The Maldives’ first democratically elected president, Mohamed Nasheed, has been convicted under the country’s anti-terrorism laws and sentenced to 13 years in prison. But his conviction, which comes two years after his ousting from power in disputed circumstances, seems to have little to do with his “crime” on paper.
Nasheed was charged with “abducting” Criminal Court Judge Abdulla Mohamed during his presidency in 2012, under Section 2(b) of the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1990, which defines “kidnapping, holding as hostage or apprehending someone against their will or attempts to kidnap, hold hostage or apprehend someone without their will” as an offence.
The charge of “abduction” was actually an order Nasheed gave for the judge to be arrested, on the grounds that he was allegedly blocking a corruption investigation against Abdul Maumoon Gayoom, for 30 years the autocratic ruler of the Maldives and a half-brother of President Abdulla Yameen. Gayoom was the man Nasheed defeated in the historic 2008 presidential election.
Nasheed was initially charged under Section 81 of the Penal Code, which states that “it shall be an offence for any public servant by reason of the authority of office he or she is in to detain to arrest or detain in a manner contrary to Law, innocent persons.”
However, the original charges were “reviewed” and terrorism charges included on Feb. 17, a few days after the Jumhooree Party (JP), led by Gasim Ibrahim, an influential resort tycoon and part of the ruling coalition, officially aligned with Nasheed’s Maldives Democratic Party (MDP). More than 10 other lawmakers from the ruling Progressive Party of Maldives were also in talks with the MDP to switch to the opposition alliance.
Yameen narrowly defeated Nasheed in the controversial 2013 presidential election, and the latter remained popular and a possible threat to the president’s dream of absolute power. In the 2014 parliamentary election, Yameen’s party and allies won 53 of the 85 seats, giving them a short at a two-thirds majority along with independent lawmakers. However, Nasheed, who managed to woo the JP and other lawmakers, snatched this possibility from Yameen.
Nasheed was clearly a threat to Yameen, Gayoom, and their supporters who were seeking to consolidate power. It’s not surprising that the court has not allowed Nasheed the right to appeal his conviction and sentencing.
The Yameen-Gayoom duo, who now seem to have little accountability, always knew of Nasheed’s potential, and had apparently been looking for an opportunity to not only oust him from power but remove him from the political scene altogether.
Nasheed, a pro-democracy activist, defeated Gayoom by a margin of nearly 10 percent in 2008, but the bureaucracy and the judiciary remained loyal to the former autocratic leader, who also controlled the parliament at the time. Lack of cooperation from officials and lawmakers almost paralyzed Nasheed’s administration.
In June 2010, the parliament sought to impeach the then education minister, Musthafa Lufthy, for proposing to make Islam and the national Dhivehi language optional, and not mandatory, in high school. Nasheed’s entire cabinet decided to resign in protest. But Nasheed chose to stay put, as his deputy Mohamed Waheed, who was from an allied party but was suspected of being close to Gayoom, refused to resign, seemingly in hope of assuming the role of president if Nasheed stepped down.
In 2012, as the paralysis continued, Nasheed reacted unwisely by ordering the arrest of the judge. Gayoom’s supporters grabbed the opportunity and allegedly organized a military coup on February 7 that year.
This is no mere struggle for power, and nor is it an entirely domestic matter. Nasheed has been fighting for democracy and civil rights, whereas Yameen and Gayoom are resorting to authoritarianism and aligning with Islamist extremist groups in the garb of “protecting” Islam.
Islamist extremism in the Maldives has been growing steadily in step with the political rivalry. The evident erosion of the independence of the judiciary and the subversion of the constitution on the archipelago should be taken seriously by the international community.
Thus far, the U.S., the U.K. and India have focused almost entirely on preventing China from taking advantage of the political crisis in the Maldives. For example, when Waheed assumed office after Nasheed’s controversial ouster, these nations hurriedly legitimized the transfer of power, fearing that Waheed would otherwise seek China’s support. This was a major diplomatic blunder, and these countries have no one but themsleves to blame as they now find themselves powerless to prevent Nasheed from being banished from politics for over a decade.
The possible absence of Nasheed from active politics could lead to the rise of extremism and autocracy, as Yameen and Gayoom continue to rule with little opposition. This, too, is a recipe for the Maldives’ to step up engagement with China – Beijing is known for not insisting on pristine democratic records.
For the rest of the world, Nasheed is clearly a better bet. Unfortunately, he’s now officially a “terrorist.”