‘If I get stabbed, you were the last person to talk to me’

Murdered Maldivian blogger spoke of being under threat from religious extremists

Yameen Rasheed, a liberal blogger who wrote satirical critiques of the Maldivian government and the spread of radical Islam, in Male, the Maldives, on February 17th. Photograph: Adam Dean/New York Times

Yameen Rasheed, a liberal blogger who wrote satirical critiques of the Maldivian government and the spread of radical Islam, in Male, the Maldives, on February 17th. Photograph: Adam Dean/New York Times

 

“If I get stabbed, you were the last person to talk to me,” said the liberal journalist and blogger Yameen Rasheed in early December 2016, after our first Skype conversation.

I spoke to him for the final time last Saturday night, about an hour and a half before he was found inside the stairwell of his house, on the brink of death. Although he had been stabbed 16 times on the chest, head and neck, he still had a slight pulse, but shortly afterwards, in the early hours of Sunday, he was declared dead.

Yameen Rasheed (29) was one of the most prominent writers in the Maldives. In this small country, it was impossible for Maldivians to not know who he was, at the very least to have heard his name.

He was a blogger and journalist who strived to tell the truth despite being subjected to numerous death threats. He wrote satirical blog posts that critiqued the Maldivian government and the spread of radical Islam. He knew he was under threat but in our conversations he wore the danger to his life lightly, sometimes to my great frustration.

I originally got in touch with him last December, from my home in Cork, to interview him about the missing Maldivian journalist, Ahmed Rilwan, for a college assignment for my journalism course. Rilwan was abducted in August 2014 and has been missing since. Rasheed spearheaded the campaign to find him, and kept news of his disappearance within the public sphere.

An IT professional by day, Rasheed worked relentlessly and tried to figure out what happened to his journalistic colleague. He ran a satirical blog in English called The Daily Panic, which was heavily critical of Maldivian government policies and in which he voiced his concern about religious extremism in the tiny South Asian island nation.

He was vocal about his beliefs and not afraid to point out how the regime used religion as a tool to manipulate people. Given all of this, I was initially surprised by how soft spoken and modest he was – a proper gentleman. However, there was a calm ferocity to him that he masked with witty and sarcastic undertones.

He had been good friends with Rilwan, another courageous journalist, and before the latter’s disappearance, they used to joke about “who would be next” in terms of getting attacked. Rilwan believed it would be Rasheed because he was the more daring, the bolder one of the two of them. “Unfortunately it turned out to be him,” said Rasheed to me, during one of our chats.

Police inaction

From our first conversation, I knew we would hit it off. There is nothing like two Maldivians becoming great friends through a mutual loathing of the authoritarian government. We talked about corruption and how change was necessary in the country. Despite our agreement on politics, I was startled, at first, by the strength of his opinions.

Rasheed questioned me on everything and anything. “But why? Why do you believe that?” he would say, again and again. He was direct from the beginning, the embodiment of a proper journalist, who wouldn’t let me get away with sweeping statements.

We spoke many times between last December and April, often joking sarcastically about the death threats he received in the past. At some point in our conversations, I used to say, “Stop trying to die at every opportunity you get,” to which he would retaliate with something equally sharp like, “Made it home. Didn’t die even once.”

I often used to message him on my way home from college, to find he was out and about during the early hours of the morning, when it was surely not safe for him. One time, I jokingly messaged him asking if he had died. He replied with a sad face emoticon and said no. He said, “Some day you will ask me this. And turns out that I did indeed die.”

Sadly, he was right. In hindsight, it may seem strange to have made jokes about such serious and ultimately deadly threats, but making light of them was Rasheed’s way of coping, of letting off steam.

He reported the death threats to the police but nothing was done. In an interview with the New York Times this year, he said that the police often failed to return his calls or dropped his complaints without investigation. In the Maldives there is widespread doubt the force will investigate his death properly, and many – including the main opposition party – have called for an international investigation.

Rasheed stated on social media that he was not particularly afraid of death but also said he did not fancy the thought of being killed at the hands of religious extremists.

Many journalists have come under frequent attack in the Maldives in recent years. The government passed a defamation bill in August 2016 which restricted journalists from speaking against it and Islam. However, Rasheed continued to write critically about the government and constantly took the Maldivian police force to task for being incompetent in Rilwan’s case – it took them nearly two years to admit that he was indeed abducted.

People are under the illusion that Rasheed has been silenced forever. It is a misconception because he spoke his mind. He had what many journalists lack today – bravery and courage.

Rasheed was a humble soul who did not have a high opinion of himself but he was a champion of free speech. His words will resonate five, ten years from now and will be testament to the atrocities occurring in the Maldives, which is not the paradise western tourists may believe it to be.

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