IN February this year, when Abdulla Saeed, the Chief Justice of the Maldives Supreme Court, tried to restore constitutional order in the Indian Ocean archipelago nation, perhaps he did not realise the situation he was getting into. Presiding over a full bench, the judge ordered the release and retrial of all political prisoners, including former President Mohamed Nasheed. A furious President Abdulla Yameen, accustomed to the judiciary playing ball with his government, had other ideas.
Two days later, Justice Abdulla Saeed found himself in a jail cell. In a swift in-camera trial that lasted about three months, he and a brother judge, Justice Ali Hameed, were sentenced by their colleagues “for committing treason against the Constitution and acting against their oath of office”. While the proceedings were conducted in-camera, the judgment, pronounced on May 10, was open to the public. Justice Saeed was found guilty of influencing official conduct and sentenced to nearly two years in prison. Hussain Shaheed, the judge who presided over the trial, had earlier recorded his statement against Justices Saeed and Hameed. More charges, including that of terrorism, await conclusion against the judges. In short, both the judges are being put away for a very long time—or until such time as Yameen is in power.
The judges are not the only prominent citizens behind bars in the Maldives run by a whimsical Yameen. Apart from the judges, those sentenced include two former Presidents, two former Vice Presidents (one in jail, another in exile), several Members of Parliament (12 opposition MPs have been told by the Maldives National Defence Force that they will not be allowed to enter the Majlis (parliament) building), the leader of a major political party, a former prosecutor general, a magistrate, a judicial administrator and a former police commissioner.
Of the three former Presidents, only Mohamed Waheed, who was elevated to the post under questionable circumstances on February 7, 2012, has not been persecuted. Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who ruled the Maldives with an iron hand for about three decades and who is also Yameen’s half-brother, has been in jail for over 100 days; Mohamed Nasheed, elected President after the first democratic multiparty elections in 2008, was jailed and is currently in self-imposed exile. Nasheed, who was serving a sentence after a hurriedly conducted trial, was allowed to go abroad for treatment and has not returned. Even Vice President Ahmed Adeeb has been jailed on charges of trying to murder Yameen.
In short, anyone who has dared to oppose Yameen has been put behind bars. As the rest of the world watches, Yameen prepares to contest the 2018 presidential election after having disqualified all possible contenders to the post. The Election Commission, too, is in Yameen’s corner. In a blatantly partisan move, despite the fact that the presidential election is only a few months away, one of the members of the Election Commission recently resigned to take up responsibility as a state Minister.
Harassment of opposition party candidates who are perceived as potential threats continues unabated. On May 13, Nasheed tweeted that Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) MP, Mohamed Aslam, whom Nasheed had appointed as manager for the presidential primaries, had been summoned to the criminal court. Nasheed further tweeted: “The ongoing political persecution of opposition members must stop for free and fair elections to take place.”
Though the opposition is united behind Gayoom and Nasheed, there are fissures. Nasheed has always believed in an Indian intervention to set things right, but not many of his partners in the fragile but united opposition want this. The arrest and continued incarceration of Maumoon led to a minor unpleasant exchange between Mohamed Nasheed and Gayoom’s daughter, Dunya Maumoon, on Twitter. After Dunya appealed to India to secure Gayoom’s release, Nasheed, never one to lose an opportunity to rub it in, tweeted: “I am pleased @dunyamaumoon—Prez Yameen’s former foreign Minister and @Maumoongayoom’s daughter—understands the need for Indian intervention in the Maldives. I have always held the same view.” This forced Dunya to reply publicly: “With due respect Former President @MohamedNasheed, I am not calling for Indian Military intervention. You would no doubt agree with me on the need to protect the sovereignty and independence of Maldives whilst maintaining Indian Ocean stability.”
Despite the differences, the parties are going through the motions ahead of the presidential elections. The largest party in the country, the MDP, has said that it will hold the presidential primaries on May 30. In the end, the united opposition might decide on a joint candidate; but for now, all political parties are also carrying out their internal democratic processes so that they are not caught off guard. Their best hope appears to be the intervention of the powers in the region, and the United States.International response
India, which was openly critical of the Yameen regime until recently, has changed tack. There have been some attempts at mending the broken relationship from both sides. But the irritants in the relationship—such as the massive Chinese presence in the archipelago nation—remain. The U.S, the United Kingdom, the United Nations and the European Union have called for free and fair elections in the country and also demanded that Nasheed be allowed to contest. As of now, this looks like a tall order. President Yameen is unwilling to open up any democratic space in the Maldives, and there is not enough pressure on him to do so. The critical voice of the Indian establishment has been inexplicably subdued after the Modi-Xi summit, and China has so far not spoken against the Yameen regime. The struggle for democracy in the Maldives enters a very new phase with the united opposition realising that it has to manage the struggle on its own.