Just over three months ago, in a brazen regression of democracy, the former president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, was manhandled and physically dragged to a show-trial at the hands of a stacked court. He was found guilty on charges of terrorism and sentenced to 13 years in prison (the terrorism charge is based on the arrest of Criminal Court Judge Abdulla Mohamed during Nasheed’s presidency). Nasheed is notable for being the small Indian Ocean island state’s first democratically elected president after over 30 years of autocracy.
Nasheed’s treatment at the hands of the incumbent government, led by President Abdulla Yameen, is a testament to the poor state of the rule of law in the nascent democracy. To make matters worse, other senior opposition leaders, from both the Jumhooree and Adhaalath parties, are on trial on terrorism charges. A crackdown on anti-government protesters in early May further illustrated the disintegration of democracy in the Maldives. (The Diplomat‘s Vishal Arora recalls the events leading to Nasheed’s current fate here.)
On June 21, Nasheed was transferred to house arrest, with Yameen’s imprimatur. According to the Maldives’ Minivan News, Yameen made the decision after consulting with the attorney general. The report notes that members of the president’s cabinet, including the home minister, were “reluctant” about the transfer, but that the president was insistent. Nasheed’s transfer was in part necessitated for health reasons. He is current undergoing medical tests and will reportedly return to normal imprisonment at some point in the future. According to the Maldivian tourism minister, Ahmed Adeeb, the duration of Nasheed’s house arrest will depend on his medical condition.
Yameen is eager to portray Nasheed’s transfer to house arrest as an act of magnanimous clemency. In reality, the move comes after months of diplomatic pressure and international criticism against his government. Though events in the Maldives haven’t made page one headlines, they have caught the attention of international diplomats and non-governmental organizations, including Amnesty International, which described Nasheed’s initial conviction as “politically motivated.” Recently, the Canadian government has pushed the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) to “urgently put the deteriorating situation in the Maldives on its formal agenda.”
Along similar lines, the Asian Center for Human Rights (ACHR) has called for a release of “political prisoners,” including Nasheed, in the Maldives. The United States noted concern at the “apparent lack of appropriate criminal procedures during the trial” back in March. In Sri Lanka in early May, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry reiterated concern over the apparent erosion of democracy. Recently, U.S. Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Jack Reed (D-RI) recommended that the United States work with India to restore democracy in the Maldives. In Europe, the European parliament in late April adopted a resolution condemning what it saw as “serious irregularities” in Nasheed’s terrorism trial.
International pressure on the Maldivian government is certainly building. But Yameen’s government shows few signs of seriously reconsidering its current approach of intimidating its opposition with a farcical trials that make a mockery of the rule of law in the country. Nasheed’s brief reprieve from imprisonment shouldn’t deter continuing regional and global pressure on this government. India, the most proximate regional power, continues to demur on an appropriate response, though it showed some limited resolve when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi neglected to include the Maldives on his Indian Ocean diplomatic itinerary in March (he visited Sri Lanka, Mauritius, and the Seychelles instead).
A worrying trend for observers in India and elsewhere is the jump in Chinese investment and interest that has accompanied this decline in democracy. Last week, Chinese Vice President Li Yuanchao met with Yameen in Kunming, China; the two followed up on the broad bilateral agenda that had been set during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s September 2014 visit to the country. Additionally, both private and public investment capital are flowing into the Maldives, keeping its tourism-based economy largely on track.
The future of democracy and the rule of law appear bleak in the Maldives, and those interested in seeing Nasheed and the opposition treated with dignity have little in their policy toolkits to affect political realities in Male.