While many religious ‘crimes’ are not individually spelled out under the penal code, wide berth is given for the prosecution of ‘hudud‘ crimes under Sharia law. The penal code grants judges discretion to impose Sharia penalties, including apostasy and blasphemy
The law prohibits public statements that are contrary to Islam and violators face penalties ranging from two to five years in prison or house arrest.
In 2014 police officials confirmed that they were investigating atheist social media for non-compliance with this prohibition (see “Highlighted cases”, below).
Kidnap and intimidation of atheist Facebook users
In June 2014, around 40 men, including known religious extremists and local gang members, abducted several young men who had advocated for secularism and/or gay rights, in a spate of kidnappings in Malé City, with the apparent aim of intimidating online secular activists and taking over “blasphemous” pages. (See “Highlighted cases” below).
Analysts have raised concerns over the growing threat of extremism in the Maldives. A recent report by the US State Department expressed concern over radicalization of youth groups and said funds are being raised in the Maldives to support terrorism abroad. Maldivian media have also said they feel threatened by religious extremists and gangs.
Human rights defender and blogger Yameen Rasheed, who work as an IT professional, was found stabbed to death in the stairwell of his apartment in April 2017. He had been an ardent campaigner for justice in the case of the apparent ‘enforced disappearance’ of his friend Ahmed Rilwan (see below). Yameen had also made a series of satirical posts about the spread of radical Islam and the Maldivian government through his blog The Daily Panic. And he was previously arrested along with others in 2015 after taking part in an anti-government rally in the capital. Mr Rasheed had in the past reported receiving regular death threats to police, but had failed to get a response and often his complaints were dropped without investigation. Four men on trial for the murder denied the charges in November 2017.
In a series of kidnappings in June 2014, several perceived atheists and homosexuals in Malé city were detained and intimidated by large gangs of approximately 40 men. The abductees were interrogated on their beliefs, tested on passages from the Quran, and asked to recite the Shahadha (Islamic creed). The men were accused of atheism and homosexuality, and threatened with death. They were forced to hand over their Facebook account passwords and pressured to identify the administrators of the ‘Secular Democratic Maldives Movement’ and ‘Maldivian Atheists’ on Facebook. The Maldivian Democratic Party made a statement on the kidnappings, saying, “The extremists blindfolded the young people, took them to remote locations against their will, threatened them with sharp weapons, threatened them with death, issued sentences in a vigilante trial and are now implementing these sentences…” Sources suggest all individuals were later released, but were locked out of their social media accounts and warnings about “blasphemy” appeared on the commandeered pages. Minivan News reported that members of the vigilante group had been photographed in a meeting with Islamic Minister Sheikh Mohamed Shaheem Ali and youth groups who were protesting against homosexuality and the “harassment” of Islam, along with a meeting with the Home Minister Umar Naseer.
During the period of the kidnappings, a group of men including a man referred to in Minivan News by the pseudonym Adam Ghafoor were attacked by a mob of eight at a café. The attackers accused them of atheism and homosexuality. (The group had met for breakfast after having been at a gym, and so were dressed in shorts and t-shirts, which attire seems to have sparked the accusation of homosexuality.) One of the attackers is reported as having said, “You homosexual atheists are destroying our country – we will not stand back and watch you do it.” He asked Ghafoor to recite the Shahada. Members of the group then attacked Ghafoor and threatened him with further violence or death if they saw him again.
One of the Facebook Pages hijacked on 8 June 2014 was named ‘Colourless’. It had been run by liberal activists, and had 4,865 members, with the aim of bringing a “divided nation to a common ground as a platform to advocate peace, love and harmonic co-existence.” Having stolen passwords, the new administrators changed the group’s banner to the black Shahadha flag, and the whole page was later deleted. One of the administrators, Jennifer Latheef, said that she and the other administrators had received death threats along with warnings from Facebook users over the preceding months to remove comments they found offensive. The group decided to allow free speech but asked members not to attack or insult the religious beliefs of others. Another Facebook group called ‘Shariah4Maldives’ then posted pictures of the administrators.
Having covered the kidnappings, a Minivian News journalist Ahmed Rilwan who had himself been linked to the Maldivian Atheists Page, then disappeared in August 2014. Reports suggest that he was abducted at knife point from outside his apartment building. Minivan News, an independent online publication, subsequently received a death threat in the form of a machete through their premises door and an SMS text reading: “You will be killed next”. Minivan News and Raajje TV were then issued with arson threats and evacuated by police. A report commissioned by the Maldivian Democracy Network NGO, linked radicalised gangs to the disappearance. The Maldives Police Service subsequently announced the arrest of three suspects in connection with Rilwan’s disappearance, but also criticised marches protesting their slow handling of the case. Journalists for a number of news publications that covered the story have received anonymous threats warning of further violence if they don’t drop their coverage. Meanwhile, Rilwan’s family, friends and colleagues have continued to raise concerns about the speed and current conclusions of police investigations.
There were rumours that Rilwan was connected to the Maldivan Atheist Facebook Page, thought prominent fellow blogger Hilath Rasheed (see also Rasheed’s own case below) said in September 2014 that he knew the admins at least by nickname, and that Rilwan was not one of them. The accusation was a “cheap trick”, he said, to turn the public against Rilwan so they would move on and forget that the authorities had failed to bring anyone to justice in connection with his disappearance.
Officials confirmed in March 2013 that they were investigating “anti-Islamic” social media activity. Though the “investigation” had a broader purview, the Facebook Page “Dhivehi Atheists/Maldivian Atheists” appears to have been at the forefront. The Page had been accused of “insulting God” and posting “offensive” cartoons, by the religious conservative Adhaalath party. Liked by 300 users, the majority of the posts were in local Dhivehi language, and the page encouraged Maldivians to leave Islam and “choose the path of science and reason”. Several posts made by visitors accused various people of being behind the Page and threatened to kill them. Many visitors have stated that the administrator had been identified as a woman.
A closed (i.e. private) group called “Against Dhivehi Atheists / Maldivia” <facebook.com/groups/standagaistdhivehiathiest/> says of itself: “The main purpose of this group is to report to facebook about the page [Dhivehi-Atheists-Maldivian-Atheists] Please add as much friends as you can, and spread the message”. This tactic may have worked, since as of December 2015 the original page <facebook.com/pages/Dhivehi-Atheists-Maldivian-Atheists/> is not accessible.