President Yameen Abdul Gayoom of the Maldives has long flaunted his disdain for a free media by detaining journalists and enacting sweeping laws to silence critics. But this week he hit a new low.
At an election campaign rally on August 7, Yameen responded to allegations by the jailed vice president, Ahmed Adeeb, that his government had obstructed the investigation into the abduction of journalist Ahmed Rilwan, who disappeared August 8, 2014. Yameen – who has yet to condemn the abduction or meet with Rilwan’s family – bluntly declared that the journalist was dead. Within hours he had backpedaled, claiming the media had “misconstrued” his remarks, and saying he hoped Rilwan would be found. But the retraction rang hollow.
Rilwan, known as @moyameehaa, “madman,” a popular blogger and journalist, was a vocal critic of corruption in the Maldivian government and its abysmal human rights record. He had inspired a growing audience of young activists who had emerged during the Maldives’ brief democratic transition in 2008 and were desperate for real reform. He also drew the ire of groups endorsing a violent ultra-nationalist or Islamist ideology who threatened – repeatedly – to kill him. A stout advocate of religious tolerance, Rilwan regularly expressed concern about the rising threat of Islamic extremism in the Maldives.
Until he disappeared.
Rilwan was last seen just after midnight on August 8, 2014, at a ferry terminal linking the capital, Malé, to the neighboring island where he lived. Eyewitnesses told police that at about 2 a.m., they saw a man in dark clothes being forced at knifepoint into a red car parked outside Rilwan’s apartment. Other witnesses identified gang members with political connections who followed Rilwan the evening he went missing and another gang member who owned the car in which Rilwan was reportedly taken. Nevertheless, the police failed to follow up on these leads. During the first two years following his abduction, they did not even classify Rilwan’s case as one of abduction or a missing person. Two suspects arrested shortly after his disappearance were freed two months later and although prosecuted, remained free for the duration of the trial.
On August 2, 2018, the Maldives criminal court acquitted the men of abducting Rilwan. The judge called the police and prosecution negligent and careless, and said they had failed to conduct a thorough investigation.
Yameen may want to bury the truth about who took Rilwan, but Rilwan’s colleagues and friends refuse to keep quiet or forget. Yameen should heed them and order a thorough and open investigation into Rilwan’s disappearance, including whether those involved had links to people in the president’s party.