidnapped several men affiliated with a Facebook group calling for secularism, accused them of homosexuality and atheism, and forced them to cite parts of the Quran before being released.

Mr. Rasheed said that nearly all of the 20 members of the group committed to finding Mr. Abdulla had received death threats, from people who brandished knives in public or through text messages. The messages were often graphic and called for their beheading.

Friends described Mr. Rasheed as soft-spoken, funny and fiercely committed to finding Mr. Abdulla and seeking justice for his family. Celine Peroni, Mr. Rasheed’s girlfriend, said he was “just the smartest, wittiest and sweetest person I’ve ever met.”

Ms. Peroni said she and Mr. Rasheed had often talked about the death threats, which intensified in December when his name began circulating as a person of interest within extremist groups. She asked him to take cabs home at night, and Mr. Rasheed was always careful to walk in view of CCTV cameras.

Recently, however, Mr. Rasheed “was feeling more relaxed,” Ms. Peroni said, and the couple had booked a summer vacation to Sri Lanka. He had even started walking home again instead of taking cabs, she said.

“He was aware of the threats, but cautious,” she said. “He wanted the voice of the truth to be heard, despite the risks.”

Maldives president vetoes marital rape bill as ‘un-Islamic’

By Vishal Arora
Religion News Service
January 16, 2014

NEW DELHI — Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen has refused to ratify a bill that seeks to partially criminalize marital rape, calling it “un-Islamic.”

The parliament voted 67-2 last month to limit a husband’s right to have non-consensual sex with his wife. The bill says a husband cannot force his wife to have sex if the couple have filed for divorce, dissolution or mutual separation, and if the intent is to transmit a sexual disease.

Yameen vetoed the bill about a week after the vice president of the Maldives Fiqh Academy, Mohamed Iyaz Abdul Latheef, criticized its passage saying the Quran and the Sunnah, or the teachings of Islam, do not give a wife the authority to deny sex to her husband.

“With the exception of forbidden forms of sexual intercourse, such as during menstrual periods and anal intercourse, it is not permissible under any circumstance for a woman to refrain from it when the husband is in need,” Latheef said.

Latheef added that a woman must show “complete obedience to her husband” even if she has filed for divorce.

At a victory rally following the presidential run-off vote last November, Yameen said his coalition had received a mandate “to save the Maldivian nation, to protect the sacred religion of Islam.”

The Maldives, an Indian Ocean archipelago of about 330,000 people, claims to have a 100 percent Muslim population. Its constitution states that “no law contrary to any tenet of Islam shall be enacted.”

A 2007 government study found that more than 92 percent of Maldivian women believe a good wife obeys her husband even if she disagrees with him. Nearly 30 percent of respondents also said a husband can beat his wife if she refuses sex.

The Maldives drew global criticism last February after a juvenile court sentenced a 15-year old girl — who was raped by her stepfather — to 100 lashes on charges of fornication. The ruling was overturned by a higher court six months later.

Amputation for theft added to draft penal code

By Minivan News | March 30th, 2013

The draft penal code bill has been amended to include punishments as prescribed in the Quran, such as amputation for theft.

The new article added during a parliamentary committee meeting Thursday (March 28) states that if someone convicted of a crime requires legal punishment, as specified in the penal code, that person will face punishment as stated in the Quran.

MP Imthiyaz Fahmy clarified the amendment to the draft penal code is about hadd punishments only and “not at all” about all Sharia offences, speaking with Minivan News today.

“Hadd offenses are already crimes in the draft penal code. However the prescribed punishments in Sharia for those particular crimes are not codified in the draft penal code, but instead they are left up to the interpretation of Sharia,” stated Fahmy.

“But to completely evade making a reference to hadd punishments or to mention that no hadd punishment at all should be imposed is impossible to the the fact that Sharia shall be one of the basis of all the laws of the Maldives,” he added.

Criminal punishments are detailed for murder, fornication, thievery and drinking alcohol.

The committee’s chairperson, MP Ahmed Hamza, told Sun Online the new draft penal code will require amputating persons convicted of theft, while a person convicted of apostasy (renouncing Islam) will also face punishment.

The bill does not include apostasy as a crime, therefore someone found guilty of this offense cannot be subjected to Quranic punishment, committee member MP Ahmed Mohamed clarified.

Gambling is also not criminalised, according to committee member MP Abdul Azeez Jamaal Aboobakuru. He told local media that the bill does not “state a manner in which such crimes can be convicted”.

Fahmy explained that Sharia law does not prescribe a hadd punishment for gambling.

The penal code draft bill does include factors that must be considered before convicting a person of murder; for example, any contradictory evidence would prevent such a conviction.

Imposing the death penalty cannot be subject only to the confession of the accused.

“Sharia does not run headlong into death penalties, amputation or stoning to death. Therefore depending on the circumstances, Sharia may avoid capital punishments,” said Fahmy.

He further clarified that Sharia punishments may be interpreted according to any of the schools of Sunni Muslims.

While interpretation of Sharia law punishments are within the purview of Maldivian judges, Fahmy believes that the current judicial system is incapable of providing Maldivian people justice, even with the new penal code.

“I do not believe the judiciary and the criminal justice system in the Maldives is capable of doing justice or able to take care of the new penal code. The judiciary is unable to ‘keep up with the Jonses’,” Fahmy stated.

The parliamentary committee’s additions to the bill follow its rejection of all but one amendment suggested by the Fiqh Academy of the Maldives.

Speaking to local media on Monday (March 25), Hamza said the committee had decided to accept only a suggestion concerning the offence of theft. Other amendments, he said, were merely changes to the wordings of the bill and carried little legal weight.

“They have submitted amendments to abolish certain sections. These include certain legal defences. When we looked into removing those defences, we found this impacted fundamental principles embedded to the draft penal code. So we decided to reject their suggestions,” he stated.

Following the decision, Vice President of the Fiqh Academy Sheikh Iyas Abdul Latheef told local newspaper Haveeru that the academy had informed parliament that current draft penal code should not be enforced in the country.

“The current draft does not include the Hadds established under Islamic Sharia. There is no mention of the death penalty for murder, the punishment of stoning for fornication, the punishment of amputation for theft and the punishment for apostasy. We proposed amendments to include these punishments,” Latheef stated.

Comments submitted by the United Nation agencies in the Maldives, Human Rights Commission of the Maldives (HRCM), and Attorney General are being considered and incorporated into the draft text.

The initial draft of the penal code was prepared by legal expert Professor Paul H Robinson and the University of Pennsylvania Law School of the United States, upon the request of the Attorney General in January, 2006. The project was supported by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).

Professor Robinson’s team have published two volumes (Volume 1 and Volume 2) consisting of commentaries on sections of the draft bill.

The bill was first sent to the Majlis (parliament) in 2006 and will replace the 1961 penal code.

The penal code bill is being forwarded to the parliament floor this upcoming week, according to local media.

Behind Maldives’ Glamor, a Struggling Democracy

Published: February 12, 2012

MALE, Maldives — For much of the world, the Maldives means idyllic and exclusive beach resorts, a kind of G-rated version of Thailand, but for many of the people who live here it has been no paradise.

For most of the last three decades, the country’s autocratic ruler pursued policies that kept many Maldivians poor while extending a warm welcome to well-heeled foreign tourists, including the likes of Tom Cruise and Madonna. Those visitors helped bankroll the government and have made the Maldives, a sprawl of more than 1,200 islands dotted across the Indian Ocean, the most prosperous country in South Asia.

That arrangement started to give way in 2008, when the country held its first democratic elections, installing a charismatic activist, Mohamed Nasheed, as president.

But after Mr. Nasheed left office last week in what he says was a coup, the government issued a warrant for his arrest on unspecified criminal charges and invited members of the business elite and representatives of the former dictatorship to join the cabinet, raising fears among many people here that the country’s progress toward democracy may be slipping away.

“There were so many people my age who wanted to bring this change,” said Hassan Hameez, 39, who runs a diving and tour business. Now, he said, he fears the future “will be the same as the time of the ’80s and ’90s.”

Though the Maldives is a tiny country of only about 400,000 people, the turmoil here has attracted the attention of the United States, Britain, India and other countries because of its location near busy, pirate-infested shipping lanes, and as a result of concerns that Islamists, who have grown bolder in recent years, could gain a bigger foothold here.

On Saturday, an American envoy met with both sides here to encourage the formation of a unity government, in an apparent bid for stability, while avoiding talking about whether Mr. Nasheed had been displaced in a coup.

On Sunday, the new president, Mohammed Waheed Hassan, moved forward with what he called a unity government, which lacked the backing of Mr. Nasheed. Mr. Hassan swore in new members of his cabinet, including leaders from the party of the former autocrat, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who ruled the Maldives for 30 years, and politicians who have argued that the country’s laws should adhere to a stricter interpretation of Islamic teachings.

The appointments signaled that Mr. Hassan was moving to consolidate power and isolate Mr. Nasheed, who had said his party would not join the new government.

Later Sunday night, several hundred Nasheed supporters protested in front of the Majlis, the Maldivian legislature, demanding the release of one of the party’s representatives from police custody. They were dispersed by riot police officers but returned a few hours later before being chased away again.

The recent turmoil in Maldives, a Muslim country that had its Arab Spring-like moment several years before the events in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, suggests that the path from autocracy to democracy will likely be slow and rocky. Institutions like the judiciary and the police seem to be lagging behind, so far not proving strong, professional and fair enough for their new roles.

“I don’t see any reason to assume that a transition to a democracy setup would work like clicking a switch,” said Teresita C. Schaffer, who was American ambassador to the Maldives and nearby Sri Lanka during the early 1990s. “Having difficulty working out their differences is something you have to expect from a country transitioning to a democracy.”

A major flashpoint has been Mr. Nasheed’s effort to reform a judiciary that was largely staffed by loyalists to the old government. The Judicial Services Commission failed to take action against judges accused of turning a blind eye to accusations of corruption by former officials, some of them involving land deals for resorts.

In January, Mr. Nasheed ordered his army to arrest one of those judges, Abdulla Mohamed, who heads the country’s criminal court, which appears to have set in motion the events leading to his ouster. Opposition political parties, and even Mr. Nasheed’s vice president, criticized the move as an unconstitutional overreach of authority.

At the same time, other political groups opened another line of attack by criticizing Mr. Nasheed for not protecting Islam by, among other things, allowing massage parlors in Male, even though they had long existed on resorts on islands where no Maldivians live.

Last Tuesday some police officers joined the protests, and Mr. Nasheed stepped down. While Mr. Nasheed has argued that he was forced out, Mr. Hassan says he resigned voluntarily.

“This was a new beginning we got,” said Aishath Velezinee, a former member of the judicial commission who has criticized the body. As to Mr. Nasheed’s effort to reform the judiciary, he said, “We failed.”

A half-dozen Maldivians interviewed Sunday on a small working-class island, Villingili, a 10 minute ferry ride west of the capital, expressed frustration with the recent turmoil and the stalled progress toward democracy.

Faithimath, a law student who asked she be referred to by only one name because she feared retaliation, said she feared that the country was succumbing to another bout of brutality. “When I was really young, I have seen people taken away in handcuffs for expressing their political opinion,” she said. “That shouldn’t happen.”

Others, like Sofwan Waheed, who sells and markets technology equipment, said leaders on both sides were politicizing religion even as the country was losing its identify to Westernization. He said high school students had easy access to alcohol and drugs like heroin and marijuana, which bothered him. It was fine for foreigners to drink alcohol on resorts, he said, “But we have a different culture. We need to maintain that.”

Another boat ride, 10 minutes north on a speedboat to the Kurumba resort where rooms rent from between $200 and $2,000 a night, offered a different scene. Tourists from Russia, China, India, Pakistan and Turkey lay on beach chairs, swam in the clear blue waters and played with their children. Nearby workers put white cloth and ribbons on a table set for three on a little concrete pier jutting out into the water. The resort’s general manger, Jason Kruse, said that there had been only a few cancellations because of the political turmoil and that the resort was at 98 percent occupancy.

Selcuk Abul, a Turkish bank manager, was in the Maldives for the first time on a trip with 16 colleagues, a company-paid bonus for a job well done. He said he loved the country and would come again with his wife and their two sons, ages 11 and 7.

“It’s really fantastic,” he said. “It’s heaven.”