The Pulse

Trouble in Paradise: Democracy Retreats in the Maldives

Former Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed has been sentenced to 13 years in prison on terrorism charges.

Trouble in Paradise: Democracy Retreats in the Maldives
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The political crisis that emerged in the Maldives last month, after former President Mohamed Nasheed was physically dragged to a show-trial at the hands of a stacked court, took a turn for the worse on Friday. Nasheed, the country’s first democratically elected president after 30 years of autocracy and, most recently, the leader of the opposition, was sentenced to 13 years in prison. He was found guilty on charges of terrorism for ordering the arrest of a judge back when he was president in 2012 — an event that ultimately triggered the end of his administration via an effective coup. Abdulla Yameen, the current president, has initiated a crackdown on the opposition amid waning support. Nasheed’s arrest all but confirms that the Maldives’ nascent democracy is firmly on the retreat.

Judge Abdulla Didi, the presiding juror over the case, noted that “The prosecution’s evidence proved beyond reasonable doubt that Nasheed ordered the chief judge’s arrest or forceful abduction and detention on Girifushi island” back in 2012. Nasheed’s supporters claim that the case was motivated by the political interests of the current regime. The decision was unanimously supported by the three-judge panel that heard Nasheed’s case and was upheld by the office of the president. Last month, as The Diplomat reported, Nasheed was unceremoniously dragged to court. His treatment at the hands of security personnel drew protests in which pro-government supporters clashed with opposition supporters. International observers, including India and the United States, expressed concern following Nasheed’s arrest.

According to reports by Reuters and others, Nasheed’s sentencing did not result in an immediate profusion of political chaos in Male. Opposition supporters had dispersed by the time of Nasheed’s sentencing. Following his sentencing, Nasheed issued a statement in which he called on his supporters to “confront the dictatorial power of [the Yameen] regime.” He added that his supporters ought “to change this government and work toward forming a government that would pave the way for the people’s development and prosperity.” Based on Nasheed’s statements and earlier protests, the former president’s arrest could pave the way for broader clashes and political violence in the Maldives.

As I noted earlier, the political crisis in the Maldives puts India, the most proximate regional power, in a position where it has to act. Already, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi canceled a scheduled visit to Male amid concerns over the state of democracy in the country. With Nasheed’s arrest, New Delhi risks having the Maldives slip out of its strategic area of influence entirely. The Yameen government reacted harshly to Indian concern over its handling of Nasheed’s case. The Maldivian foreign minister, Dunya Mamoon, issued a statement noting that Male “will not take instructions from a foreign government.” Nasheed and the Maldivian opposition more generally are considerably more pro-India than the Yameen government. Given Indian concerns over Chinese strategic encroachments into the Indian Ocean, New Delhi will be eager to see a fair trial for Nasheed and, more importantly, guarantees that Maldivian democracy is not regressing.

For the moment, the Yameen government is giving observers in New Delhi and elsewhere little cause for optimism.