By Charles Tannock
08 June, 2015
With Amal Clooney, the human rights lawyer who recently married the actor George Clooney, acting as your advocate, you would think that your case would grab headlines. And yet Mohamed Nasheed – the Maldives’ first democratically elected president, who was just sentenced to 13 years imprisonment for unnamed “terrorist offenses” by the military-backed government that overthrew him in 2012 – seems to have fallen off the world’s radar.
This is bad news for the Maldives, where the fate of a fledgling democratic regime is inextricably tied to that of Nasheed. And, with radical Islam gaining traction on the archipelago, it does not bode well for the rest of the world, either.
Nasheed’s predecessor, Maumoon Gayoom, who won the presidency in a 1978 parliamentary vote, adopted an authoritarian style, and subjected the country to three decades of misrule. While Gayoom oversaw the archipelago’s transformation into a popular holiday destination, it was he and his associates – not ordinary citizens – who benefited from the tourist industry’s success.
Nasheed’s victory in a free and fair popular vote in 2008 offered the promise of a brighter future for the conservative Muslim country. The new president – who is intelligent, eloquent and enthusiastic about what his Maldivian Democratic Party could deliver for the Maldives – introduced a more secular tone to political rhetoric, while working to impress upon the world the threat to his low-lying island country posed by global warming.
Toward the end of his first term, Nasheed initiated a comprehensive reform of the judicial system – an effort that did not go down well with the judiciary, which was dominated by Gayoom’s appointees. The arrest in January 2012 of the chief judge of the supreme court, Abdulla Mohamed, on charges of corruption and malpractice was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Military and police forces supported opposition-led street protests, and Nasheed was forced to resign the following month, succeeded by his then-deputy, Mohammed Hassan.
When new elections were held in 2013, politically motivated charges were brought against Nasheed to prevent his participation. Ultimately, Nasheed did contest the election, which was marred by irregularities, including the annulment of the original first round, in which he won the most votes – 20 percent more than his nearest rival. And yet Nasheed accepted the result: a victory for Gayoom’s half-brother, Abdulla Yameen.
Having refused to leave the country or retire from politics, Nasheed is now besieged by his rivals, who are seeking to deny him any chance to mount a political challenge. A new law banning prisoners from membership in political parties, coupled with his imprisonment, has cost Nasheed his position as president of the MDP.
Following Nasheed’s trial, his former defense minister, Col. Mohamed Nazim, was also imprisoned, for a period of 11 years, for offenses relating to weapons smuggling. Three more of Nasheed’s political associates are reportedly facing charges, and many supportive journalists and opposition parliamentarians have been arrested. Most recently, an arrest warrant was issued for Qasim Ibrahim, the leader of Jumhooree, another opposition party.
This selective use of criminal justice, aimed at ensuring the dominance of the Progressive Party of Maldives, the Gayoom dynasty’s political vehicle, does not bode well for democracy. Worse, the government’s increasing embrace of Islamist influences – it imposed Shariah law last year – has attracted ISIS recruiters, with anywhere from 30 to 500 Maldivians (from a population of just 345,000) already fighting for the jihadi group. Some Maldivians are finding the hard-line Wahhabi influence at home, together with the promise of a secure income from ISIS, to be a potent lure.
This is not the only area where the Maldives is getting caught up in geopolitical events beyond its borders. China’s rise – in particular, its naval aspirations in the Pacific and Indian Oceans – is also presenting challenges for the Maldives’ leadership. As part of the so-called “string of pearls” strategy, China is seeking to encircle South Asia by building a network of naval bases stretching across the Indian Ocean from Hong Kong to the coast of Yemen.
There was speculation that Sri Lanka might host one of those bases; but this may no longer be politically viable, following President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s surprise defeat in January’s snap presidential election. China is now said to be reconsidering Marao, one of the Maldives’ largest islands, as an alternative. The recent cancellation of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit in response to the arrest of Nasheed, with whom the Indian leader had close ties, is also likely to encourage Yameen to seek a closer alliance with China.
Putting the Maldives back on the path toward democracy requires that the world begin to pay attention. The Commonwealth of Nations should suspend the Maldives until Nasheed has been released and pardoned. Countries can place economic pressure on Yameen’s government by issuing travel warnings to tourists thinking of visiting the Maldives, while holding out the threat of targeted sanctions as well.
The Maldives is in danger of throwing away its chance at genuine democracy. It is in the interests of the international community – and especially the West – to prevent that outcome. A democratic Maldives – a country that fights the causes of extremism and pursues neutral relations with its neighbors – would bring untold benefits to the archipelago and beyond.
Charles Tannock is a member of the foreign affairs committee of the European Parliament. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate © (www.project-syndicate.org).