Hulhumale: A journalist who went missing in the Maldives five years ago was killed by a local affiliate of al-Qaeda, an investigator has said, publicly acknowledging for the first time the hardline group's existence and efforts to silence liberal voices in the Indian Ocean island nation.
Ahmed Rilwan Abdulla, whose disappearance in 2014 shook the Maldives, was forced into a car at knifepoint outside his home on the island of Hulhumale and taken to a boat out at sea where he was killed, said Husnu Suood, the head of a presidential commission set up to investigate the case.
Speaking to reporters on Sunday, Suood said the commission's nine-month investigation found that then-President Abdulla Yameen tried to "divert the focus" of the police investigation, while his former deputy tried to obstruct justice in the case.
The findings addressed long-unanswered questions over the journalist's fate and prompted an outpouring of grief. In a statement, Rilwan's family said it heard the commission's conclusion with "deep sorrow" and called for protection for witnesses in the case.
Officials in the Maldives, a popular Indian Ocean holiday destination, have previously denied the existence of hardline Islamic groups in the Sunni Muslim state, despite a spate of attacks against people advocating the practise of moderate Islam and freedom of belief.
The attacks include the killing in 2017 of a prominent blogger, Yameen Rasheed, who led a campaign to find Rilwan.
"Those who organised and financed Ahmed Rilwan's abduction and Yameen Rasheed's murder are the same," Suood, a former judge, told a news conference in the Maldives' capital, Male.
"We have to root this group out. They are dangerous."
The inquiry commission was set up by President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, who assumed office last year vowing to fight corruption and free politicians jailed under his predecessor Yameen, who presided over a wide-ranging crackdown on dissent during his five-year rule.
Solih also promised justice for Rasheed's killing and Rilwan's abduction.
Rilwan worked for Minivan News, an English news website now named The Maldives Independent, and was long known to the al-Qaeda-linked group because of his blog posts about its presence in the Maldives and his participation in a 2011 protest calling for freedom of belief in the Maldives, said Suood.
The demonstration was attacked, with counterprotesters hurling rocks and wounding several people.
"After the confrontation, the Jihadi hardline group compiled a hit list of people they believed were mocking religion and began issuing death threats," said Suood.
A year later, in 2012, one writer who participated in the rally had his throat slit while another fled the country fearing for her life. A legislator, a well-known Islamic scholar, was also hacked to death in his house.
Police failed to investigate the first two cases, while an investigation into the politician's death is ongoing.
Rilwan's disappearance two years later set off a wave of protests in Male, with his family accusing officials in Yameen's government of complicity. Police cracked down on the campaign, pepper-spraying his mother and detaining his brother at one protest.
The Maldives Independent's office was also attacked, with a machete lodged on its door. Several of Rilwan's family members and friends reported receiving death threats.
Weeks before his abduction in August 2014, the 28-year-old journalist wrote a series of reports on Maldivians joining armed groups in Syria's war, said Suood. Rilwan contacted one of the Maldivian men fighting with al-Nusra Front in Syria seeking comment for a report and was told: "Your days are short".
The fighter, identified as Yameen Naeem, accused Rilwan of being an apostate and of passing information to Maldivian police and others on the al-Nusra Front's recruitment efforts in the Maldives, said Suood.
Naeem was killed in Syria in September 2014.
Al-Nusra Front split from al-Qaeda in 2016 and is now known as Hay'et Tahrir al-Sham.
Since 2014, scores of Maldivians have travelled to Syria and Iraq to join the group as well as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS). Officials of Yameen's government said the cases were isolated, describing allegations of al-Qaeda and ISIL recruitment in the Maldives as an effort by the then-opposition to damage the country's lucrative tourism industry.
But Suood said the leader of the group enlisting fighters for al-Nusra Front travelled to Pakistan and met senior al-Qaeda leaders there.
He said the local groups linked to al-Nusra Front and ISIL targeted disaffected young men in the Maldives. Their recruitment effort was financed by a vast network of businesses, including cafes, fishing boats and shops selling textiles and vegetables.
Several people linked to Rilwan's disappearance have now fled to Syria, according to Suood. That included two young men who were caught on camera following Rilwan on the night he went missing.
The pair were arrested over the case in September 2014 but released weeks later at the intervention of the then-Minister of Tourism Ahmed Adeeb, who was appointed the Maldives' vice president a year later, the investigator said, citing text messages obtained from the former official's phone.
"Based on these facts, we are recommending charges of obstruction of justice against Ahmed Adeeb," he said.
"We also have evidence that then-President Abdulla Yameen attempted to divert the focus of [the] investigation," he said, alleging the former leader had the police consult a sorcerer to find out Rilwan's whereabouts. But Suood said there wasn't enough evidence to recommend charges against Yameen.
An investigation also found Yameen told his former home minister not to worry about the journalist's disappearance.
"No need to be overwhelmed by Rilwan case," Yameen told the home minister Umar Naseer in a text message.
Naseer confirmed receiving the message after initially denying it.
Ali Shah, a lawyer for Yameen, dismissed the allegations against the former president, saying his client had "pressed for investigations into killings during his time in office". Yameen is now on trial on charges of money laundering.
Adeeb has previously denied involvement in Rilwan's case.
On Sunday, Rilwan's family called for the prosecution of all those linked to his killing, "including those who organised and financed" the murder, as well as "senior government officials who obstructed the investigation".
The Maldivian Democracy Network, a human rights group, also called for police protection for witnesses, saying the commission's findings "showed the involvement of dangerous terrorist groups who remain free”.