(Left): Relatives of disappeared Maldivian journalist Ahmed Rilwan Abdulla hold a silent protest during International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on August 28, 2018. (Right): Sri Lankan civil society activists and exiled Maldivian nationals protest the killing of independent blogger and critic of Maldivian government Yameen Rasheed at the Maldivian High Commission in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on May 8, 2017.
(Left): © 2018 AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena. (Right): 2017 AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena
A breakthrough in the investigations into the murders of two political activists in the Maldives may finally offer hope for justice. On June 25, Maldives police arrested three men in connection with the 2014 disappearance of Ahmed Rilwan, an outspoken journalist who uncovered political corruption, and the 2017 fatal stabbing of Yameen Rasheed, a blogger and government critic.
The arrests of the three suspects is only a first step. Until now, political interference along with evidence of police cover-up and judicial misconduct have undermined credible investigations and prosecutions of those responsible for these and other attacks on civil society activists.
Since 2012, and particularly during the presidency of Abdulla Yameen from 2013 to 2018, threats and violence against prominent Maldivian activists, politicians, and journalists escalated. Organized gangs with links to Salafist clerics, who have advocated the use of violence, are believed responsible for these attacks, yet these gangs have enjoyed the protection of powerful politicians. The gangs have also exercised influence over Maldives’ weak judiciary, pressuring judges to “fix” the outcome of trials, including by revealing the identity of prosecution witnesses.
The government-appointed Commission on Deaths and Enforced Disappearances is to thank for the recent breakthrough. It corroborated long-held suspicions that criminal gang leaders planned and carried out Rilwan’s abduction and disappearance, and discovered a “hit list” that included other activists and government critics. However, the Commission’s investigations have suffered numerous delays, not helped by the restrictions imposed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
News of the arrests has now raised hopes for progress in reversing years of impunity. But the real test is still to come: As a journalist and friend of the victims said, “It remains to be seen if prosecutors will be diligent, if witnesses can be protected, if judges will rule with integrity.” Unless they do, we are still a long way from justice for Rilwan and Yameen.