South Asia

Rush to Hang Convict for 2012 Assassination Reopens Political Can of Worms in the Maldives

The probe and trial around the murder of  the prominent politician Afrasheem Ali four years ago raises questions about three troubled aspects in the Maldives – the judiciary, politics and religion.

(L-R) Abdulla Yameen, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and Afrasheen Ali. Credit: Reuters

(L-R) Abdulla Yameen, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and Afrasheem Ali. Credit: Reuters

New Delhi: On June 24, while the most of the world was transfixed with news on the results of the United Kingdom’s Brexit referendum, the Maldives Supreme Court upheld the death sentence of Hussein Humam – the first such order since capital punishment was reinstated in 2014 – for the murder of prominent politician Afrasheem Ali four years ago. The decision may also see the Maldives carrying out its first execution in 60 years.

“This is not us anymore,” an anguished Jeehan Mahmood, former Maldives Human Rights Commissioner told The Wire. “We were a humane, humble group of people. Nobody demanded the other to be killed when we were growing up… death penalty was not something we believed we would ever have to fight”.

Humam’s case has been in the middle of Maldivian politics for a while, with former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom now publicly criticising the implementation of the death penalty through a tweet posted at about 3 am local time on Friday.

The tweet came after an unprecedented press conference held in Malé on the night of June 30 by Gayoom, the leader of the ruling Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM). In one fell swoop, he made public the shadow-boxing between him and his half-brother, current President Abdulla Yameen. The move was precipitated by ruling party MPs not following Gayoom’s appeal to vote against a government bill that allowed for islands to be leased without bids. Only Gayoom’s son, Faris Maumoon, voted against the legislation in parliament. Earlier in June, Gayoom refused to accept a petition from Yameen’s supporters that the latter be granted a party ticket for the 2018 presidential polls without primaries.

At the press conference, Gayoom did not directly refer to the death sentence against Humam, except to make a general criticism of the judiciary. “Recent decisions of the government have clouded the vision of this party. Several recent incidents have also cast doubts over the justice system in the country,” he said. His early-morning tweet left no space for ambiguity. A graduate of Al-Azhar University who maintained the moratorium on the death penalty during his 30-year reign, Gayoom’s public criticism of the Yameen government’s position carries major import.

Gayoom’s statement that the state is obliged to carry out qisaas (retributive justice) only in accordance with Islamic law was a direct reference to developments at the Supreme Court. On June 23, a letter was delivered by a representative of Ali’s family to the court at around 8:30 pm. Ali’s father and brother asked the country’s highest court to delay the death sentence till the investigation was complete. “He tried to submit the letter, but the administrative staff refused to accept it. They claimed that the document can only be submitted during working hours. But the court itself convened for a session beyond working hours,” Abdulla Haseen, Humam’s lawyer told The Wire.

The Supreme Court had called the session at 10:30 pm, but it began only at around 1:10 am. When the session started, Haseen said that he planned to present the letter by the family. “I raised my hand, but the chief justice did not allow me to speak. He said that the session was to give their order, not to hear arguments”.

In less than an hour, the chief justice had upheld the death sentence awarded by the lower courts.

The principle of qisaas is legally accepted under the Maldivian legal system, which allows the victim’s family to either call for death or issue a pardon, even after the accused is found guilty by the Supreme Court.

“Under sharia law, the family’s wishes have to be accepted, even if it is at the very last minute,” said Haseen.

Meanwhile, time is running out for Humam. A week before the verdict, then home minister Umar Naseer announced that the death penalty will be “implemented within 30 days” after the end of the appeal process. He also announced that statutes had been changed to allow for hanging, rather than lethal injection, the method mandated by legislation.

“I really don’t understand where this 30-day limit has come from. It is completely unconstitutional,” said Mahmood. According to Maldivian news website Sun Online, no such law has been published in any government gazette.

A murder and its fallout

The year 2012 was pivotal in the Maldives – its impact is still being felt. Eight months after the government led by the Maldives Democratic Party (MDP) collapsed (triggered by then President Mohamed Nasheed stepping down ‘under duress’), political divisions in the country only sharpened. His vice-president Mohamed Waheed was now ruling with the help of a cobbled coalition, which included the PPM and the Adhaalath Party.

Yameen was widely expected to be the PPM’s face at the next presidential elections, whenever they were held. But there were also other names floating around – Ali was one of them.

Ali stood out for his moderate views as an Islamic scholar in the Maldives, where extremist voices were crowding out less strident ones and finding opportunistic political patronage.

On the night of October 1, he took part in a television show where he admitted that his views may have been misunderstood. He left the studio to go home. The next morning, his wife found him at the threshold of their apartment building. He had been ferociously stabbed, to the extent that a piece of his skull was missing, media reports claimed.

His funeral prayers were led by Gayoom and attended by politicians from across the spectrum. The police launched its biggest investigation yet, joined by consultants from the FBI.

Within the first 24 hours, the police arrested four suspects, including Humam. The arrest of the son-in-law of the then MDP chairman and the detention of two MDP party members led the opposition to accuse the police of being interested only in laying the blame on the other side of the aisle. The MDP-connected arrestees were released, but not before being behind bars for an extended period of time.

Even as suspects were arrested and let off – except for 22-year-old Humam – the omnidirectional finger-pointing to find the “mastermind” never stopped. Religious radicals, opposition members and even the highest officers in the land were all accused by their detractors of being responsible for this political murder.

Police commissioner Abdulla Riyaz claimed that it was a “well planned murder” with a contract of $260,000.

In January 2013, only two of the suspects, Humam and Ali Shan, were charged. That year, Yameen won the party primaries to be the next presidential candidate. His rival at the inter-party polls, Umar Naseer claimed that he had seen one of the suspects at a PPM office and even linked Yameen to the murder. Naseer, who later became home minister, then said that it was just “political rhetoric”.

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It was during the 2013 presidential campaign that Yameen announced that his party would bring back the death penalty – but it’s origin lay within PPM’s deliberate portrayal of Nasheed and MDP as secularising forces in a deeply conservative Muslim nation.

“The call for implementation of the death penalty was originally issued by the nationalist-Islamist coalition led by PPM as part of the hardline religious rhetoric they used against the then MDP government,” said Yameen Rasheed, a Malé-based political analyst.

According to Maldivian author Azra Naseem, Salafism has found fertile ground in the Maldives, with students from the island nation turning to Saudi Arabia for religious education. “The spread of Salafism in the Maldives over the last two decades has been astonishing. Salafi clerics and graduates from Saudi Arabian educational establishments now dominate all religious discourse in the country, to the exclusion of all other religious voices, strands of thought and teachings. Their demand for only-Sharia based law in the Maldives has been growing increasingly loud. Ending the moratorium on the death penalty appeases them,” Naseem told The Wire.

The death penalty “makes Maldives less of ‘a place of sin’, which is one of the main reasons Maldivian fighters in Syria give for choosing to emigrate”, added Naseem.

Interestingly, one of the four suspects originally arrested for Ali’s murder, former soldier Azlif Rauf, travelled to Syria in January 2015. His family said in May 2015 that he died fighting, although Maldivian security officials are apparently skeptical of such claims. He is one of the many Maldivians who have travelled to Syria to fight in the civil war. In South Asia, the Maldives is perhaps the highest supplier, in proportion to its population, of foreign fighters to the Syrian civil war.

Naseem pointed out that no independent, non-aligned Salafi clerics have spoken out against the ruling, despite the Supreme Court not taking into account the family’s request for temporary reprieve. The only prominent Islamist criticism was by Abdul Majeed A. Bari, a former minister of Islamic affairs in Nasheed’s cabinet. A member of the Adhaalath Party, now part of Maldives United Opposition, Bari tweeted that even if one family member of the victim opposes death penalty, Islamic sharia forbids carrying out an execution.

Naseem believes that the Yameen government’s eagerness to bring back the death penalty could also be a consequence of the Maldives’ foreign policy. “The Salafi clerics are schooled by Saudi Arabia, by appeasing them, the government also appeases its Saudi government backers. The Maldives and Saudi governments have promised to work together to streamline their religious ideologies – what ‘better’ way to show this Saudi-Maldivian religious unity than adopt the same system of punishment in the two countries?” Naseem asked.

The Saudis are, perhaps, Yameen’s most generous foreign friends, with the US and the EU critical of the government’s policy of putting opposition leaders behind bars. Recently, the Maldivian government broke off diplomatic ties with Iran – a move widely believed to be a result of these close ties. The Maldives government’s backing of a constitutional amendment to allow foreign ownership of land was also believed to be due to Saudi, rather than Chinese, interests.

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Humam was sentenced to death by a criminal court on January 16, 2014. In less than a week, home minister Naseer signed an order authorising death by lethal injection.

The second suspect, Ali Shan, was acquitted by the criminal court due to lack of evidence. The state never appealed against this judgment.

On the first day of the hearing at a high court in April 2015, Humam retracted his confession and denied all guilt. He, however, added that President Yameen and his then closest aide, tourism minister Ahmed Adeeb, “will know best” the details of the crime. This comment unleashed a political storm. As the opposition raised fingers at the government, Naseer tweeted that the murder was “planned and funded by well-known MDP activists”. In September, the high court upheld the death sentence pronounced by the criminal court.

The Supreme Court took three months after the appeals process began to uphold the death sentence.

There was international criticism from the UN, Germany and the EU. Local human rights group, such as the Maldives Democracy Network, called for a retrial, while the MDP condemned the “blatant disregard” of the family’s request by the Supreme Court and termed the late night hearing as “farcical”.

On the morning of June 27, Haseen met with the family of Ali. “I was very close to Afrasheem. We had studied together in Malaysia, so I know the family well,” he said. After the meeting, he submitted the application for review of the Supreme Court order. “I attached the family’s letter which calls for the delay of the death sentence”.

Even as they awaited for the appeal to be heard, the government moved at full speed. The government gazette on June 27 published amended regulations to allows ‘death by hanging’ as capital punishment.

On Thursday, Ali’s brother Abdul Nasir Ali reiterated the family’s position that since the investigation was not complete, Humam should not be killed as his “testimony is vital to the probe”.

However, Maldivian government officials nit-picked that the family had not granted a pardon to Humam.

“I believe the family does not say that they do not want qisaas… If they don’t want qisaas, they should take up the matter with the president, as he is the next step after the committee orders the execution,” chief prosecutor Aishath Bisham told the Maldives Independent. She is part of the three-member committee that advises the Maldivian president on executions.

According to Rasheed, Humam’s case was not driven by strong religious sentiment, but by cold political calculations. “I wouldn’t characterise the lifting of the moratorium on capital punishment as an indication of Salafist influence on the government. It is in fact a step closer to the Egyptian model, where the autocratic state uses the courts to intimidate opponents using death penalties. The Humam case is serious, as the president himself had been previously accused (until recently) by home minister Umar Naseer of being involved in the assassination. The eagerness to execute Humam suggests strong political motive,” he said.

As the government goes ahead with preparations for the execution to be implemented in a month, Haseen has been busy in his own efforts to get a legal reprieve for his client. “After the Supreme Court confirmed the sentence, Humam asked me what can we do. I told him that I will do everything possible”.

Haseen described himself as optimistic about Humam’s chances, but felt that a greater conspiracy had still to be unraveled. “Humaam is a small-time gang member, just a street boy. He doesn’t have capacity to mastermind and do sophisticated crimes….There are 17 prisoners on death row before my client. Why is the government moving so speedily in this case? What’s the hurry?”

The sudden support from Gayoom, even if due to political in-fighting, is therefore timely. “It will create more doubts about the sincerity of the government of implementing death penalty. He (Gayoom) is a prominent sharia scholar. He clearly knows that death penalty could not be implemented with any doubt. This case is not investigated properly and it is politically motivated,” Haseen said to The Wire on Friday morning.

Jeehan Mahmood also termed Gayoom’s remark as unexpected, but welcome. Explaining its significance, she said, “It means that the most prominent person of the ruling party believes the Supreme Court decision to execute Humam is wrong! That the government is going ahead with with their plans to kill him is illegal, as far as Shariah law is concerned, and that if they do carry out this killing everyone involved will have to be held accountable for violating the Islamic shariah”.