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Foreign Policy

Benedict Rogers: The Maldives have gone from Paradise to Hell

This week’s foreign policy column is by Benedict Rogers, a writer and human rights activist specialising in Asia. He is Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, and was PPC in the City of Durham in 2005. He visited the Maldives in 2006.

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A year ago, a cabal of opportunists, corrupt judges, the old dictator’s henchmen and radical Islamist clerics joined forces in an unholy alliance to topple the Maldives’ first democratically elected President, Mohamed Nasheed. In what can only be described as a coup d’etat dressed up as a voluntary resignation, the country’s fledgling democracy was dealt a crippling blow. The assailants stuck a knife into the Maldives’ infant democracy. Over the past year, they have twisted that knife. And in the past few days, they have hit the knife with a hammer to ensure the wounds go deeper.

Until 7 February 2012, the Maldives was a success story: a Muslim nation that had undergone a seemingly peaceful transition from one of Asia’s longest-lasting dictatorships to a new democracy, with a free press, improvements in human rights and a growing civil society. Mohamed Nasheed is the Nelson Mandela or Aung San Suu Kyi of the Maldives – after years of imprisonment, torture, solitary confinement and house arrest, he emerged without bitterness, worked with the last regime’s reformers to chart a transition to democracy, won the country’s first free and fair elections, and refused to seek revenge or even justice against his nemesis, the old dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.

In some respects, Nasheed, or ‘Anni’, was too gracious and forgiving. He allowed Gayoom and his cronies to remain at large, to scheme and plot and turn the tables against him. He proved unable to root out corrupt judges, placed in the judiciary by Gayoom, and when he tried, the vested interests turned against him. The coup was cleverly and creatively orchestrated so that it could be presented as a legitimate transfer of power; Anni’s Vice-President, Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan, was in on the plot and when Anni was offered a choice of whether to resign or face bloodshed – his own, his family’s and that of his supporters – in the face of a military and police mutiny, he stepped down and Dr Waheed replaced him. The international community was too slow to realise the gravity of the situation and too quick to abandon Anni and recognise the Waheed regime. Yes, technically Anni resigned – but when a gun is held at your held, whether literally or figuratively, is there really much choice? When a democratically elected President is forced from office, along with his entire Cabinet, by gun-toting soldiers, it looks pretty much like a coup d’etat to me.

Waheed ripped up respect for human rights, the constitution and democracy, locked up many supporters of Anni’s party, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), and beat up anyone who protested. Amnesty International has described the situation as “a human rights crisis”; the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) published From Sunrise to Sunset: Maldives backtracking on democracy.

In addition to thuggish beatings of opponents typical of any dictatorship, the Waheed regime has copied the methods of the Burmese junta in its treatment of Anni. Just as the Burmese Generals scrambled around to find laws under which they could charge democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi in the past, and put her under house arrest with some semblance of legitimacy under their own law, so Waheed is desperate to disqualify Anni from contesting future elections by using the law against him. Last October Anni was arrested and jailed for several days, before being released under international pressure. Last week, a court order was issued for his arrest, and this time he sought refuge in the Indian High Commission, where he remains.

Image 2In the past few days, protests in the Maldives have grown, numbering an estimated 7,000-8,000, and Waheed’s regime has responded brutally. On Friday night 58 people were arrested after police in full riot gear charged a peaceful march. Those arrested are mostly prominent MDP politicians, including former Home Affairs Minister Hassan Afeef, former Defence Minister Amin Faisal, and Ahmed Saeed, Anni’s representative to the government’s sham Commission of Inquiry set up to investigate the events surrounding his resignation. Many were subjected to brutal treatment – Hassan Afeef’s niece Zeenath Zaki was beaten, and her mouth forced open while police sprayed something down her throat. She became critically ill, and is in intensive care. Former Defence Minister Amin Faisal was arrested at the hospital while visiting her.

On Friday night, I received shocking reports of what was happening. One witness described one act of police brutality to Raajje television:

 I climbed upstairs having heard the sound of shouting and crying and stood watching .. She had fallen and I clearly saw her being dragged off ... she was just on the ground, writhing. Before that, when I was standing upstairs, I saw her being dragged off, and saw them doing inhumane things (ill-treat). So I stood in front [of police officer] and argued and said if you are going to kill us, you kill both of us together ... I don't know what kind of injuries she had sustained but what I saw was her hands being brought round her back ... and saw her being dragged off and when I got there, saw her writhing [on the ground]. And when she began writhing, the police officer there did like this with their foot as well ... and when at that time she began to writhe and I got nearer, they told me not to touch her. So I could not touch her while the police were there. Then I saw very clearly that she had froth coming out of her mouth and at that time, she went limp. When they put her inside the vehicle, she was completely limp.”

A key question at the heart of all this, though, is why won’t Anni face the charges? And there is a simple answer: because there is no way he would receive a fair trial.

In its report of its observations of the trial so far, the Bar Human Rights Committee concluded that “a primary motivation behind the present trial is a desire by those in power to exclude Mr Nasheed from standing in the 2013 elections”, and notes “international opinion that this would not be a positive outcome for the Maldives."

Firstly, he is not being asked to stand before a normal court. Instead, a special tribunal has been set up at the controversial Hulhamale Magistrate Court, set up by the Judicial Services Commission (JSC) specifically for this purpose. Where in the world is a defendant tried in a specially convened court? It is, frankly, like a scene in Alice in Wonderland – Justice Adam Mohamed, Chair of the JSC, brought the case against Anni to the Supreme Court. However, Justice Adam Mohamed also sat on the judges’ bench to rule in his own favour. Nowhere in the world, not even North Korea, would an appellant be allowed to sit on the judges’ bench and rule. The Chief Justice Ahmed Faiz has ruled that the Hulhumale Magistrates Court is not legitimate – but his view was disregarded.

Secondly, Gasim Ibrahim, the Republican Party’s presidential candidate for the next elections, and one of the richest men in the Maldives, and one of Gayoom’s henchmen, is a member of the Judicial Services Commission which set up the Hulhumale court. A conflict of interest, methinks.

It is clear that Waheed, Gasim, Gayoom, Justice Adam Mohamed and their cohorts have been watching too much Alice in WonderlandThey have promised fresh elections, and the international community have been calling for these to be free and fair. These elections can only be free and fair if the politically-motivated bogus charges against Anni are dropped, and he is permitted to be a candidate in the elections. If he is disqualified, then any hope of stability or credibility is dashed.

The international community must take a number of steps. First, they must press for the charges to be dropped, and for Anni to be free to contest the elections. Second, they must press for serious reform of thejudiciary  – something Anni attempted, albeit too late, and it was his undoing. As long ago as 2004, Professor Paul Robinson argued that the Maldivian judiciary was fatally corrupt and flawed. Since then, the situation has deteriorated even further, with the Gayoom family stacking the judiciary with barely educated appointees who owed allegiance to them. Indeed, even the Maldivian Government – yes, the current one, Waheed’s regime – admitted in July last year to the UN Human Rights Committee that the judiciary’s independence is compromised. If Waheed’s own government is admitting that to the UN, how can Anni expect a fair trial? Drastic reform is needed.

Finally, it is good that India has stepped in to provide Anni sanctuary in their High Commission. India must be encouraged to continue to provide him with protection, because his life would be in grave danger if he fell into the hands of the authorities. It is not just a question of his right to a fair trial, or his right to contest elections. His right to life is now at stake. Waheed’s kangaroo court is out for Anni’s blood, and only a concerted effort by the international community, including India, can protect him.

Ultimately, we all have to ask ourselves some very profound questions. We backed reform in the Maldives; we supported Anni’s efforts as President; David Cameron reportedly described him as his new ‘best friend’. Are we going to now turn our backs on him, and more importantly, on the Maldives’ hard-won democracy, or are we going to help restore freedom? We must come off the fence, stop appealing to all sides for‘restraint’ as if all were equally culpable, and back serious democratic change. Corrupt cronies and radical Islamists do not make good allies. Democrats who respect the rule of law, reform the judiciary and promote human rights are more likely to be reliable partners.

It is in all our interests to make this past year nothing more than a sorry chapter in the Maldives’ history, and to help that archipelago turn back to the path of freedom and reform. Global warming and rising sea levels threaten the Maldives, and Anni became a world leader on climate change as President. Are we going to let the hopes of Maldivian people for real democracy sink into the sea along with their islands? It is in all our interests to prevent the destruction of the Maldives, whether by dictatorship, radical Islamism, corruption or climate change. It is time to act, to free the Maldives.


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