Every morning, Aminath cleans her son’s bedroom. She makes his bed, dusts his books, stares at his pictures hanging on the walls, and waits. It has been three years since last time she saw him, but her hope is strong. Maybe Ahmed will come back tonight, maybe tomorrow. Or maybe next summer. And when he is back, his room will be as clean as when he left.
Ahmed Rilwan is a human rights defender and journalist from the Maldives. He has written extensively about corruption, human rights violations, and the growing religious extremism in his country. He was a reporter for the independent newspaper Minivan News, and known for his brave investigations and hard-hitting articles exposing corrupt politicians.
Ahmed was last seen on August 8, 2014. At 1 a.m., CCTV cameras filmed him on his way home, boarding the ferry from Malé to the island of Hulhumale. He was wearing a black T-shirt, black trousers, and carrying a backpack. The 28-year-old journalist was living alone. No one noticed that he did not return home that night. Four days later, after several unanswered calls, his family reported him missing. Police officials waited another 29 hours before going to his home, and 11 days before checking his office.
When Ahmed’s family and friends realized the authorities were not interested in finding him, they began searching for clues all over the island. Speaking with Ahmed’s neighbors, they learned something the police hadn’t told them: on the night of August 8, the neighbors heard someone screaming and saw a man dragged at knife point into a red car. They couldn’t see the victim’s face: they only noticed he was wearing dark clothes and a backpack. They immediately called the police, who found a knife but did not open an investigation.
Ahmed’s family also found the last available image of him on CCTV footage in the ferry terminal, which the police had already reviewed without noting anything. In September 2014, the NGO Maldives Democracy Network – together with a British investigative agency – published a report saying that CCTV cameras had also filmed two men who were following Ahmed on the night of August 8.
Despite this evidence, it took until April 2016 for police to admit the human rights defender had been abducted, most likely by a gang called Kuda Henveiru. They also said that two suspects had been arrested in 2014, but were released because of lack of evidence. According to the police statement, the two suspects left for Syria and died there. Two more people were arrested last year and released after a few months.
“Police have always denied they had information on Ahmed’s case. They waited more than 600 days before saying this was not the case of a missing person, but an abduction,” says Safa Shareef, a human rights lawyer who has been accompanying Ahmed’s family in their struggle for truth and justice. “Three years have passed and now the family wants to know only one thing: whether Ahmed is still alive or not. How can a mother have some peace of mind if she doesn’t know if she has to cry for a killed son or keep waiting for his return?”
Last month, during a press conference about growing violence in the country, a politician mentioned Ahmed’s name in the list of people who had been killed. “The government might know something, but the police keeps denying it. If someone knows what happened to Ahmed, his family must be the first to be informed,” Safa says.
Despite the impunity and lack of support from authorities, Ahmed’s family and colleagues have not stopped seeking justice. They printed his pictures, plastered them across the island, and launched the website “Find Moyameehaa” (referring to Ahmed’s twitter handle @Moyameehaa, “Mad Man”). They have organized several protest marches. Last December, Ahmed’s family filed a case against the police, asking them to release the information they have under the Right to Information Act.
“On August 8 we went to the streets, to mark the third anniversary of Ahmed’s abduction,” says Safa. “It was a peaceful protest, but the police attacked us. They used tear gas and they arrested eight people. My colleagues and I had to go to the police station to help those who were unfairly arrested. Rather than finding those responsible for Ahmed’s disappearance, they criminalize those who are seeking justice.”
In an article published to mark two years since Ahmed’s disappearance, human rights defender and blogger Yameen Rasheed wrote:
Rilwan’s mother did such a wonderful job of raising a decent, kind and compassionate son. In her old age, she deserves to be retiring in peace – not pepper-sprayed or pushed around by police, or desperately begging on the streets for information about her child. Despite all this, Rilwan’s family – his mother in particular – has been a shining example of courage. Refusing to suffer in silence, they channeled their distress and sorrow into action. I had never met Rilwan’s family before the tragedy. But seeing their extraordinary, superhuman efforts over [the] years, I am convinced that courage is perhaps genetic.
Yameen was a close friend of Ahmed, and one of the first to campaign to find him. In his blog “The Daily Panic,” Yameen criticized the powerful economic, political and religious elites of his country. Like Ahmed, he made many enemies because of this.
On April 23, 2017, Yameen’s body was found on the stairs of his apartment in Malé. He had been stabbed and died shortly after being taken to hospital. For years, Yameen had received threats; he reported them to the police, but received no protection.
The Maldives, commonly known as a luxury travel destination, hides a dark side that most tourists do not see. After decades of military dictatorship, former political prisoner Mohamed Nasheed was elected president in the first free elections in 2008, but democracy did not last long. In 2012, Nasheed was forced to leave office and after 18 months of political turmoil Abdulla Yameen, half-brother of the former dictator, became president.
Since then, the human rights situation in the Maldives has deteriorated dramatically. Independent journalists report increased threats and attacks, and human rights defenders are often forced to work underground as they fear attacks from authorities, police, criminal gangs and extremist groups.
In the Maldives, free voices speaking up against corruption and human rights abuses risk their lives. Yet, as Safa says, Ahmed’s mother and the other activists are not going to give up. Until they find the truth, they will keep struggling.
On the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances, Front Line Defenders honors the struggle of human rights defenders seeking justice and the families of those forcibly disappeared.
Lorena Cotza is a Project Consultant with Front Line Defenders, the International Foundation for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders.