Amnesty International has welcomed the release from prison of Maldivian blogger and journalist Ismail ‘Khilath’ Rasheed last Friday, whom the organisation had designated a ‘prisoner of conscience’, but expressed alarm at the government’s failure to prosecute his attackers.
Rasheed was jailed for 24 days in Male’ Custodial following his participation in a ‘silent protest’ on December 10, 2011, International Human Rights Day, calling for religious tolerance.
During the protest at the Artificial Beach he was attacked by several men armed with stones, and was hospitalised with head injuries. He was subsequently arrested on December 14.
“While the release of Ismail Khilath Rasheed is a welcome development, the fact that his attackers have not been investigated points to a serious failure of the government to end impunity for human rights abuses in the country,” said Abbas Faiz, Amnesty International’s Maldives researcher.
“Instead of defending his right to advocate religious tolerance, the government locked Ismail Khilath Rasheed up and have done nothing to bring his attackers to justice – thereby sending a message to the public that crushing a peaceful demonstration is acceptable,” he said.
Amnesty observed that radical religious groups in the Maldives were advocating that “only Sunni Islam is allowed under the constitution”, noting that opposition politicians had sided with these groups “in a political campaign against the President”.
“It is time for the Maldives government to bring to justice all perpetrators of human rights abuses – past and present – including those who attack religious minorities. The first step in this process should be to carry out an independent, impartial and effective investigation of those who used violence against Ismail Khilath Rasheed and other demonstrators on 10 December,” Amnesty declared.
In November 2011 Rasheed’s blog, www.hilath.com, was blocked by the Communications Authority of the Maldives (CAM) on the order of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, on the grounds that it contained “anti-Islamic” material.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has also issued a statement on Rasheed’s release, but expressed concern about the ongoing blocking of his blog on the order of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs.
“The journalist’s unlawful detention is a reminder that it is impossible to establish a totally free press so long as the government subjects itself to religious extremism, as displayed by the Islamic Affairs Ministry,” RSF said.
“Religion is becoming a taboo subject in the Maldives and media workers are under threat of imprisonment every time it is debated.”
“Just like Gayoom’s time”
Despite the Maldives’ international stand on human rights issues, the prisons “remain unchanged since Gayoom’s time”, Rasheed told Minivan News, following his release.
During the police investigation of his involvement with the protest, the blogger was locked for three weeks in a small, three-sided room with 11 other people. Despite the opening there was no airflow, the room was unventilated and the fan in the room was broken, Rasheed said.
The room was so small and crowded it was impossible for 12 people to fully stretch out and sleep properly, and despite provisions requiring inmates be allowed out for at least an hour’s exercise every day, no one was allowed outside during his detention, Rasheed said.
Inmates had to summon the duty officer to be taken to the toilet, which did not flush. There was no shower, and inmates washed themselves by filling a bucket at the water basin, which was also used to flush the toilet. Inmates in other cells with attached toilets were not allowed out at all.
The prisoners had no bedding apart from a small pillow, and slept on the tiles. Every three days they were given a small amount of detergent to wash the floor of the cell.
Rasheed said that the Prosecutor General (PG)’s office visited once during his detention and observed that prisoners were not being properly treated.
“There were no medical facilities, or means of treating heroin addicts going into withdrawal. One of my cellmates had a [withdrawal] fit and we had to put a slipper in his mouth [to stop him swallowing his tongue],” Rasheed said. “I held his hand.”
Most of the cell’s occupants were awaiting prosecution for drug offences, muggings, theft, and for carrying weapons.
“People had been in there for three months and were very frustrated, and were venting that frustration against the government. The Constitution sets limits to people’s detention, but people are in limbo. One guy accused of murder has been in there for 1.5 years, and still his case has not been sent to the PG’s office for prosecution,” Rasheed said.
The blogger was presented to the court following the expiration of the first 24 hour detention period.
“The investigating officer stated that I was the organiser of the protest and should be detained as I was disrupting the religious unity of the Maldives, and was a threat to society,” Rasheed said.
Police also presented Ali Ahsan to the court, developer of the December 23 protest website which had briefly published slogans calling for the murder of “those against Islam”.
Police argued that Ahsan’s release “could endanger Maldivian religious unity and even threaten life” and requested the court grant a 15-day extension of his detention.
Ahsan’s lawyers however argued that the slogans had been uploaded by hackers, and the website developer was released. Rasheed’s detention was extended by 10 days.
After 10 days in custody, Rasheed was again presented to the court.
“The investigating officer told the judge he had reason to believe I had no religion at all, and that I was promoting gay rights, and therefore my case could be concluded only after the Islamic Ministry provided me with counseling to bring me back to Islam,” said Rasheed, who self-identifies as a Sufi Muslim.
The magistrate extended Rasheed’s detention a further 15 days.
On Friday January 6, two days before he was due to be released, Rasheed was told that his case had been sent to the Prosecutor General’s office and that he was free to go.
“The day I was released a different investigating officer said I had been put in prison for my own protection – the same thing my family had been told. He said they had intelligence suggesting that a gang of brainwashed extremists were out to kill me and anybody identified as associated with the protest.”
Rasheed said he now fears for his safety and is unwilling to walk around Male’.
“The majority of Maldivians are not violent people. But I am concerned about a few psychotic elements who believe they will go to heaven if they kill me – people who don’t care if they go to jail for it. Those people I am afraid of, and I will not provoke the country in the future.”
Rasheed’s blog remains blocked, but he says he is unwilling to risk his own safety by resuming blogging anyway.
“The [silent protesters] made their point, which was in no way anti-Islamic,” he said. “Their point was: the majority of people want to eat apples, but a minority want to eat oranges. We said we have no problem with anyone eating apples, but let us eat oranges.
“We said nothing about trying to get people to leave Islam. Everyone should be able to think and practice and follow what they feel personally, and Islam teaches tolerance. Extremists twist this around, and equate it with apostasy – and call for those who leave Islam to be killed.”
Rasheed said he felt that the majority of Maldivians disagreed with extremism, and were generally “a very laid-back, moderate people who want a peaceful life. They are concerned about disruption to families and society, rather than other religions or beliefs.”