In the mid-1990s, the Hindu-Christian duopoly in Mauritian politics was shaken by the emergence of a Muslim challenge. This month Cehl Fakeermeeah, founder of the Hizbullah party, is expected to be committed to trial on what most Muslims believe are politically motivated charges. FAISAL BODI reports.
Later this month, Cehl Fakeermeeah, founder and leader of Hizbullah, the main Muslim political party in Mauritius, is expected to be committed to trial, accused of ordering the murder of political rivals six years ago. If, as seems to be inevitable, he is convicted, he will probably spend the next 42 years behind bars. The Gorah Isaacs Affair, as the murders are known in Mauritius, seems certain to end as it began, in political assassination: the death of the party he founded to give the minority Muslim community in Mauritius a means to challenge the domination of the country’s political landscape by the larger Hindu and Christian communities.
The murders that he is accused of ordering took place just before the island’s parliamentary elections in 1996; election violence is not uncommon in Mauritius. That day, three junior campaigners of the Labour Party-MMM alliance were shot as they hung up posters depicting Fakeermeeah in a sleazy light.
Fakeermeeah was arrested in December 2000, on the basis of evidence that is so dubious as to be virtually worthless. Tortured in prison and kept in isolation since, he has vehemently denied any involvement in the Gorah Isaacs murders, saying that the criminal investigation against him is a plot to eliminate Hizbullah. "It is a conspiracy of the State against God’s party. They are out of control. Behind them is only Shaitaan and they are motivated by satanic and Machiavellian ideas," he told this author in an exclusive interview recently under subterfuge in the capital’s prison, La Bastille.
Few Muslims in Mauritius believe that Fakeermeeah, a man with no previous history of criminal activity and with no motive to take such a self-destructive course, is guilty of involvement in the murders. He remains popular in his Plaine Verte heartland, retaining his council seat for Hizbullah despite his incarceration.
But the signs are ominous. A preliminary hearing, to determine whether there is enough evidence to commit him for trial, concluded last month, with its decision due on October 29. The inquiry has been dragged out for nine months and made in effect a slow show-trial, allowing the largely government-sponsored mass-media in Mauritius to try to convict Fakeermeeah in the public eye. Since September 11, the government has raised the spectre of international terrorism, suggesting that the party has links with al-Qa’ida operatives who are allegedly active on the island. Ludicrously, it has even been suggested that Hamas, the Palestinian resistance movement, was targeting Mauritian political leaders and that Hizbullah was planning to use crop-sprayers to destroy the country’s sugar-cane crop.
Publicly Fakeermeeah’s lawyers say that the circumstances of their client’s detention make a fair hearing impossible, but in private they are resigned to a show trial. Hizbullah itself has been severely damaged, maybe irreparably. With no natural replacement for the charismatic Fakeermeeah, it is simply stumbling along. Party activity has subsided since a spate of mass arrests in 2000 that affected some 120 people. What becomes of the Hizbullah experiment depends on the fate of one man.
Fakeermeeah’s fall began, predictably enough, with his rise to prominence in Mauritius in the early 1990s after his return from Makkah, brimming with the kind of reformist zeal one would expect of a man who has undergone seven years’ schooling in shari’ah. Identifying religious languor as the key problem facing the 250,000 Muslims in Mauritius, Fakeermeeah set to work reinvigorating the community, travelling the length and breadth of the island to propagate his salafi teachings.
By 1992 the charismatic Fakeermeeah was confident enough to announce the formation of Hizbullah (no relation to the Lebanese party), and put his popularity to the test in a Port Louis by-election. Hizbullah’s first electoral adventure ended in defeat, but the experience was encouraging enough — Fakeermeeah came in second with 35 percent of the vote — for the party to put up no fewer than six candidates in the next general elections, four years later. In 1995 Imam Beeharry, a preacher at the Noor-e-Islam mosque in Port Louis, was returned as the first Hizbullah member of Mauritius’ 70-seat parliament.
For the first time since independence, the country’s Hindu-Christian duopoly was under threat. Traditionally Mauritian politics has been highly communalised, with voters gravitating to one of the three heavyweights, Labour, the Mauritian Militant Movement (MMM) and the Mauritian Socialist Movement (MSN). Caught in the middle, and with no political platform of their own, Muslims had voted tactically. By the eighties they had hitched their fortunes to the rising MMM, led by Paul Berenger. "We were tired of being kicked around by Labour and the PMSD, and so when Berenger appeared we turned to him almost as if he was a saviour," recounts Rafik Halkhoury, a former Hizbullah candidate.
But the crushing opposition that Hizbullah was to face had as much to do with resistance to the "re-Islamisation" process taking root in Mauritian Muslim society. Fakeermeeah was attracting capacity audiences wherever he lectured; he even got the community’s drug addicts and lifelong criminals to join rehabilitation programmes run by Hizbullah. That’s not to say everybody in the Muslim community was happy with the new party: some opposed his salafi theology, and where theology was not an issue there was disapproval of his methods from more traditional Islamic groups such as the Tablighi Jama’at.
However, for many Muslims Fakeermeeah’s vibrant application of Islam to local circumstances was a breath of fresh air blowing away the miasma of generations of stagnation. Islam was becoming a living force on the island, and it is this fact that Fakeermeeah believes is the real reason for the enmity unleashed against him. "The threat [they see] is the liberation of a complete community imprisoned psychologically for more than 30 years. Muslims have been politically imprisoned, and since the emergence of Hizbullah a sense of liberation has entered their hearts," he said.
But even in his worst nightmares Fakeermeeah cannot have foreseen the storm that lay ahead. By 1996 Hizbullah was going from strength to strength. In the next municipal elections the party was set to win all five seats in Plaine Verte, a predominantly Muslim suburb of Port Louis, the capital. On the morning of the poll seven men — all close to Hizbullah — stole a vehicles in the village of Flic en Flac. Armed with handguns and rifles, they made their way across the north of the island in search of Raffick Goolfee, a senior campaigning agent with the MMM-Labour alliance, whose supporters had earlier that day attacked Hizbullah activists who were objecting to posters that depicted Fakeermeeah as a user of prostitutes. They did not find Goolfee but, according to Lyakkat Polin, one of their number, who is now in court charged with the murders, they came under fire as they drove by his men. In the ensuing retaliation they shot dead three Labour-MMM campaigning agents, Zulfikar Beekhy, Babal Joomun and Yusuf Moorad.
The incident was a prayer come true for the Labour-MMM coalition government. No time was wasted in exploiting Hizbullah’s misfortune. The same evening deputy prime minister Paul Berenger, the man to whom Muslims had earlier turned as a saviour, appeared on national television to point the finger at Fakeermeeah. The elections in the Plaine Verte constituencies were postponed for a week. Hizbullah’s support collapsed, with the party winning just two of the five seats. With Hizbullah now on the defensive, the authorities seized their opportunity to crush it.
After several fruitless arrests in 1996 and 1997, police got their break in 2000 when Hateem Oozeer, a career criminal who had moved close to the Hizbullah leadership through its drug-rehabilitation programme, turned himself in. Oozeer turned state witness for guarantees of immunity, ‘confessing’ that his fellow protagonists had been put up to the triple murder by Fakeermeeah.
In December 2000, as the net closed in, four of them Ozeer’s former colleagues went on the run. (three of them members of the gang which committed the triple murder) took cyanide, which they carried in capsules around their necks in case of capture. The prosecution’s entire case thus hangs on the evidence of Oozeer, who is serving eight years for acting as the driver in seven other murders. Fakeermeeah’s allies say that he negotiated a plea-bargain, part of a deal which also included the receipt by his family of a 500,000-rupee ($20,000) payment. They also say that Oozeer has been coached for his testimony by an establishment eager to see the back of Fakeermeeah and Hizbullah.
Although it seems inevitable that he will be sentenced to spend the rest of his life in jail for the murderous stupidity of a few hotheads associated with his party, Fakeermeeah himself is steadfast in his faith that good will ultimately triumph over evil.
"God will impose Himself in the end, it’s only the operation of fate that we are undergoing," he said, speaking through a double metal grill in La Bastille. "Never will God give the unbelievers a way over the believers." l
[Faisal Bodi is a UK-based journalist and editor of the Muslim news website Ummahnews (www.ummahnews.com). He went to Mauritius with a delegation from the Islamic Human Rights Commission, London (www. ihrc.org), which has adopted Cehl Fakeermeeah as a prisoner of faith.]