Business tycoon Richard Branson and ‘Fight Club’ actor Ed Norton are among dozens of international celebrities and activists who have signed a letter calling for the Maldivian government to halt harassment of the opposition and “hold democratic elections at the earliest opportunity.”
The letter, published in the UK’s Guardian newspaper, expresses concern over former President Mohamed Nasheed’s “island arrest”.
“The ban was then followed by a series of orders to appear in court this week on spurious civil and criminal charges – a strategy of legal harassment pursued by the illegitimate regime of Mohamed Waheed. Its sole purpose is to sideline Nasheed from active politics and further stamp out any political opposition,” the letter stated.
President’s Office Spokesperson Masood Imad told Radio Australia on Tuesday that the government on assumption of office “made it clear we would in no way interfere with the process of the judiciary. The judge summoned Mr Nasheed but he absconded. I believe he will be summoned again and if he does not appear in court, he will issue an order for his arrest.”
The letter further stated that “the outlook for democracy in the Maldives is deteriorating. The circumstances surrounding Nasheed’s removal from power earlier this year remain a matter of dispute, but other matters are beyond doubt.”
Specifically, it noted that “no date has been set for free and fair elections by this unelected regime, which has links to former dictator Abdul Gayoom,” and that “nearly 2,000 peaceful demonstrators calling for elections have been detained by security forces, many beaten and hospitalised.”
“Sadly, much of this remains largely unreported by the world’s media. A young and fragile democracy is under threat once more and we therefore call upon [President] Mohamed Waheed to set a firm date for free and fair elections immediately, to end the culture of systematic police brutality and to release all political detainees including opposition leader Mohamed Nasheed.”
As well as Branson and Norton, signatories included Radiohead guitarist Thom Yorke, actress Darryl Hannah, 350.org founder Bill McKibben, the Eden Project’s Tim Smit, and philosopher and ethicist Peter Singer.
Norton, Branson and Hannah were fixtures at last year’s Slow Life Symposium held at the upmarket Soneva Fushi resort in the Maldives.
Branson first waded into Maldivian politics on his blog on February 24, calling on President Waheed to “do the right thing” and hold free and fair elections before the end of the year.
It was, Branson wrote to Dr Waheed, “completely astounding that you have been part of an overthrow of a democratically elected government that has effectively let the old regime back into power.”
“Knowing you, I would assume that you were given no choice and that it was through threats that you have ended up in this position,” Branson said. “I do very much hope that was the case rather than you doing it of your own free will.”
Days later, Branson wrote another entry, saying that he had spoken on the phone to Dr Waheed, who told him he had appointed “a respected person” to examine the truth of what caused President Nasheed to “resign”.
“He says that he didn’t know who issued an arrest warrant for President Nasheed after he left office but that it had been rescinded within 48 hours. He is determined to be an honest broker, to be seen to be one, and to get everyone’s confidence. He said that he offered to bring in people from President Nasheed’s party but they refused to join.”
A few days later, Branson wrote a third post, resuming his first call for early elections “as soon as feasibly possible”.
The Soneva Group meanwhile found itself embroiled in local politics in August, composing a statement in response to allegations published in the UK media that the company’s head, Sonu Shivdasani, had engaged a PR firm to “spruce up” the image of Dr Mohamed Waheed’s government.
The article in Private Eye magazine contended that post February 7, an “unlikely alliance” had emerged between certain resorts – desperate to stabilise the sudden political instability for the sake of their bottom lines – and the new government, a loose alliance of ambitious political elements who came to power on a platform of Islamic conservatism.
“The reality is that the Maldives – already favoured by footballers, Russian gangsters and off-duty Israeli arms dealers – are an even harder sell since the coup has given us an unlikely alliance between hoteliers promoting bikini-clad, cocktail-fuelled luxury and a government that includes two imams, wants to bring back the death penalty and has done nothing about the destruction by supporters of the coup of the national museum’s entire pre-Islamic collection,” the article stated.
In a counter statement from the group, obtained by Minivan News, the company sought to clarify the “facts” of the case.
“Sonu Shivdasani does not have a political relationship with President Mohamed Waheed, their interaction revolves specifically around environmental and ecological issues,” the Soneva statement read.
A source within the Soneva Group described the situation as “a bloody mess”.
Shivdasani “completely fell for Waheed’s line that Nasheed didn’t resign under duress” and had – unsuccessfully – asked a number of PR agencies to set up interviews for the new President, Minivan News was informed.
The source surmised that Shivdasani had “innocently, stupidly, somehow believed Waheed”, and “gone out of his way to help [the new President].”
Soneva’s statement meanwhile disputed the resort’s motivation to support the new government as being based on supposed plans to amend a corporate tax bill implemented by Nasheed, as, “to the best of my knowledge, there are no plans by the current President Mohamed Waheed to reduce or eliminate this tax.”