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What The Murder Of One Maldivian Blogger Means To Another In Exile

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Shiran Illanperuma

Shiran Illanperuma

Staff Writer

On Saturday, April 22, Maldivian social media activist and blogger Yameen Rasheed was writing a recommendation letter to help old friend and self-exiled activist, Muju Naeem, apply for asylum.

“It’s pretty much done,” Yameen had said. “I just need to make a few edits.”

On Sunday, April 23, Yameen was stabbed to death.

Muju never got that letter.

Sri Lanka has played a key role in the turbulent politics of the Maldives archipelago. It was in Colombo, in 2003, that former political prisoner Mohamed Nasheed, and a number of other exiled activists, formed the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), which would go on to topple dictator Maumoon Gayoom in 2008.

When the MDP government collapsed in 2012, and Nasheed was forced to resign after what has been alleged to be a coup d’etat, it is in Colombo again, where an opposition alliance is brewing to challenge the island’s new authoritarian leader President Abdulla Yameen ‒ Gayoom’s half-brother.

Needless to say, the fate of Maldives has always been deeply intertwined with that of Sri Lanka.

Yameen Rasheed, a young IT professional and outspoken social media activist, started his blog, The Daily Panic, shortly after the alleged coup. With an aim to “satirise the frequently unsatirisable politics of the Maldives”, the blog lampooned everything from everyday life in the Maldives, to President Yameen’s repressive rule and rising Islamic extremism.

This didn’t go unnoticed. While the perpetrators of the attack, and the motives behind it, are still officially unknown, Yameen’s close friends have noted the consistent threats, predominantly from gang members and Islamic extremists, received by Yameen over the years leading up to his murder.

“I know for a fact that he was having nightmares because the threats were becoming really bad,” says Muju ‒ a pro-democracy and secularist blogger currently spending his fifth year in self-exile.

Speaking to Roar online, he said: “When the threats initially started coming, it was anonymous. But recently things changed. The threats came from public profiles ‒ actual people with pictures of their families and friends. That took a psychological toll on him.”

Yameen had in fact raised concerns about constant online threats and harassment, filing a number of complaints to the Maldives Police Service since 2014. The police, however, were less than receptive to these concerns.

Threats are something Muju himself is more than familiar with. The night of Yameen’s murder, he was messaged on Facebook, by a profile named Jay Jaxt.

“You are very afraid aren’t you? We will kidnap your family members until we find you or until you give up… God willing, your death will be a painful one.”

The next day, hours after news of Yameen’s murder had broken, Muju received another threat, this time from a Facebook profile named Jannah Al Firdous.

“You apostate, did you hear about a person being killed in Maldives? You should also expect that day for you. God willing, that is how it ends for anyone who makes fun of Islam.”

“Did you think we are all just empty talk? God willing, we will show you with action.”

Deep Wounds

Yameen’s father, Hussain Rasheed, at a demonstration commemorating his son. Image courtesy Raajje.mv

When the police knocked on Hussain Rasheed’s door at 4:30 a.m., he thought that they had come for him.

“They asked me who I was and what my relationship with Yameen was before taking my phone number and leaving,” said Hussain, Yameen’s father, at a private press meet with Sri Lankan journalists last week.

Minutes later, Hussain had received a call from the police headquarters in Male, saying that his son was wounded and had been admitted to Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital. “They didn’t openly tell me that he was dead,” says Hussain. “But I could feel that he was.”

Yameen had been found bloodied and barely conscious on the stairway of his apartment building in the capital Malé, at 3:00 a.m. on April 23. After being rushed to hospital, he was declared dead forty minutes later. The cause ‒ multiple stab wounds to the body, neck, and head.

At first, officials would not allow Hussain to see his son’s body. It took hospital staff 45 minutes to stop Yameen’s body from bleeding and to suture his many wounds shut.

“I could count 14 wounds on his head, face, and chest. I could only see one side but there were 33 to 34 wounds wounds in total… His throat was cut… A part of his skull was gone,” Hussain recounts. “They were deep wounds.”

Once the news broke, the outpouring of grief on social media, by Yameen’s friends and colleagues, was swift and unrelenting.

International organisations and the diplomatic community too, were shocked, with many offering condolences and calling for justice.

Hussain, who came to Sri Lanka to lobby the diplomatic community, expresses concern that a thorough investigation into his son’s murder might not be possible without international support.

“I don’t trust our police investigation. I have requested the government to get some foreign assistance and some observers for a future trial,” says Hussain. In fact, Hussain says that he plans to take the Maldives Police Service to court over charges of negligence.

According to Hussain, the murder scene was cleaned within four hours of the attack, and the blood-stained walls of Yameen’s apartment building had been painted over. Currently, police have not named any suspects but CCTV footage has revealed two likely suspects.

Despite constant threats, “in the name of Islam and from known gangsters,” Hussain says that Yameen never shared this burden with his family. “I think he was afraid of informing me because of my health condition,” Hussain speculates. “Maybe he felt his mother couldn’t handle it either.”

While Yameen kept his activist life separate from home, Hussain admits that he did occasionally keep an eye on his son’s work. A tinge of pride eclipses his sorrow as he recalls this.

“He was always fighting for justice and democracy… These things I like very much… I’m proud of his endeavours… I didn’t want to stop the work he was doing… I actually wanted to encourage him,” says Hussain.

“I can find no reason for his murder,” mourns Hussain. When questioned whether the motive for Yameen’s murder might have been religious or political, he replies simply:

“In Maldives, these two things are not separate.”

Before The Panic

In 2010, Muju Naeem met, “a very young, hopeful, and optimistic Yameen”. The pair had maintained contact online, often commenting on each others blog posts and sharing ideas within their circle of young, foreign-educated Maldivians who envisioned a secular and democratic society.

“I was drawn to his writing,” Muju muses. “Despite our age difference we hit it off.”

At the time, Yameen was just 22 years old, a bright but inexperienced social media activist, settling into life in the Maldives after spending most of his childhood in India. Muju, on the other hand, was nearly a decade older at 30, and already a veteran blogger and activist.

Muju’s first taste of political writing was in January 2004, when he helped co-found the now defunct Dhivehi Observer, alongside then-exiled politician Ahmed Shafiq Moosa. Just two months prior, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), which Moosa was a member of, had been formed by activists in exile in Colombo, and a movement to topple dictator Maumoon Gayoom was growing.

Muju recalls: “It [the Dhivehi Observer] was a pro-MDP mouthpiece. It was propaganda, but the opposition finally had a media platform. The Gayoom regime banned the site and tried to block it, but we kept it running through mirrors.”

Despite living and studying in Australia at the time, Muju’s public involvement as Assistant Editor of the Dhivehi Observer ‒ curating content and writing editorials and short stories ‒ made him persona non grata for the Gayoom regime. After graduating, he would not be allowed back into the country, but continued to work from Malaysia instead.

The political situation in Maldives began to shift after the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. Gayoom pardoned a number of political exiles who began to flow back into the country. Muju returned to the Maldives in 2006, thanks to a deal struck by his father Mohamed Naeem ‒ an opposition Parliamentarian.

By this time, Muju had stepped down from his post in the Dhivehi Observer, focusing instead on the family business, and his father’s newly minted political party ‒ the Maldivian National Congress ‒ one of the many smaller parties in coalition with the MDP during the 2008 presidential election.

With the help of small parties like MNC, the vote swung in favour of MDP-leader Mohamed Nasheed. Gayoom’s 30-year dictatorship was ended, and Nasheed ‒ a young, charismatic environmental activist ‒ had become the first democratically elected leader of the island paradise. The world was in love with Maldives.

“There was a feeling of optimism,” says Muju.  “Anything felt possible. We were a young, energetic, Muslim democracy.”

This feeling wouldn’t last.

The Disobedient Writers

Yameen Rasheed with his best friend, and fellow human rights activist, Ahmed Rilwan, who has been missing since 2014. Image courtesy The Daily Panic

Muju and Yameen met at a time when the Maldivian love affair with democracy was at a crossroads. It was just two years into Nasheed’s presidency and political space was opening up rapidly ‒ for both secular progressives and Islamic fundamentalists. New conflicts were on the horizon.

The Gayoom regime had long suppressed strains of Islam that were considered to be ultra-orthodox, especially the Salafi-Wahhabism exported from countries like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. In some cases, Gayoom went as far as to imprison, torture, and exile Salafi-Wahhabi spiritual leaders.

However, Gayoom himself was a proponent of infusing Maldivian national identity with Islam, adopting an Egyptian model of moderate Islamic nationalism. And it was Gayoom who helped popularise the notion that Maldives is a “100% Sunni Muslim country”.

These policies backfired, as persecuted Islamic leaders formed a number of religious parties, including the Adhaalath Party which, in coalition with the MDP, rode the coattails of 2008’s democratic transition. After being elected to office, Nasheed created a Ministry of Islamic Affairs to cater to Adhaalath’s demands.

“An Islamic Ministry never existed before in the country,” argues Muju. “At least on paper we were secular before, but now we’re not.”

“By then, there were like-minded people having private meetings and discussing how to deal with the increasing Islamisation of the country. Nasheed was losing control. The Islamist had used democracy to climb up, but then began pulling out the ladder from under them.”

It is in this context that, “Yameen soon became more than a friend,” says Muju. “We shared much of the same hopes, dreams, aspirations and values. And we realised that we wanted to take up the task of secular activism.”

On December 10, 2011, Human Rights Day, a ragtag group of young activists, bloggers, and journalists, calling themselves ‘Silent Solidarity’, organised a peaceful sit-in at Malé’s Artificial Beach. In a press release circulated prior to the event, the group had declared their aim to “make the Maldives and the international community aware of the rising religious intolerance in the Maldives, and to condemn the Constitutionally endorsed suppression of religious freedom.”

The protest was chiefly organised by Ismail “Hilath” Rasheed, a journalist who had previously been arrested on charges of atheism, homosexuality, and drug use. Hilath was also targeted by the Ministry of Islamic Affairs who ordered his blog shut down earlier that year. Along with Muju and Yameen, the sit-in was also attended by Yameen’s best friend Ahmed Rilwan, another young social media activist.

On the day of the protest, about 30 people showed up and sat down in complete silence. There were no slogans, no chants, and no candles. “The whole point was that the environment wasn’t safe anymore,” explains Muju. “But our presence as dissenters was what mattered, and we needed that to be conveyed.”

Not long into the sit-in, a group of 4-5 thugs attacked the protesters with stones and bricks. “They aimed straight for our heads. It looked like they came prepared,” says Muju. The protesters dispersed but Hilath sustained a serious skull fracture and was rushed to hospital. A group of protesters ‒ including Muju and Yameen ‒ went to file a report at the Maldives Police Service.

“The Police were more interested in what we were doing, rather than the people who attacked us. The whole thing turned into an investigation into our political and religious beliefs,” says Muju.

The brutal assault on the protest, followed by the inaction of Maldivian authorities was the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back. Later that month, activists within the ‘Silent Solidarity’ group set up a Facebook page called Secular Democratic Maldives Movement, a platform to promote religious freedom and anti-Islamism in Maldives.

The page has since grown, publishing daily content by a team of like-minded volunteers, and has gone on to accrue close to 5,000 likes  ‒ a significant amount of influence for a population as small as that of the Maldives. According to some of the page’s admins, the following alone is indicative of Maldivian support for secular democratic ideals.

Muju, Yameen, Hilath, Ahmed and a number of other social media activists, found themselves in a protracted struggle to introduce secular democratic ideals into the Maldivian mainstream. Harnessing social media, each tried, in their own way, to reach out to young Maldivians and to curb the Islamic radicalisation that was spreading throughout the atolls.

But the tide was turning.

The Silencing

The mother of disappeared journalist Ahmed Rilwan consoles Yameen’s mother at a commemoration event. Image courtesy Raajje.mv

Just days after the ‘Silent Solidarity’ protest, a mass rally was organised by an opposition alliance that included some of Nasheed’s former allies, including the Adhaalath Party. The rally attracted thousands of people and speakers accused Nasheed of being unable to defend Islam in the Maldives.

By January 2012, the Nasheed government was falling apart at the seams. Nasheed had allegedly ordered the arrest of Chief Justice Abdulla Mohamed, on charges of accepting bribes to release convicts. The move energised the opposition and protesters quickly took to the streets.

By February 2012, the Maldives Police Service had refused to use force against anti-Government protesters. Mutinying against Nasheed, the police joined up with the opposition. With nowhere to go, Nasheed sought shelter inside the headquarters of the Maldives Defence Force, the island’s military which was still loyal to him.

Nasheed stepped down as President on February 7, 2012. He and his supporters later claimed that anti-government protests were the part of an organised coup d’etat by Islamist forces. The Indian, US, and UK government, along with the Commonwealth of Nations did not accept these allegations.

On the night of the Nasheed’s resignation, Muju’s father was at an MDP party meeting, when a joint mob of police and protesters attacked. “They beat up whoever was there and my father had his back broken,” says Muju. He and his father fled the country shortly after, and have been in self-exile ever since.

In June 2012, an armed assailant stabbed Hilath in the throat near his home. The blade cut clean through his windpipe, missing a major artery by millimetres. Hilath was lucky to survive, but the incident pushed him into hiding. In 2016, Hilath officially announced his retirement from public life and closed all his social media accounts.

In a statement published on his blog, he said, “my retirement from public life comes at a time when the society is such that, the person who holds up the mirror, is demonized by a people who, in this Information Age of the Internet era, still delude themselves that they have a private life.”

In August 2014, CCTV footage showed journalist Ahmed Rilwan outside a ferry terminal in Malé. The footage showed him buying a ticket to Hulhumale  ‒ a small reclaimed island. Ahmed tweeted 11 times during that ferry ride. Afterwards, he was never seen or heard from again.

Yameen, who was Ahmed’s best friend and close confidant, led a search party to scour Hulhumale island, but Ahmed was gone. His disappearance became a rallying point for progressives in the Maldives. Yameen, along with Ahmed’s mother, was at the forefront of the #FindMoyameeha campaign, braving threats and police brutality.

Yameen never did find out what happened to his best friend. With his murder, the silencing of ‘Silent Solidarity’ is all but complete.

“The network of activists who started this movement have been assaulted, murdered or pushed into hiding,” say Muju.

“It feels like I’m the only one left.”

The Best Maldivian

Yameen’s last tweet was an emoji of a red balloon. It has since become a symbol for his commemoration. Image courtesy Raajje.mv

“He was a really good guy,” Muju muses. In 2016, the two bloggers began a joint project on Youtube, filming a series of videos over Skype, where they discussed and critiqued Maldivian politics and Islamic radicalisation.

Ever since Yameen was murdered, Muju has found himself revisiting these videos. “It makes me cry,” he admits. “The hardest thing has been trying to stay strong and focused.”

Spending his fifth year in exile, in an undisclosed location, Muju is currently applying for asylum status via the UNHRC. The process hasn’t been easy, but the murder of Yameen, combined with constant online death threats, have infused new urgency to his plight.

A graphic depicting Ahmed Rilwan and Yameen Rasheed, uploaded to Facebook by an Islamist page. The text in Dhivehi roughly translates to: “A group of atheist apostates has been identified. Everyone will be killed.” The page has since been reported and removed.

Meanwhile, the political situation in the Maldives continues to deteriorate. President Yameen has been accused of jailing his opponents and, according to some sources, Yameen’s murder is one of about 18 politically-motivated attacks that have occurred since the alleged coup. “No one feels safe in Malé anymore,” says Hussain.

Criminal gangs that ran the country’s narcotics trade and operated under the patronage of corrupt politicians, have now been influenced by radical Islamist thought. According to some reports, 200 Maldivians have joined Daesh (ISIS) in the Syrian Civil War, making the tiny island-nation the second biggest per capita contributor to the terrorist outfit’s forces.

A new presidential election in Maldives is scheduled for next year. Former president Nasheed has declared his intention to return to Maldives and contest. But for Muju, going back home is out of the question. “The people who are threatening me aren’t purely political anymore. I don’t think I’m on President Yameen’s radar, it’s the Islamists who want me dead.”

Despite being on the run, staying silent isn’t an option. In an open letter to President Yameen, Muju threw down the gauntlet. “We will not accept vigilantes running around and killing people as normal. That is not how a modern functioning democratic society should be. We intend to change that,” he charged.

Recalling his friend Yameen’s legacy, Muju told Roar that, “Yameen’s life can’t be in vain. It has to mean something.”

“This outpouring of grief doesn’t happen with any regular blogger. Yameen was more than that. He showed a generation of young Maldivians what their country could be,” said Muju.

“He was the best Maldivian I ever called a friend.”

Featured image: Muju Naeem (left) and Yameen Rasheed. Image courtesy Naeem’s YouTube channel

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