Before 2002, Maldives was over the horizon and off the radar of the American embassy in Colombo charged with following Sri Lankan and Maldivian affairs. Busy with the Sri Lankan civil war at its doorstep, the embassy kept no representative in Maldives. Following the 2001/9/11 attacks, US anti-terrorism responses required the Colombo embassy to fully engage with Maldives for the first time. The US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks show that it was a discomforting experience for both parties.
US officials wanted an interactive relationship with a government controlled for over two decades by President Maumoon Gayoom. After 24 years of his rule, the American diplomats knew almost nothing about him and his administration. Regardless, the US expected Maldives to enact anti-terrorism laws and sign an Article 98 agreement making Maldivian-US prisoner exchange procedures immune from the International Criminal Court. There was also the matter of Ibrahim Fauzee, a Maldivian terrorist suspect being held at Guantanamo Bay.
In December 2001, the embassy praised Maldives as ‘extremely cooperative in its dealings with the international coalition.’ The brief period of extreme cooperation was followed by a long hiatus.
Nearly a year later, ‘during coffee breaks and over lunch’ at a counter terrorism conference in Washington, US officials were told by Maldivian delegates that terrorist legislation was held up because Maldives ‘does not even have a formal criminal code and needs further assistance developing the legal framework for countering terrorism.’
In fact, Maldives has had a criminal code since 1968, which was updated in 1981. A broad anti-terrorism law had been ratified by President Gayoom in 1990. However, mention of administrative and legal inadequacy brought immediate rewards after the conference, with the US financing ‘two slots to the Maldives Law Commission to attend the Tulane University Legislative Drafting course in New Orleans.’
The Maldivian delegates also described a ‘back log’ of legislation awaiting ‘refinement’ by their Law Commission, including ‘a securities act, a telecommunications act, a customs act and a civil aviation act.’ The embassy could not assess this information. Similarly, details of a minor cabinet and diplomatic corps reshuffle by Gayoom in October 2002 were cabled by the embassy without comment or analysis.
Effective lobbying from Ibrahim Fauzee’s family prompted the Maldivian government in November 2002 to request access to him at Guantanamo Bay. For the US, Fauzee’s detention seemed to reinforce the importance of counter-terrorism legislation. It was time for a serious meeting.
In December 2002, US officials sat down with senior Maldivians in Male and demanded that Maldives sign an Article 98 agreement. Sri Lanka had already signed in November, and the US was impatient for Maldivians to comply. States that refused were being removed from US Aid programs.
This time the Maldivians did not blame the delays on bureaucratic ‘back log’ or the absence of a legal system. Rather, it was President Gayoom’s busy travel schedule, and the need for ‘weighing whether the U.S. proposal “conformed with Maldivian law” and was in the country’s “foreign policy interest”.’
The Maldivian officials linked consent to an Article 98 agreement with a request from Gayoom to meet with President George Bush. Gayoom would ‘deeply appreciate the honor of even a very short meeting… [He] was up for re-election next year and, as a politician, a meeting with President Bush was especially important to him at this time.’
At the December 2002 meeting the Maldivians learned that access to Fawzy in Guantanamo was being granted. The US seemed keen to have Maldivian security officers question him. In its cable, the embassy admits it had collected information about Fawzy ‘that surfaced on the anti-GoRM [Government of the Republic of Maldives] website “Sandhaanu”.’
The meeting’s final item was the desire of the Maldivian government for continued Least Developed Country (LDC) status, due for review by the UN Committee for Development Policy in April 2003. Maldives ‘would appreciate strong US support on this issue, as it had received in the past.’
In these secret negotiations, the US and Maldivian positions were clear: The Americans wanted an Article 98 agreement immediately, while Gayoom wanted cheap loans and a photo opportunity with Bush before the Maldivian Presidential referendum. Both countries wanted to question Ibrahim Fawzy when it was convenient.
During their stay in Male, US officials also took a keen interest in politics and subversion trials. In a second cable about the December visit, the Americans reported discussions with government officials and others about the 2003 Presidential referendum. The acting Indian High Commissioner ‘revealed Gayoom maintained strong support in a Majlis stocked with family members and close friends.’
The attorney-general Mohamed Munavvar told US officials that ‘Mohammed Zaki, Ahammaadhee, and Ibrahim Luthfee, all Maldivian nationals, had been convicted of subversion in July and sentenced to terms ranging from 15 to 25 years in prison… The objective of the group, according to Munavvar, was to undermine President Gayoom’s government and replace it with some sort of Islamist regime.’
This cable did not mention the actual reason for the subversion charges against the three men – the production of the emailed magazine Sandhaanu and its website – the same website used by the embassy to gather intelligence information on Fawzy.
Munnavvar confirmed to US officials that ‘Ibrahim Fareed, a Muslim cleric from Male was under arrest. Fareed would be tried soon on charges of disturbing “religious harmony”. Munavvar thought that Fareed would probably be convicted and sentenced to four years imprisonment. He said Fareed’s offense involved repeated sermons in which he asserted that the government was not following Islamic law. It was not clear whether Fareed had international connections, but he had studied in Qatar.’
The reality was that Ibrahim Fareed’s sermons were more a threat to religious apathy than harmony, for which the attorney general was predicting a four year sentence.
When asked about the banning of the Monday Times magazine, the attorney general ‘denied that the magazine had been banned, but he admitted that the government had urged its publisher not to print it any longer.’
US officials learned that ‘Gayoom, his family, and his allies hold virtually all of the top government jobs, and they also control most of the lucrative commercial enterprises.’ The officials noted that ‘a brittle response to the so far gentle requests for further democratization could provoke opposition.’
The embassy did not question the severity of the sentences handed out to Zaki, Ahammaadhee, and Luthfee, while Mohamed Bushry and his publisher and father-in-law Zahir Hussein (a long-term close friend and supporter of Gayoom) faced no charges or lengthy prison sentences for their efforts with the Monday Times.
The Gayoom government’s provocative responses ‘to the so far gentle requests for further democratization’ raised no misgivings among the US representatives, and they decided the President’s ‘grip on power seems solid into the foreseeable future.’
Undemocratic Maldivian political processes and human rights abuses aside, over the next few months the embassy remained focused on an Article 98 agreement.
In January 2003, the Maldives foreign minister Fatulla Jameel assured the US ambassador that Maldives considered an Article 98 agreement almost superfluous. ‘The Maldivian government would never turn over a U.S. national to the International Criminal Court,’ said Jameel. ‘The Maldivian government would not sign the ICC treaty and would not respect its claim to universal jurisdiction.’
In March 2003, the US invaded Iraq. The Colombo embassy reported there were no demonstrations in Maldives against the war, and that ‘government-controlled’ Haveeru was carrying reports of events without comment.
An article 98 agreement was ready for signing as the invasion occurred, but there were further delays for the impatient US embassy which was ‘in close and constant touch with the Maldivian government, pressing it to sign the non-surrender of nationals agreement as soon as possible… The Maldivians have, so far, made it very clear to us that they want Jameel to be the principal who signs the document for their side.’
The agreement was eventually enforced by Gayoom’s executive decree, but not before a US official suggested that ‘bureaucratic confusion leading to inertia in the government… is endemic’ in the Maldives. The problems were within the Majlis and administration, which as the embassy knew, were controlled by ‘Gayyoom, his family and his allies’. In such an environment, delays could be due to connivance as much as ineptitude.
With the Article 98 agreement finally concluded, US officials in July 2003 promoted the payoff to Maldives, namely a positive response to a request for continued Least Developed Country (LDC) status. ‘Embassy strongly believes meeting this modest request will go a long way towards reassuring the Maldives that their recent helpfulness to us (Article 98 signature, support for the war on terrorism) is not unrequited.’ Military and other diplomatic considerations were also listed in support of the LDC favour.
To be truly convincing, the embassy’s geo-political and great buddy arguments required an additional economic impact analysis. A US delegation spent three days in Male in July, where they heard first from foreign minister Fathulla Jameel, his senior officials and the Indian High Commissioner. All argued that continued LDC status would protect the country from ‘the threat of Islamic extremism’.
The US visitors were treated to meetings with other government officials and their associates, who repeated the same lines. The foreigners learned that Male had ‘a population density 50 percent greater than that of Manhattan’ and there were ‘vast inequalities in wealth between residents of Male and those of the outer atolls’ where many Maldivians lived in poverty. ‘Some NGO officials said 20 percent of the population is estimated to live on less than one USD a day.’ Maldives had 200 inhabited islands, the US officials discovered, and they heard tales of high atoll development costs and many unemployed young people, but these facts were not enough to change the delegation’s forgone conclusions.
Though LDC status was not delivering on the 199 inhabited islands outside Male, the US embassy cable chorused Gayoom officials and proclaimed ‘the development of the Maldives continues to hinge on the international aid and favorable trading agreements it receives as a result of its LDC status.’
That same month, the status of Ibrahim Luthfee, convicted subversive emailer and Sandhaanu producer, was raised with the embassy by ‘a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees protection officer… [who] stated that Luthfee’s case was under review to determine possible refugee status. Pending the outcome of this review, UNHCR planned to contact Mission to ascertain possible resettlement in the U.S.’
The embassy’s understanding of Luthfee’s case was blinkered. It knew he was involved in ‘a website that carried anti-GoRM information.’ The embassy repeated what it had been told by Gayoom’s officials: ‘This individual, Ibrahim Luthfee, was convicted along with two other Maldivian nationals of subversion in July 2002 and sentenced to 25 years imprisonment. In explaining the long sentences, the Maldivian government had told us that the three were extremists bent on overthrowing President Gayoom’s government and replacing it with an Islamic state.’
Though they were happy to parrot a condemnation of Luthfee, the Americans seemed not to be aware that Maldives was already officially an Islamic state. Nor did the Americans share Gayoom’s belief in the extraordinary powers of Sandhaanu. The US officials noted without concern that the previous year it ‘carried some anti-U.S. and pro-Al-Qaeda content’, and many months later ‘the website is still in operation’.
In August 2003, the US embassy repeated the predictions of its informants in Maldives, reporting that ‘Gayoom and his ruling circles seem to be relatively popular’ with the proviso that ‘there are no polls, so this perception is anecdotal.’ Gayoom had ‘the wind of solid economic indices behind his back’, and this was expected to overcome criticism of the ‘only marginally democratic presidential selection process, which has chronically produced non-competitive races in the past.’ The US embassy suggests that ‘this system might well have to be adjusted and opened up.’
The same month, two senior Maldivian security officers questioned Ibrahim Fauzee at Guantanamo. The Maldivian officers reported the results of their interrogation to US officials in Colombo, and the embassy then distanced Fauzee from suspicious activities. He was ‘residing briefly in an apartment whose owner apparently had a tertiary connection to an individual who had connections to Al-Qaida/Taliban elements,’ according to their cable.
The Maldivian interrogators revealed that Fauzee had travelled to Pakistan from Maldives via Kenya in early 2000, staying in Kenya 10-12 days waiting for a Pakistani government No Objection Certificate. Maldivians travelling to Pakistan usually obtained these certificates in Sri Lanka, the Maldivian officers said. Also, Fauzee would not reveal the source of the US$1200 used to purchase his air ticket to Kenya, and he ‘claimed not to remember his activities during his time in Kenya.’
Nevertheless, the embassy cable exonerated Fauzee: ‘he did not subscribe to Islamic extremist thinking and he expressed sadness about the September 11, 2001, attacks.’ The Americans raised no objections when the Maldivian officers said that Fauzee would not likely face any charges should he be returned to the Maldives.’
Above all, the return of Fauzee would make Gayyoom’s government happy, and ‘in his 25 years in power, President Gayoom’s regime has been no friend of extremism, locking up a number of Maldivians who it felt strayed too far from the government-imposed moderate Islamic orthodoxy.’
For old times sake, and in recognition of those Maldivians already incarcerated, Fawzy was to be returned, freed and forgiven. It was curious behaviour from both the Maldivians and the Americans, given their proclaimed fear of Al-Qaeda-style Islamic extremism. Fauzee may have been only the friend of a friend with ‘connections to Al-Qaida/Taliban elements’ but he, and young Maldivians like him, were closer to real extremism than the jailed Maldivian emailers and the preacher facing 4 years in prison.
On September 15, the embassy continued to claim that there was ‘little sign of serious political dissonance’. Three days later the embassy cabled, without comment, a full copy of the 2003 Human Rights Report for the Republic of Maldives. It included a devastating critique of the Maldivian justice system and the powers of the President: ‘The Constitution does not provide for an independent judiciary, and the judiciary is subject to executive influence. In addition to his authority to review High Court decisions, the President influences the judiciary through his power to appoint and dismiss judges, all of whom serve at his pleasure and are not subject to confirmation by the Majlis.’
Before Gayoom had a decent opportunity to deny everything, there was a devastating display of social disorder on the weekend of September 20 and 21, with a torture death and mass shootings at Maafushi jail and riots in Male directed against government buildings and property.
On 23 September 2003, two days after the violence, the US embassy critically analysed Maldivian government statements for the first time. ‘These unprecedented riots were apparently triggered by mistreatment of prisoners but quickly mushroomed into a broader expression of discontent. Maldivian officials are quick to assert that the disturbances are not connected to the just-launched Presidential selection process, although we find it interesting that the Elections Commission was one of the buildings put to the torch.’