Most people know the Maldives for its luxurious honeymoon suites or “How to spend it” beach villas, writes former President Mohamed Nasheed for the UK’s Financial Times.
But I write this article having spent a night in an altogether different class of accommodation: a Maldivian jail cell. I am no stranger to these institutions, having spent much of my adult life in incarceration, punishment for advocating democracy in my country, an Indian Ocean archipelago of 1,192 islands.
Most recently I was jailed in 2006 when the Maldives was ruled by the dictator Maumoon Gayoom. I faced terrorism charges for giving a speech against corruption, which the regime claimed “terrorised” listeners. After 28 years in power, Mr Gayoom had finally consented to hold a multi-party presidential election and I feared I would be barred from standing. Under pressure from street demonstrations and international protest the regime relented, and I became my country’s first elected president in 2008.
Today things have turned full circle. Once again, I have been jailed. Once again, an authoritarian regime,effectively controlled by the old dictator, is pressing politically motivated charges against me. Once again, I may be prevented from competing in a presidential election, which must be held by the end of next year.
The Maldives, a youthful, Muslim country whose people rose up and shook off decades of authoritarian rule, provides an important lesson for democrats in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and other countries caught in the Arab uprisings. Even after the revolution, the old guard can linger on and suffocate fledgling democracy.
On Sunday I will face an extraordinary court, established especially to hear my case. I am to be tried for abuse of power, in particular for the arrest of a corrupt judge, who was an ally of Mr Gayoom. My conviction is a foregone conclusion. Mohamed Waheed, my former vice-president, may decide to pardon me, but only in a way that ensures I remain barred from seeking office next year. The Maldivian people are seeing their economy collapse and their election stolen from them. If the world is watching, it is seeing a young Muslim democracy fail.
I hope the international community pressures the Waheed regime to make good on its promises: to bring human rights abusers in the security forces to book; to cease the harassment of peaceful political activists; and to allow internationally monitored elections in which all candidates are allowed to stand.
Whether I win or lose is irrelevant. What is important is that a genuine election is held, and the will of the Maldivian people – not the military’s force of arms – is the final adjudicator of my nation’s future.