Ahmed Abbas On Prison, Politics And Gayoom

Ahmed Abbas, a founding member of the Maldivian Democratic Party was released from Maafushi prison on Thursday after serving six months for inciting the public to violence against the Star Force.
Safely returned to his family home in Malé, Abbas told Minivan News about how the lessons he has learnt in prison can benefit the MDP, of his personal experiences of President Gayoom and his analysis of the current political situation.
Police Violence
Abbas was imprisoned for “disobedience to order” after being quoted in Minivan Daily saying “the only way we can stop Star Force beating the public is by making them feel once they beat us it results in pain.”
“I never committed a crime,” Abbas maintains during our interview. “I was only trying to stop a crime the police were committing. To stop police violence, not incite violence.”
Abbas says his comments were misinterpreted. “I wanted the families and friends of the Star Force to understand our pain, so that they would tell their people not to come and beat us. So they would tell them we are also the same citizens. We are not people from two different countries fighting a war.”
Politics And Prison
Abbas says prison offered him a new perspective on President Gayoom’s regime. “Prison is one of Gayoom’s real means of feeling a great dictator. He feels really great when he can control so many families. [Through prisons] he influences the lives of 20,000 citizens.”
“This government operates prisons in a highly political way,” according to Abbas. “Most prisoners are serving long terms or life sentences, so they do not think politically. They are very hopeless. They have no way out. Prison makes politics irrelevant to them.”
Abbas said drug addicts in prison are particularly helpless; “A drug addict who is trying to survive and support his drug use might be trying to sell little bits to keep going. But he gets a life sentence. There are guys who are just supporting their own drug use and get 100 years.”
“The drug business in the country is not like a drug business you find in any other country. This is something spread by the government to keep the youth under the influence of drugs so they will not think politically and be politically motivated to disturb this government of Gayoom.”
But Abbas says prison did not diminish his political will. “Prison did not change me at all. I feel very much the same. I have come out exactly the same person.” And he anticipates more spells in detention, “We will be in and out of prison until Gayoom comes down but I don’t want my grandchildren to be tortured or for this regime to go on indefinitely.”
His wife Latheefa, who has been detained in the past, echoed Abbas’ sentiments. “Someone has to make an effort to change this regime. Its worth the sacrifice. Nothing the government can do would make me give up.”
Memories Of The President
Abbas’s eldest daughter, Elena, was born in November 1978, as Gayoom assembled his first cabinet as President. Abbas was a friend of the President and recalls, “when my wife was taken to the labour room to deliver Elena, someone called me and said President-elect Gayoom wants to see you.”
“I was one of the first people to predict what is happening now. That day I told Gayoom and his wife while they were seated with me. I said the people had only one fear; that the influence of his two brothers-in-law and his brother [Illyas and Abbas Ibrahim and Abdulla Hameed] would corrupt the regime.”
Abbas says he continued to advise Gayoom against depending on his brothers in the early years of his regime, but now believes his former friend was born a dictator.
“A man financially, morally and mentally poor like Gayoom, these type of people can become dictators and very bad people. You don’t have to be rich financially to be a rich man. But Gayoom, he likes luxury. If I compare him to myself, the kind of luxury I have, of freedom and peaceful mentality – these are things Gayoom cannot buy with all his money.”
But Abbas does not believe future leaders of the Maldives will display the same character. “These kind of dictators don’t crop up in the fields, they are one offs. Just like torturers like Adam Zahir are one of a kind. I know these people very well. One time Adam Zahir was my best friend. But another Adam Zahir cannot just come along.”
No Dialogue
Now out of prison, Abbas will play a key role in MDP politics. Although he does not hold a formal position in the party hierarchy, he was a founding member and the party is officially registered to his house, which he calls “the spiritual home of the MDP.”
“The party did pretty well,” he says on the period he was in prison. “There were times I was unhappy but I can never be fully content with the party. But I prefer to talk about how to improve than discussing past mistakes.”
On the future, Abbas is forthright; “I don’t think we should have any dialogue with the DRP [the government’s Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party] because we don’t speak the same language. The DRP is a group of people who wants to sustain the dictatorship. I don’t even consider them a party.”
He denies past talks have born fruit, and says “everything the government has given is because they have bowed down to our pressure.”
“Gayoom is the sole proprietor of DRP so whoever sits at the table has to get approval from Gayoom for whatever decisions they make … if Gayoom is not on the other end of the table, it is pointless talking to them… they will have to refer to Gayoom and come back tomorrow… its pointless.”
But Abbas does concede the government is right to claim “much has changed in the past two years,” and, although he does not favour talks with the DRP, admits “politics is working… government views are changing.”
Not Time For Policy
Abbas is reticent when asked about MDP policies. He emphasises, “Strategy… demonstrations, civil disobedience… sustaining what we are doing right now.”
He says the MDP do have policies, but “there are some issues which the MDP might not want to address immediately, as the DRP and the government will hijack them and implement them immediately to claim they are doing these things for the people already.”
Abbas points to the past for evidence of MDP’s commitment to policy, “when the MDP started to existing, there were so many speeches about education, health and government.” And he urges Maldivians to trust the party, saying “all this reform agenda came from the same place [the MPD], so why can’t we come up with some new stuff?”
Abbas insists “we are taken seriously by the international community and the governing class. We have some policies but we don’t want to reveal them now because this is not an election period.”
On the MDP’s recent discussions with the President Gayoom’s half-brother, Abdullah Yameen, who has broken away from the government with a group of former DRP MPs, Abbas is pragmatic.
“So long as the country benefits we should talk to anyone. We need each other. Not only Yameen but also Adhaalath [Justice Party] and IDP [Islamic Democratic Party]. Anyone who is reform minded we are not hesitant to work with.”
But, Abbas says, Adhaalath and the IDP “bother me because they call themselves religious oriented parties, but once I went to jail I realised these people are very selfish minded people. What goes on inside that place [Maafushi prison] needs to be looked at from a religious point of view, but Adhaalath and the IDP turn a blind eye to prisons.”
“They are hypocritical. They try and show the public they are doing something like the DRP so they close down spas because anti-moral activity is going on; but these are cosmetic changes by bringing out statements in newspapers without doing something active.”
He admits these parties “are relevant to people at a grassroots level to some extent.” But Abbas says “the MDP is more relevant to the grassroots. When Mr Athif, an MDP parliamentarian left the party last year, he said the grassroots had too much power. We depend on them to get elected.”
Asked how he can advocate political alliances with Adhaalath and IDP and call them “reform minded” if they are also “hypocritical,” Abbas says “they are reformist at the grassroots. They are like us.” He denies that he “defines reform-minded as wanting to remove Gayoom,” but says this is important.