Maldives

Mindless in Male

Print edition : May 01, 2015

Former President Mohamed Nasheed arrives at a court in Male on February 23. Photo: ADAM SIREII/AFP

President Abdulla Yameen. Photo: V. Sudershan

The Abdullah Yameen government gets former President Mohamed Nasheed a 13-year jail term for the arrest and detention of a judge and manages to bar him from political activity by pushing a law through the People’s Majlis.

ONE OF THE MOST POPULAR LEADERS IN Maldives, the convicted former President Mohamed Nasheed, can no longer be a member of the party he nurtured, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), or for that matter any party.

On March 30, the 85-member People’s Majlis, or Parliament, adopted 42-2 an amendment to the Amendment to the Maldives Prison & Parole Act, narrowing down the basic rights guaranteed for convicts. One provision is to disqualify those serving a prison term from holding the membership of any political party. The MDP alleges that the move, coming close on the heels of the questionable conviction of Nasheed, is designed to remove him from active politics.

The Abdullah Yameen government, which has been hounding Nasheed since 2013, insisted it had nothing to do with the functioning of the archipelago’s courts even as a Male court, in a tearing hurry, convicted Nasheed on terrorism charges on March 13. By implication, Nasheed, the first democratically elected President, who won the nation’s first multiparty election held in 2008, is now a terrorist. He was arrested on February 22 and dragged into a court to be remanded.

A three-judge Bench took barely three weeks to convict and sentence Nasheed, for the “arrest or forceful abduction and detention” of a senior judge, Abdulla Mohamed, in January 2012 when he was in office. This was labelled an act of terror. In a trial that was quirky in many ways, Nasheed was initially denied legal representation on a technicality, denied the right to appeal, and the defence witnesses were prevented from taking the stand. Nasheed’s legal team resigned subsequently, stating that the court had refused them proper time to prepare a defence. The Bench that passed the sentence included two judges who had acted as witnesses for the prosecution.

Nasheed’s appeal

On hearing the verdict, Nasheed, who was in court without his lawyers, made the courtroom a platform for his dramatic speech: “Beloved citizens of Maldives, I appeal to all of you today to stay courageous and strong; to confront the dictatorial power of this regime,” he said in Dhivehi, according to an MDP release. “To change this government and work towards forming a government that would pave the way for the people’s development and prosperity; to not be afraid of being arrested or facing a long sentence; to take all of your lives in your hands and to go out onto the streets in protest. Do not consider either the security of your personal lives or the transitory happiness of your wives, husbands, children, parents and relatives; for the security of all of your children and their children is in jeopardy,” he said.

The hasty trial was condemned by the United Nations, Amnesty International, the European Union, the United States and the United Kingdom for the absence of due process of law. India was “deeply concerned” and was “monitoring the situation”, a spokesperson of the External Affairs Ministry said.

Transparency Maldives, a local non-governmental organisation (NGO), expressed “grave concern” over the sentencing “despite a number of irregularities in the legal process”. Nasheed was “denied legal representation, denied the right to appeal, his legal team denied adequate time to build a defence against the new charges of terrorism”, the NGO noted.

The three-line statement issued by the French government was eloquent and to the point: “We have noted the sentencing of former President to 13 years in prison. France wishes to reiterate the importance of the right to a fair trial, which is a founding principle of democracy. We call on the Maldivian government to stand by its international commitments in this field.”

None of this made any impression on the Maldivian government. In another Supreme Court order, tailored to incarcerate Nasheed without a chance of appeal, the court said that an appeal had to be preferred in 10 days. “But the Criminal Court has informed the lawyers it will take up to 14 days to release their court proceedings,” said MDP’s international spokesperson, Hamid Abdul Gafoor, who was also arrested on flimsy charges in Maldives, and is now living in Sri Lanka, in a self-imposed exile.

“President Nasheed’s trial is becoming ever more like Alice in Wonderland. At every step, the Yameen regime has violated Nasheed’s rights, while the courts break the law and the Constitution with impunity. Democracy is dead in Maldives. In its place, we have thuggish authoritarian rule,” he added.

Prison facilities controversy

Soon after the court verdict, Maldivian Home Minister Umar Naseer said in his Facebook post that he had “asked the police to hold Raees Nasheed in Dhoonidhoo Detention Centre until a special unit is constructed in Maafushi Prison”. The politically correct Minister also posted on social media that the “Govt guarantees the safety, welfare & protection of former Prez Nasheed while in state custody. He’ll be treated with respect & dignity.”

Clarifying on the facilities that the government was constructing for the former President, Umar Naseer posted on Facebook at 7-13 p.m. on March 15: “MNasheed's 264sqft Prison apartment: 1room, sitting room, furnished, AC, TV, VCD player. Garden 1087 sq. ft. Live with other inmate-friends”, prompting a sarcastic comment from one of his Facebook friends, Rasheed Mohamed: “Hon Home Minister... wat about sending President Nasheed to night fishing once a week?”

But the MDP believes that there is a sinister motive behind the location of the cell. “Nasheed’s lawyers fear that the cell—which Naseer is trying to portray as semi-luxurious—is in fact an attempt to hold Nasheed in effective solitary confinement, away from other prisoners,” the party said in a statement. “The legal team is also seriously concerned about the health and safety of the inmate of the cell, which is located near the jail’s garbage dump. The use of this particular cell was discontinued after the Human Rights Commission of Maldives and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent determined in 2009 that it was unfit to hold people,” it added.

The MDP has new allies in the resort owner Qasim Ibrahim of the Jumhoorie Party and the Adhalaath Party. A series of protests and other events have chocked Male since Nasheed’s incarceration. Nasheed has made it clear that he has no faith in the courts and is now looking at a political solution. But the protests are not making any headway with the government maintaining that the President cannot intervene in a terrorism-related case. The next presidential election is scheduled for 2018.

In a move to garner the support of government officials, Yameen’s Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) government has promised to allot apartments, at below the market rate, to officials holding high-ranking positions, including chairs of selected independent oversight bodies, and judges.

This is a throwback to the Maumoon Abdul Gayoom era when perks and privileges were reserved for those who supported the government unquestioningly. Gayoom ruled the country with an iron hand for three decades, until 2008. Buying loyalty with incentives rose to the level of a fine art under him. Transparency Maldives, while conceding that the state can provide privileges to its officials based on their need and for the duration of the employment of each individual, voiced its concern that the flats were to be permanently contracted by the executive to officials holding time-bound positions of the state. “The offering of arbitrary privileges to public officials holding high-ranking positions and the acceptance of such privileges will undermine public trust in these institutions,” it said in a statement.

Modi’s diplomacy

Even as Maldives teeters on the edge, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who takes great pride in being his own External Affairs Minister, struck the biggest blow to India-Maldives relations by first letting the word out that he would be visiting the archipelago nation and later announcing that he would not.

When the Prime Minister’s itinerary was announced on March 6, Maldives was the lone Indian Ocean country within India’s sphere of influence that was missing. “On his first visit abroad in 2015, Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi will be visiting Seychelles, Mauritius & Sri Lanka from 10th to 14th March,” a press release from the External Affairs Ministry said. There was no mention of Maldives; nor was any question raised at the Foreign Secretary’s well-curated press conference as to why Maldives was missing from the list.

But the Maldivian government was expecting Modi to visit the country. This was clear from the interactions this correspondent had with an important Maldivian Minister. Although there was no statement from either country, it was amply clear that the February 22 arrest of Nasheed made Modi drop Male from his itinerary, even as India sought to strengthen maritime cooperation and security in the region.

In the perception of the Maldivian government, India had succumbed to the wishes of the MDP. While the media-savvy MDP has managed to get its point of view across in the Indian media, the PPM, with a bunch of reticent politicians who believe that the battles have to be fought in the 200 inhabited islands of the archipelago, barely seek out members of the foreign press corps.

But the slight did not go unnoticed by the highest authority in Maldives. Barely a few days after Modi decided to drop Maldives from his ill-advised tour of the Indian Ocean countries, President Yameen hit back asserting that foreigners will not be allowed to meddle in the domestic affairs of his country.

“In the work we’re doing in the Maldives we will try to do things in accordance with our laws and Islamic principles. And if the consequence of that is people from distant nations finding it unacceptable, that is their problem. But we are not going to give up an inch of our country’s sovereignty to foreign parties,” Yameen told a private gathering on March 8, according to a Maldivian news website, Minivan News. “We wouldn’t want foreigners from different countries coming here to criticise what we do and telling us what to do. So that is not something we will give any room for,” he said.

India-Maldives relations have nosedived, despite the fact that senior Maldivian politicians have met top Indian leadership at regular intervals. Both Yameen and his half-brother Gayoom have met Modi in New Delhi and have established a working relationship with the new faces in South Block. One observer, who did not want to be identified, wondered how India would achieve its stated objective of securing the Indian Ocean in its immediate neighbourhood if it did not involve Maldives in the project. Structured defence cooperation between the two countries could be traced back to 1988, when India helped abort a coup in the country, but that did not confer any blanket rights on India, the observer pointed out.

In many ways, the PPM government is not doing anything radically different from what Mahinda Rajapaksa did in Sri Lanka until he was defeated in the presidential election recently: neutralising political threats with offers of posts or foisted cases and hobnobbing with China. Although the similarities end here, there are some broad parallels. Sri Lanka had to wait nearly three decades for an Indian Prime Minister to visit the country.

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