MALÉ, Maldives — A criminal court in the Maldives on Thursday cleared charges against two men accused of kidnapping a prominent journalist who wrote pointed critiques of the government and the spread of radical strains of Islam in this small island nation.
The 2014 disappearance of the journalist, Ahmed Rilwan Abdulla, who is still missing, preceded a brutal crackdown on local news media outlets and human rights organizations under the president of the Maldives, Abdulla Yameen, who rose to power nearly five years ago and has been widely accused of corruption and forcibly stamping out dissent.
Many believed that the disappearance of Mr Abdulla, a blogger and journalist with Minivan News, an English-language publication now called The Maldives Independent, and the incomplete investigation that followed were state-sponsored.
A 2016 documentary released by Al Jazeera about corruption in the Maldives featured a message apparently sent by Mr Yameen to the Maldives’ former home minister telling him not to worry about Mr Abdulla’s disappearance. The home minister, Umar Naseer, denied having received the message.
Mohamed Nasheed, an opposition leader and former president of the Maldives, condemned the verdict on Thursday.
“Saddened and infuriated by the latest injustice perpetrated by the state against Rilwan,” he wrote on Twitter. “Today’s criminal court sentence comes as no surprise in a case without a credible investigation or trial.”
For three decades, the Maldives, a collection of about 1,200 islands in the Indian Ocean, was governed as a moderate Islamic nation under the autocratic rule of a former president, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.
But after the country transitioned to democracy in 2008, restrictions on religious expression loosened. Under the increasing influence of Saudi Arabia, a major financial backer, conservative ideologies like Salafism spread and the Maldives became a steady source of foreign fighters for extremist groups in Syria and Iraq.
As well-heeled tourists sunbathed at the Maldives’ luxury resorts, efforts to report on extremism and corruption were violently countered in Malé, the densely populated capital. In the years since Mr Abdulla’s abduction, newsrooms have been set ablaze by masked intruders or vandalized with a rusty machete. In 2016, the government passed a bill criminalizing defamation that critics argued would curb free speech.
Last year, Yameen Rasheed, a liberal blogger who wrote satirical critiques of the Maldivian government and led a campaign to find Mr Abdulla, died after being repeatedly stabbed by assailants in his apartment building in Malé.
Before his murder, Mr Rasheed, 29, had complained repeatedly to the police about receiving death threats. The authorities often failed to return his calls or dropped his complaints without investigating them, he said.
Over the course of a long inquiry into Mr Abdulla’s disappearance, the authorities flip-flopped on whether they thought he had been abducted, and observers criticized the government for allowing a third suspect to leave the Maldives after the police released him from custody.
In an interview last year, Aminath Easa, Mr. Abdulla’s mother, angrily recalled attempts by the police to spray a pepper-based irritant into her eyes during an event marking 500 days since her son’s disappearance.
Ms. Easa said the investigation had never been transparent and that efforts to obtain information from the police were ignored.
“Everyone loved Rilwan,” she said.
In court on Thursday, the judge, Adam Arif, acquitted two men, Aalif Rauf and Mohamed Nooradheen, who were accused of forcing Mr Abdulla into a red car outside his apartment building in the early hours of Aug. 8, 2014.
Judge Arif said the police and prosecutors had left basic questions unanswered about “a dangerous atrocity conducted by a network of several people.” Mr Rauf was affiliated with a local gang that had political connections.
The police had not submitted a forensic analysis of a knife recovered outside Mr Abdulla’s apartment building, Judge Arif said. Registration details about the red car and documents verifying the origin of the prosecution’s key piece of evidence, hair found in the car that seemed to match Mr Abdulla’s DNA, were also not provided to the court.
Mushfique Mohamed, a Maldivian human rights lawyer, called the proceedings “a severely flawed trial based on a sham investigation.”
A prosecutor confirmed on Thursday that there would be an appeal. But Mr Mohamed said he was unsure whether that would make a difference, since “the judge said today that the prosecution and police were negligent.”
“The question is: How can we expect the same people to bring justice?” he said. “There has to be an independent and open forum if we want justice for Rilwan.”
After the verdict was announced, Mr Abdulla’s family members said they would not stop pressing for answers.
“We will continue to push for justice as long as it takes,” said Moosa Rilwan, Mr Abdulla’s brother.
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