The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has issued a travel warning for the Maldives following recent political turmoil in the country, urging caution around “large political gatherings”, while debate on the political deadlock has spread to the House of Lords in the UK Parliament.
During Question Time, the UK Labour Party’s Lord Foulkes expressed “disappointment that President Nasheed seems to be reverting to the bad habits of his predecessor”, following the detention of People’s Alliance (PA) MP Abdulla Yameen, and urged the government to pressure the Maldives to restore “democratic freedoms”.
Conservative Lord Howell, also State Minister for the FCO, responded that the government was “pursuing full encouragement through our high commission in Colombo and other means to ensure that democratic development continues.”
Nasheed’s restoration of his cabinet ministers was “a step forward”, Howell promised.
Conservative Lord Naseby pointed out that the Maldives “is no longer a protectorate of the United Kingdom… and that being the situation, what role do we have at all to interfere in what is in fact the Maldivian exercise of democracy as they interpret it?”
Yameen meanwhile remains in MNDF custody on the Presidential Retreat ‘Aarah’, although appears free to communicate with the media given that Minivan News was able to contact him yesterday.
The Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) – and the government – insist that the MP and high-profile businessman is under ‘protective’ custody after demonstrations outside his home last week turned violent.
Yameen has told local media he does not wish to be detained in ‘protective’ custody. The MNDF have also refused to present him before the court on a court order, raising some international eyebrows.
The President’s Press Secretary Mohamed Zuhair stuck to that story, insisting Yameen was being “protected” rather than “detained”.
Zuhair also claimed Yameen’s custodial protection was not unconstitutional, as the opposition has claimed, although Minivan News is still awaiting clarification from government lawyers as to how this is so.
“The MNDF is working absolutely within the constitution,” Zuhair said. “Yameen is being held by the MNDF, not the government. If Yameen is concerned about this he will be able to challenge it in court.”
“Dark and evil schemes”
Beyond the debate over Yameen’s detention, and recent court cases concerning the legality of his arrest along with that of Jumhoree Party (JP) leader Gasim Ibrahim, Zuhair said that given the severity of the allegations against them, neither could be considered prisoners of conscience.
“I cannot describe these people as political leaders – they are accused of high crimes and plots against the state,” Zuhair said.
“These MPs are two individuals of high net worth – tycoons with vested interests,” he explained. “In pursuing their business interests they became enormously rich during the previous regime, and now they are trying to use their ill-gotten gains to bribe members in the Majlis and judiciary to keep themselves in power and above the fray.”
“They were up to all sorts of dark and evil schemes,” Zuhair alleged. “There were plans afoot to topple the government illegally before the interim period was over.”
Zuhair explained that the government felt obliged to take action after six MDP MPs came forward with statements alleging Yameen and Gasim had attempted to bribe them to vote against the government.
The opposition PA-DRP coalition already has a small voting majority, with the addition of supportive independent MPs, however certain votes require a two-thirds majority of the 77 member chamber – such as a no-confidence motion to impeach the president or vice-president.
“In one incident early on in this administration, following the President’s return from Italy, they set up a telephone and a video camera in a committee room in parliament, brought a judge to sit in, and then tried to get two members of the president’s delegation swear on the Qur’an under oath that the President was drinking alcohol,” Zuhair observed.
The privatisation of Male’ International airport had clashed with the vested interests of the accused MPs, Zuhair claimed, sparking the current political debacle.
“Gasim was concerned the new airport might take the charter flights he had intended would be landing at the new airport he is building in Maamagilli,” Zuhair alleged, “while Yameen is a third party supplier of fuel at Male International Airport through the Maldives National Oil Company, which has representation in Singapore.”
The fuel trade is the most immediately lucrative part of the airport deal, Minivan News understands, and is a key reason behind both GMR’s interest and the government’s decision to award the contract to the Indian infrastructure giant. GMR has told Minivan News it will amalgamate the trade under one umbrella, a decision that will likely affect current third party suppliers.
Meanwhile Opposition DQP leader Hassan Saeed, who opposed the airport privatisation and is currently lobbying in the UK for international support for Yameen’s release, “is receiving huge legal fees from both Yameen and Gasim,” Zuhair claimed.
A coalition of NGOs including Madulu, the Maldivian Democracy Network, Huvadhoo Aid, Transparency Maldives, Maldives Youth Action Network, HAND and Democracy House, meanwhile issued a statement “categorically denouncing the undemocratic actions of the three Powers of the State, at a time when democracy is in its infant stages in the Maldives.”
“We believe recent political and civil unrest is a consequence of these three arms of the State disregarding the spirit of the Maldivian Constitution,” the NGOs said. “We believe a culture of manipulation of the law to infringe upon the rights of one another has developed and that the three arms of the State have failed to give each other due respect.”
“It is not responsible on the part of the parliament, that they should pass laws that undermine the powers of the executive.
“It is unacceptable that the executive, should use its powers to harass and deter the functioning of the parliament, to disrepute the judiciary and to try to exert undue influence on the judicial system.
“The lack of consistency in the rulings of the courts, and actions which undermine the trust of the people in the judicial system are contrary to the high standards which are expected of Judges. We call upon the judiciary to work to restore the people’s faith in the judicial system.
The NGOs added that “other concerned State institutions” have also failed to “give due regard to the situation” and have acted irresponsibly.
The coalition also urged political parties to refrain from bringing violence to the streets, but condemned the security forces “for stepping outside the boundaries of the law with regards to arrest and detention” and the recent distribution of private telephone conversations by the media containing implications of corruption behaviour among MPs.
Between a rock and the Maldives
The government well aware of its status as international darling on climate change, but Nasheed appears willing to risk international censure for the sake of isolating Yameen while the state accumulates evidence in the background. Police were preparing to “make a splash” on the subject, Zuhair hinted.
However even if this evidence is obtained, demands from the international community – and opposition – that the government respect the rule of law and the judicial system, mean the government is faced with the new problem of legitimising its case against the businessmen and opposition leaders, now that allegations of obstruction have been levelled at the judiciary – including, yesterday, from the police themselves.
The government has been urging public respect for the judicial system – and the President’s Political Advisor Hassan Afeef has stated that the government will abide by any rulings from the Supreme Court.
The Judicial Services Commission (JSC), tasked with reforming the judicial system, has three sitting judges as members and vested interests, according to the President’s outspoken member on the commission, Aishath Velezinee.
“Of the 207 of the judges currently in office, 39 have degrees or higher. Some left school before grade seven, meaning they haven’t completed primary school,” Velezinee noted.
In addition there are seven sitting judges found guilty of a criminal breach of trust; five with allegations of a criminal breach of trust; two being prosecuted for an alleged breach of trust; one on trial for sexual misconduct; two have been found guilty of sexual misconduct; one was found guilty for an offence which had a prescribed punishment in Islam; and another who has both been accused of a criminal breach of trust, and found guilty of sexual misconduct – a total of 19 with documented criminal history.
Behind the scenes the executive is racing to nominate new judges before the interim period concludes on August 7, when sitting judges are granted automatic tenure.
However nominations for any new judges will have to be approved by the Majlis, which was cancelled this morning on points of order that developed into a scuffle outside.
“[The MPs] are trying to derail the process,” suggested Zuhair. “They are also panicking because they have no way of knowing who is going to be [implicated] by these corruption charges.”
As for tourists reading the today’s travel advisory urging caution in the capital, Zuhair observed that they “should be happier to know the top dollars they are paying are not being used for corrupt purposes.”