Maldives journalist flees island fearing safety

Maldivian journalist Ismail Rasheed (12 Jul)
Image caption Ismail Rasheed wants to see Maldives as a secular country

A Maldivian journalist, who narrowly survived a murder attempt last month, says Islamic extremists are pushing the country to "a very dangerous situation".

Talking to BBC News after fleeing Maldives fearing for his life, Ismail Rasheed, nicknamed "Hilath", alleged that the radicals were operating with impunity under the new government in the island nation.

The government denies the allegation and has condemned the attack.

The T-shaped wound from the slashing of his throat is painfully visible on the neck of Hilath, a blogger with liberal views who used to edit the Haveeru Daily newspaper.

At first, he could not speak and doctors gave him only 1% chance of survival. Now he talks fluently with occasional gulps to catch his breath.

The 36-year-old recalls what happened in early June in an alleyway by his flat in the capital, Male.

"Three blokes came from behind me, one held me and the other took out a box cutter [knife] and started slashing my throat.

"They even cut the tip of my fingers. Then they very calmly walked out of the alleyway as if nothing happened.

"The doctors said my trachea was cut through. I survived because a vital artery was missed by millimetres."

'Hardline minority'

He could smell alcohol on the attackers' breath and believes they were "gang members radicalised by Islamic extremists".

Hilath said he believes the island nation, with its young population, is getting more socially liberal but this has provoked a backlash from a hardline minority who object to some of his writings.

Image caption The Maldivian journalist survived because an artery was narrowly missed

He started getting regular death threats after writing in 2009 that some extremists were keeping under-age girls as concubines - something he says was borne out when police made arrests.

Later, he recounts, he leaked a video showing that a young Maldivian jihadist had blown himself up in Pakistan.

He says many of his countrymen have done the same thing in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq. While their families mourn the deaths, they try to keep it a secret from their neighbours in this tiny country.

This was the third physical assault on him since December.

He says the primary reason for attempts on his life is his conviction that Maldives should become a secular country. At present every citizen is compelled to be a Sunni Muslim.

"It is ridiculous because it infringes basic freedom of thought, conscience or religion," Hilath said.

Two years ago, a young Maldivian hanged himself after admitting he was an atheist and being widely taunted for apostasy.

'Greater intolerance'

In February, the country's first democratically elected president, Mohamed Nasheed, was forced to resign amid a police mutiny. He described it as a coup and was swiftly replaced by his former deputy, Mohamed Waheed.

Hilath says these changes have brought in greater intolerance but adds that the Nasheed administration was not blameless.

It included the ultra-conservative Adhaalath Party, which now has two cabinet ministers.

Image caption There were protests in the Maldives after the first elected president was forced to step down

The blogger says many people blame the former president for letting extremism spiral and for not putting and end to "imams' hate speech, bigotry, misogyny and xenophobia" on some media channels.

But he adds that Mr Nasheed at least acknowledged that there was a problem of extremism whereas the new government does not.

President Waheed's spokesman, Abbas Adil Riza, told the BBC that he strongly condemned the attack on Hilath and others. But he insisted that the attempted murder was a personal matter and not connected to religion.

He said the most serious radical cell was broken up in 2008 by the government preceding Mr Nasheed's, and that "only Mr Nasheed and his supporters" believed religious intolerance was on the rise.

Foreign governments, including India and the United States, have for years been concerned at the increased influence of radicals and the recruitment of some Maldivians to al-Qaeda.

Hilath said he would like to return to journalism, but for the moment felt it was not safe for him to be in Maldives now.

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