Through a deft post facto damage-control, the Government of President Abdulla Yameen seems to have diffused and warded off – at least for the time being – what threatened to be a major diplomatic incident for Maldives, and involving the US and Russia, the two ‘Cold War’ era competitors who havce lately been flexing their political muscles in distant Europe.
The issue relates to the arrest of a Russian national on Maldivian soil, and his immediate handing over to waiting US marshals, who flew him away, seemingly without giving Male enough time for second thoughts – and naturally so. How things shape may now depend more on how events play out on the domestic front in Russia and/or on the international arena relating to the Russo-American stand-off/trade-off in the ‘Ukraine-Crimean crisis’ which refuses to die down, than on anything Maldivian.
Maldives was literally and possibly unknowingly caught in the Russo-American politico-diplomatic cross-fire after the local police reportedly arrested Roman Valerevich Seleznyov, the 30-year-old son of a Russian parliamentarian, whom the US has claimed was a ‘hacker and bank fraud’ wanted by American courts since 2011. Seleznyov was apprehended at the Ibrahim Nasir International Airport (INIA) in Male and handed over to the US Secret Service – though a slightly different version has claimed greater credence.
Russia sought an immediate explanation from Maldives. Valery Seleznyov, the parliamentarian-father of Roman, even wanted Moscow to impose economic sanctions on Male, for allowing three waiting US marshals to fly away with his son. He also claimed that the US flew his son to the western Pacific territory of Guam, where not all protection under US civil laws were available/applicable, for his son to seek relief.
MP Valery charged the US with ‘kidnapping’ his son for a (possible) trade-off against the return of Edward Snowden, a sub-contractor of the US’ National Security Agency (NSA), who has taken refuge in Russia after leaking top-secret American phone-and-email tapping records the world over. Thankfully for the US – and possibly for Maldives, too – the Russian Government is not known to have shared the parliamentarian’s claims linking the US action now to a Snowden ‘trade-off’.
‘Abduction’ and ‘outrage’
Either owing to domestic pressure, or the opportunity to hit the US once more in the prevailing circumstances of ever-dipping bilateral equations, the Russian Foreign Ministry lost no time in coming down heavily on the ‘Cold War’ era adversary. “It is not the first time that the US resorts to de facto abduction of a Russian national, ignoring the bilateral 1999 treaty on mutual legal assistance” ministry said. With much of the rest of the world media reporting near-nothing on the episode – it’s true in India, too – the Maldivian media reported that Russia had compared the Seleznyov incident to two other extradition cases. One was of Viktor Bout, whom the US claimed was an arms-dealer. The other related to an alleged drug-smuggler Konstantin Yaroshenko. They too were “forcibly taken to the US from third countries and convicted on dubious charges”, the Russian Foreign Ministry claimed in its early reactions to the Seleznyov incident.
Moscow simultaneously claimed that Maldives had not kept them informed of the imminent arrest, and called upon Male to provide the necessary explanations. “The stance of Maldives’ authorities cannot be but outraging, since despite the existing international legislation norms they allowed another country’s special service to kidnap a Russian citizen and take him out of the country,” the ministry said further. Independent of ‘sovereignty’ issues that may be weighted in Male’s favour, in practical terms, these were strong Russian words against a small country like Maldives.
Seleznyov’s father advised fellow-Russians not to travel to Maldives, whose economy is heavily dependent on international tourism. Whether he had this alone in mind when he demanded ‘economic sanctions’ against Maldives, or something more specific pertaining to possible abrogation/cut in government-to-government arrangements is unclear.
As the Maldivian media recalled, in September 2013, Russia had issued a travel advisory, asking its citizens to avoid countries where US law- enforcement can arrest and extradite its citizens. Would Maldives’ name be found on the Russian list, if any, too is unclear. It is another matter that according to available statistic, the Russian market for inward tourism in Maldives “deteriorated further posting a negative growth of 7.5 percent for the period from January to May 2014. Market share of Russia stood at 6.4 percent at the end of the period”.
‘Cyber crook’, says US
According to the US, Seleznyov was arrested by the US Secret Service and was transported to Guam Island where he was presented to a court. He is under detention until a second hearing on July 22, the US has clarified since. In a related development, US Attorney for the Western District of Washington, Jenny A. Durkan, in a statement thanked the US Secret Service for apprehending Seleznyov. “Cyber crooks should take heed: you cannot hide behind distant keyboards. We will bring you to face justice,” said Durkin, who also heads the US Justice Department’s Cyber-crime and Intellectual Property Enforcement Sub-committee of the Attorney-General’s Advisory Committee.
According to the American statement, Seleznyov was indicted as far back as March 2011 in the Western District of Washington for hacking into point-of-sale systems at retailers throughout the country between October 2009 and February 2011. He is said to have been involved in the criminal underground for carding (verifying validity of stolen credit card data), where he is known as “Track-2??.
In this, Seleznyev is accused of engaging in a bank fraud scheme, hacking into retail POS systems and installing malicious software on them to steal credit card numbers. He is also accused of creating and operated infrastructure – among the servers that hosting carding forum websites selling stolen credit card numbers.
“The arrest of Roman Seleznyov is yet another example of how the Secret Service continues to successfully combat data-theft and financial crimes,” according to Robert Kierstead, Special Agent in Charge of the US Secret Service Seattle Field Office. “The Secret Service utilised state-of-the-art investigative techniques to dismantle this criminal network. Our success in this case and other similar investigations is a result of the extraordinary work of our investigators, and our close work with our network of law-enforcement partners,” the Maldivian media quoted US official statements as saying.
The US statements clarified that Maldives acted under its own law in the matter. Yet, the local media also referred to the fact that the current passenger-identification system installed at the Male airport was a gift from the US. If they had questions if the same had been linked to American computer-aided person/passport identification systems installed elsewhere in the country other than that of the Interpol’s, to facilitate tracking and detaining persons ‘wanted’ by the US, the media has been silent over flagging such issues – at least thus far.
Procedural lapses, if?
In between, the Opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) lost no time in bringing out the nation’s purported embarrassment through media statements, and laying the blame at the doorsteps of the Yameen Government. The MDP statement claimed that Seleznyov was not accorded ‘consular services’ from the Russian Embassy in Colombo before his detention, nor was a court order obtained under the law in Maldives for his arrest.
It is another matter that the MDP, which is now being seen as more sympathetic to the ‘Russian cause’, as if by a matter of principle, was more inclined towards supporting the American line in international fora when party leader Mohammed Nasheed was the nation’s first democratically-elected President, but short-lived in the post (2008-12). At the time, Maldives was seen as backing the US line UN fora, boldly inviting Israeli farm scientists and medical doctors to work in the country despite the nation’s traditional reservations flowing from the ‘Palestine issue’. The one issue that keeps coming to mind from that period was the reported Maldivian decision to accept a Guantanamo Bay detainee at American instance – though domestic protests put paid to the proposal before long.
No detention order from court?
According to social media claims, the criminal court in Maldives had declined to issue the detention order, indicating that the airport detention was the last-ditch but successful effort at ensuring that Seleznyov did not jump the American coup. These reports also indicated that Chief Judge of the Criminal Court, Abdulla Mohamed, whom the MDP Government had detained in January 2012, but restored later, was at the centre of the current controversy attending on the possible denial of detention order against Seleznyov.
The reports also indicated that the Russian Embassy in Colombo might have been brought into the picture post facto, and not before Seleznyov’s detention and transportation to Guam. Whether the official Maldivian intimation to Russia came before Seleznyov’s father’s public statement or not remains unclear, however. However, reports indicated that it might have been otherwise, thus upsetting Russia, and the Russian Embassy in Colombo.
Social media circles have since pointed out how a section of the Maldivian media had removed previous references to possible legal advice purportedly provided to the Government in the matter, sometime during the course of the detention discourse within. It is unclear if the removal of an earlier media reference to the advice that the Government could stamp Seleznyov’s passport as ‘Departed’ and then have him arrested inside the airport was removed at anybody’s instance and insistence. It is however not uncommon for the media to remove such references in subsequent despatches, if later inquiry or clarification had put things in perspective.
There has been relative silence from the Russian side after the US statements that Seleznyov was a ‘cyber crook’ and ‘bank-fraud’. If nothing much comes off on that front, it may remain that the Maldivian lapses, if any, might have been procedural at best. Sooner than the Russian reactions came out, President Yameen, and the Maldivian Home Ministry, in quick succession, lost no time with their clarification. Accordingly, Maldives had acted on an Interpol ‘Red Alert’, as always.
“As Interpol is the biggest international police institution and the Maldives has been a member of the Interpol since 1984, the government of Maldives considers Interpol ‘Red Notices’ to be of high priority and takes serious action (regarding such notices),” the Maldivian Home Ministry said in a statement. The ministry also said the Maldives respects international treaties it is party to and strives to sustain relations with friendly nations.
However, questions have been raised, particularly pertaining to the ‘due process’ – followed or not by the Maldivian authorities. Maldives does not have an extradition treaty with the US, and ‘social media’ critics in the Indian Ocean archipelago have asked how their Government could hand over the detained person to the waiting American marshals, without handing him over through the Interpol, under the circumstances. Questions have also been raised about the kind of coordination required to apprehend the Russian and hand him over to the US personnel, who might have already been there on Maldivian soil.
The social media has gone viral with purported details that no Government has denied, or clarified, since. According to eye-witness accounts quoted in these reports, US marshals were the ones who actually effected the arrest at the airport after shouting their presence – as seen often in Hollywood films — even as Maldivian Tourist Police personnel looked on. If however there was any visual evidence to the same – as it often happens by the use of a mobile-phone camera or the like — it has not made its appearance on the social media networks.
The first and foremost question remains — why the Maldivian authorities did not go public about the 5 July arrest until after the Russians had made an issue of the same. Though initial confusion remained if Seleznyov was apprehended when he was landing or departing at Male, the social media has since come up with reports that have not since been denied.
Accordingly, a woman (variously described as his wife or girl friend) and child had accompanied Seleznyov, and they had been staying in Maldives for five days before departure. Having been allowed to proceed to Russia with Seleznyov’s detention, they had taken up the matter with his family and the Government. Father Seleznyov, reportedly heading a regional political party in Vladivostok that is partnering with President Vladimir Putin’s Government, his anguished voice could not have but found resonance in official reactions, initially. Or, so goes an argument.
‘An isolated incident’
With strong and unexpected reaction from Russia possibly taking the Maldivian Government by surprise, President Yameen lost no time in sending out a delegation of senior officials to Colombo, the seat of the Russian Embassy and Ambassador, co-accredited to Sri Lanka and Maldives, to explain the situation. This has since been followed in double-quick time by Maldives’ A-team, comprising Foreign Minister Dunya Maumoon and Attorney-General, Mohammed Anil, meeting with Russian officials, again in Colombo, to take forward the discussions.
Critics of the Yameen Government nearer home would want to believe that the first-round official-level talks with Russia did not go on Maldives’ expected lines, hence the need for despatching a senior minister and the AG, personally. However, after her round of talks, Foreign Minister Dunya said later that the “strong, mutually beneficial” relations between the two countries would not “derail” due to an “isolated incident” like Seleznyov’s arrest.
According to a Maldivian Foreign Ministry statement, the two ministers explained to the Russian officials that the Maldives had followed “past practices” in dealing with Interpol ‘Red Notices’. The two sides also discussed on entering into agreements in order to avoid such incidents in the future, the ministry added. With President Yameen now on expanding the nation’s external relations with a visit to Japan earlier this year, and one to China next month, the two countries may also consider a presidential visit to Russia on a subsequent occasion. Or, would they, just at the moment when things would still be hot in Moscow?
India’s ‘sphere of influence’
Weeks ahead will determine how the ‘Seleznyov episode’ plays out in the Russo-Maldivian relations. Considering in particular that the US, withdrawing from Afghanistan yet wanting its political and naval presence relatively intact in the Indian Ocean region has been wooing nations like Maldives and threatening those like Sri Lanka in the neighbourhood, the current Russian diplomatic stand-off with Male, may have consequences for India too in its ‘traditional sphere of geo-strategic and politico-economic influence’.
With the new Government in general and Prime Minister Narendra Modi lending greater focus to the immediate South Asian neighbourhood, it remains to be seen how India views the recent developments in Maldives. It is another matter that in the overall context, India has no role to play per se, either before, during or after the event, as it pertains entirely to Maldives’ ‘sovereign’ decision-making capacity and inherent capabilities as a nation-State that cherishes its independence even more. Yet, India may not be able to look the other way if the current Russo-Maldives impasse were to blow out of proportion. Or, if the US marshals’ presence and actions in Maldives, without due information to a neighbour like India – or, Sri Lanka – came to be viewed as something more, and well into the future.
The question would then arise when and how far did Maldives take India into confidence on the ‘Seleznyov affair’, if at all. The sub-text would relate to the need – or, absence of it — for Maldives doing so, particularly in the context of the new and ‘independent’ Foreign Policy that President Yameen unveiled after assuming office – but which would have been on the works earlier, too. In context, the question would arise if the Maldivian Government would have benefited from any Indian advice or intervention in the matter, had it been sought.
For now, however, as and when the entire issue blows over, there could be an internal inquiry into the entire affair within the Maldivian Government on the facts and circumstances leading to Seleznyov’s detention, and the diplomatic precautions that the nation would have to take in similar circumstances in the future. All of it with the full realisation that no two episodes of the kind are one and the same – in terms of facts and circumstances, politics and diplomacy.
N Sathiya Moorthy is a Senior Fellow at the Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation in India.
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