Q&A: President Dr Mohamed Waheed

President Dr Mohamed Waheed assumed the presidency after the controversial resignation of his predecessor, Mohamed Nasheed, on February 7, 2012. He will tomorrow face his former running-mate in the country’s second ever multi-party presidential election.

Appearing relaxed in the tranquil surroundings of Muleeage, Waheed took time before Friday prayers to talk about the country, his time in office, and Saturday’s poll.

Daniel Bosley: How are you feeling going into tomorrow’s election?

President Dr Mohamed Waheed: Actually, I’m quite happy and I feel peaceful because two years ago it was a little bit hard to imagine how we could come to this point where we have a peaceful election. I’m confident that this will be one of the best elections in our country’s history. This is the second democratic election and the Election Commission is trying its best to hold a free and fair election, because it’s not only the responsibility of the Elections Commission to do this. A free and fair election is possible only when all the political actors make an effort to make it a free and fair election – and not try to make it more difficult than it already is. But I’m generally confident that we will have a transparent, free, and fair election tomorrow.

DB: You are well known for having a liberal background – Stanford educated, experience at the United Nations, liberal views under former President Nasheed openly expressed – and yet soon after coming to power, you told your supporters “you are all my mujahideen”. What was your motivation for that kind of rhetoric?

MW: Okay, that wasn’t right because we used the word ‘jihad’, I never used the word ‘mujahideen’ to begin with. The word ‘jihad’ is used in Maldives for various contexts – everybody uses it – even my finance minister is called Jihad. Really, it’s a term in our language that is interchangeably used for suffering, for sacrifice, for struggle. All these three meanings come, so if you want to say ‘our struggle’ you will say ‘our jihad’. So it was used in that context, but of course because it connotes very sensitive meanings in the international media, some people picked it up and used it against us.

DB: What are your general thoughts on politicisation of Islam in the Maldives?

MW: Maldives is a 100 percent Muslim country – a Sunni Muslim country. It’s generally more liberal than many other Islamic countries. Religion and politics have never been separate in this country. It has always been part and parcel of the political process. Religious scholars have always played an important role in government in this country. So, in that sense, it is hard for us immediately to achieve a secular state. We have to have the imagination and the creativity to come up with a political system that can also count in the values of our society. So the challenge that we face today is to walk together – to blend together – the traditional Maldivian and Islamic values along with liberal values which have their roots predominantly in the West. So, trying to do this is not easy and it’s not going to happen overnight.

It will come through the education system. Young people will grow up to become the majority of our society, [and] will have to embrace the new values. This is why I always say that liberal education is so important, but only if we have enough of it. Our universities don’t teach courses in world history, in philosophy – and I’ve been arguing that this is so important. Ultimately, the democracy that we want to achieve is one in which people can speak freely on all matters, including religious matters, and to be able to discuss issues freely. Because Islam also has given a very strong moral basis, an ethical basis – the way you treat your elders, the way you treat your children, how you behave yourself in society, the use of cleanliness – a lot of these thing are already there and they are part of the social fabric of Maldives. That is why it is so important to maintain the fabric that we have while we bring in the new values. For people like us who have spent most of our time in Western universities, sometimes we don’t understand the importance of the traditional values system. But that’s what makes Maldives a unique place, that’s what makes Maldivians what they are, and that’s really a challenge. We are trying to move forward with democracy and because it’s the early years of democracy, it’s difficult.

DB: Have you found it difficult to lead without being part of a mainstream party? Do you think that it’s hard for a president in the Maldives at this time to negotiate consensus with other parties?

MW: Very good question. This is why I have chosen a running mate who is from the second largest political party and that party also has members of parliament. My sense of this election is like the 2008 election – it will probably be a coalition that will win this election. So there are other political parties who will probably join and we will have a workable majority in the parliament. It has been difficult not just for me, it has been difficult for my predecessor President Nasheed, it was also difficult for President Gayoom because, in our democratic march forward, there is this tension within the executive and the legislature, and that tension has been there – I don’t think it is going to disappear immediately but we need to work out a working relationship between the executive and the legislative branches of the government.

DB: Soon after you came to power your former political advisor, Dr Hassan Saeed, described you as ‘politically the weakest person in the government’, and you yourself said last November that everybody was running the state as they pleased. What do you say to those who argue that you have overseen a lame duck presidency?

MW: You see, I don’t think that’s not completely correct because a lame-duck government is not able to do the kind of things that we have done. If you just look at the development programmes, we have continued to provide all the support, the social services, that this government has planned – all of them have been implemented. The elderly people have received their regular allowances, the single mothers received their allowances, all the government employees get their salaries – all of these things are happening. On top of that, we have had a very ambitious infrastructure development programme. Fifty islands’ harbour projects are going on. We have highly ambitious renewable energy programme. We have acquired about US$200 million in pledges for the introduction of renewable energy into the country. Thirty islands will be almost 100 percent renewable energy. We started making the roads of many islands – we have started new roads of 66 km over the last two years. We used to have, until last year, the lowest higher-education enrolment in any developed country outside of sub-Saharan Africa. Today, any student who wants to go into higher education, who has enrolment in a university or college, has access to financial aid. So, you couldn’t do these things if you are a lame-duck president, but we are not the only country in which the executive branch is deferred to with legislation – we see that in bigger countries in the western hemisphere.

DB: If you could look back at February 7 and the surrounding period, is there anything you would do differently?

MW: Yes, I wish President Nasheed and I were able to have better communication. That would have been something I would have liked. But unfortunately it didn’t happen for whatever reason.

DB: What specifically can you mention that occurred on the day, or the preceding days?

MW: Not just the day itself, but also prior to that we should have worked much more closely. We were not able to work closely partly because a lot of the MDP [Maldivian Democratic Party] activists – MDP senior people – felt that I couldn’t be trusted because I refused to join the MDP. I was one of the founding members of the MDP but, for various reasons, I had to leave it and then I was reluctant to go back in under pressure. There would have been a possibility for me to join the MDP if they didn’t push too hard. But, because of those things our communications were not good. I think this could have been avoided and I’m sure senior MDP people would tell you the same.

DB: Following the investigation of the transfer of power, the CoNI report called for reform of the police and the judiciary. What concrete steps have you taken in the past 12 months to bring about these reforms?

MW: One was about police brutality, there were allegations of police brutality, and the CoNI report called for investigation and we specifically asked the Police Integrity Commission to look into this. There were cases of excessive use of force and these were investigated and some cases have been already tried. There were recommendations about institutional strengthening, particularly the judiciary and others, but this last two years have been so difficult, it has really not been easy for us to embark on that. Courses of institution building – I think this is what used to be done after the elections with a consensus. There is a fairly comprehensive proposal that government has drawn up on institutional reform and institutional strengthening. I wanted to have a national conference on this but we couldn’t get all the political parties to buy into it. It’s really important that political parties be part of that process so that we all work together for the common objective of strengthening the judiciary and others. That also goes for parliament – parliament is also not functioning ideally, and anybody who’s seen me delivering my presidential address would know.

DB: You have spoken about the mistreatment of your family members under former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom – you mentioned your mother being dragged through the streets and spat upon – something you said you would never forget. But then you invited Gayoom and many members of his family back into the government. How can you explain that? Do you think it’s possible to rule the country without Gayoom’s consent?

MW: Yes, it’s possible to run the government without Gayoom’s consent – absolutely. Me and my family have these issues – but those are family and personal issues. As president of this country, I have to rise above my personal feeling. I know some of my family is not happy with it but as president you are looking at the complete record of a person. When Gayoom came to be be president, we didn’t have education in all the islands, we had only very young tourism industry, we didn’t have regional hospitals, we didn’t have so many educated people in this country. So, the man did something for this country, but he was also very brutal. He continues to have a following – why do you think [Abdulla] Yameen has been getting traction in his political career – not because Yameen is so popular, it’s because of Gayoom and in 2008 election also, if you remember, he actually got more votes in the second round than the first one. So, the man is important in local politics but that doesn’t mean that any government that comes to power has to have his consent or has to listen to him. This is not there anymore. The man served his country, his service has been recognised, it’s time for him to retire.

DB: Without judicial reform, do you think you could govern easily with Gayoom’s apparent control of the courts?

MW: Gayoom is not the only one in this country. We will continue to support the judiciary to function effectively. I think we are emphasising Gayoom’s role in this too much – I don’t think he has that kind of control over the judiciary.


Flogging of 15 year-old “tip of the iceberg” of Maldives’ treatment of sex offences: Amnesty’s South Asia Director

The high-profile case of a 15 year-old girl sentenced to flogging in the Maldives after confessing to having had consensual sex is the “tip of the iceberg” in terms of the country’s treatment of victims of sexual offences, Amnesty International’s South Asia Director Polly Truscott has said.

Following a nine day visit to the country, Truscot told Minivan News that other sexual abuse victims were believed to have had suffered similar treatment under the law as a result of systematic institutional failures.

“Right now, all departments charged with the girl’s welfare are finger pointing and passing the blame,” she said. “But we have met others incarcerated in the country in similar circumstances to this girl.”

“Tip of the iceberg”

Truscott said she had identified serious concerns during her visit as to how young girls and other victims of sexual assault were being treated by authorities.

Truscott raised particular concern over the case of the 15 year-old charged with fornication, after she reportedly admitted to authorities of having “consensual sex” with an unidentified man during investigations into her alleged sexual abuse by her stepfather.

“When this alleged crime was committed, Amnesty was approached by many people asking us to look into the matter. We believes she should not be punished for sexual offences. It is questionable if the girl was also aware as to what she was consenting to,” she said.

Truscott claimed that officials involved in the girl’s care – from the law enforcement team who questioned her, to child protection authorities – had “all failed” in their duties to protect the 15 year-old.

The girl’s case has garnered international attention over the last few months, with over two million people signing a petition on the Avaaz website pledging to target the Maldives’ lucrative tourism industry in order to pressure authorities to drop the charges against the 15 year-old and pursue wider legal reforms to prevent similar cases.

Deputy Tourism Minister Mohamed Maleeh Jamal last month slammed what he called the“dubious” motivations behind the petition, alleging the campaign to be “politically motivated”.  He also noted that the Waheed administration had already appealed the case and also pledged to oversee legal reforms.

Truscott said the NGO also remained “disappointed” over a lack of progress by Maldivian authorities in addressing a lack of accountability in punishing the perpetrators of high-profile attacks on media personnel, as well as allegations of excessive police force.

Despite welcoming progress in areas such as allowing for greater media freedoms “over the last 10 years”, she yesterday (April 24) told Minivan News that the NGO continued to hold concerns over the state’s commitment to addressing several human rights issues.

At the conclusion her visit, Truscott said the NGO also held significant concerns regarding judicial independence, as well as wider institutional failures to protect rape victims.

“Enormous progress”: government

Following a meeting between Truscott and President Dr Mohamed Waheed on Wednesday, the government issued a press release stating: “Regional Director Prescott noted the enormous progress made by the Maldives in the fields of human rights, and freedom of assembly and speech.”

Truscott told Minivan News she had raised concerns during her meeting with President Waheed that not enough progress had been made to investigate allegations of “excessive force” by police officers against members of the public following the controversial transfer of power on February 7, 2012.

“I understand that a few cases have been brought forward by prosecutors, but after a year, this [amount of cases] is disappointing. I had also pressed upon the president the need to bring perpetrators to justice. There is important progress to be made here,” she said.

Media freedom

Addressing the government’s official statement on Amnesty’s findings, Truscott said the NGO believed progress had been made in some areas such as media freedom over the last 10 years.

However, she noted serious attacks over the last 12  months on media such as blogger Hillath Rasheed and reporter Ibrahim ‘Aswad’ Waheed. Both men underwent life-saving surgery after being the victims of separate violent attacks in the capital over the last 12 months.

Amnesty International also pointed to concerns over the murder of MP Dr Afrasheem Ali. Truscott said the country was yet to see any meaningful investigations into ensuring justice for the victims of the attacks.

The courts are currently hearing the cases of several suspects charged in connection to Dr Afrasheem’s murder.  Suspects have also been questioned over Aswad’s attack.

However, suspects have yet to have been charged over the attack on blogger Hilath Rasheed in July 2012, when a group of alleged Islamic radicals slashed the throat of the blogger who had been campaigning for religious tolerance.

Rasheed narrowly survived the attack and has since fled the country.

“From having walked the streets here in Male’ I have seen [security] cameras about. But action seems to have been limited,” Truscott said of the case.

Penal code

Legal reforms were another area of concern raised by Amnesty International following its Maldives visit.  Particular attention was drawn to reviews for an amended Penal Code within the country that would allow for the prosecution of offences not presently accounted for.

While at the same time addressing the government’s stated pledges to review the use of punishments such as flogging, Truscott warned against what she called a “move backwards” over the Maldives’ commitments against the use of the death penalty.

“Obviously, Amnesty International is completely against the death penalty,” she said.

Truscott claimed that the recent drafting of any new bills outlining implementation for executions, even in practice, was deemed as a human rights violation.  She said there was no research concluding that executing criminals served as an effective deterrent for serious crimes.

Truscott added that with the draft Penal Code also including provisions that would leave applying the death sentence to the discretion of an individual judge, the whole purpose of codifying laws would be undermined should the bill be passed.

She noted this was a particular concern when considering the recent findings of various international experts such as  UN Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Judiciary, Gabriela Knaul over the politicised nature of the country’s judicial system.

“To leave Sharia law to the discretion of individual judges is something we believe would be a bad idea,” she added.

Visit purpose

Truscott said that Amnesty International’s main purpose during its visit had been to meet with key state officials as well as other stakeholders.

She noted that while having met with senior officials such as the president and Gender Minister, the NGO had not been able to arrange discussions with Police Commissioner Abdulla Riyaz or Home Minister Dr Mohamed Jameel Ahmed during the visit.

Dr Jameel told Minivan News today that he had been busy at the time of Amnesty International’s request to meet, but had since requested his office to follow up and try and set up talks.

Police Spokesperson Chef Inspector Hassan Haneef was seeking clarification as to whether Commissioner Riyaz had received a request to meet the NGO at time of press.

Amnesty criticism

In September last year, Home Minister Jameel criticised Amnesty International in local media for failing to seek comment from the government when compiling a previous report on the country entitled: “The other side of Paradise: A Human Rights Crisis in the Maldives”.

“They had not sought any comments from the Maldives government. I’m extremely disappointed that a group advocating for fairness and equal treatment had released a report based on just one side of the story,” Jameel told newspaper Haveeru at the time.

Meanwhile, just last month, Human Rights Ambassador of the President’s Office “Sandhaanu” Ahmed Ibrahim Didi accused Amnesty International of “fabricating stories about the human rights situation in the Maldives” and of releasing reports about the Maldives without conducting any studies.

Truscott’s comments were made as preliminary observations following her research visit to the Maldives that commenced April 16.  The NGO has said it will be releasing an official statement on its findings later today.


Vice president expresses sympathy to Pakistan

Vice President of the Maldives Dr Mohamed Waheed has visited the Pakistan High Commission in the Maldives and expressed sympathy for the flood victims.

During his visit Dr Waheed appealed to all Maldivian citizens to support assistance to the victims of the flood.

”Millions of Pakistani Muslims were devastated and left without food and clean drinking water during this Ramadan,” said Dr Waheed. ”It is important for all Maldivians to show solidarity with the brotherly people of Pakistan and give whatever support they can to those affected.”


Vice President voices concerns about government at GIP rally

Vice President Dr Mohamed Waheed once again spoke out publicly against the government at a Gaumee Itthihaad Party (GIP) rally on Saturday, where he reiterated his opinion that the government’s coalition platform, which won them the 2008 presidential elections, is not being put into practice.

Dr Waheed appeared on the new VTV programme Hoonu Gondi (Hot Seat) earlier this month, where he voiced his concerns that the government was not employing the multi-party system they based their 2008 campaign on. He also said President Mohamed Nasheed did not consult with him enough, and he did not want to be a Vice President who “slept for five years.”

The vice president told Minivan News at the time he was “not completely satisfied” with his job and felt it was time for him to speak out without being afraid. “It’s my responsibility to express my feelings,” he said.

At Saturday’s GIP rally, the vice president once again spoke out against Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) members who were acting as though MDP was the only party in the government, and said the Maldives would soon be “colour coded.”

According to reports, toward the end of the rally more than half the audience walked out in protest when Deputy Minister for Economic Development and GIP member, Ahmed Inaz, spoke of former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.

Press Secretary for the President’s Office, Mohamed Zuhair, reiterated Dr Waheed was speaking as the head of a political party and not as the vice president at Saturday’s rally.

“I believe he has identified a need to strengthen his own party. New political party regulations require a party to have 3000 members, otherwise the party will be dissolved,” he said.

Zuhair added “another factor may be the local government elections in June, and he feels he needs to be seen as active. All this has nothing to do with the government.”

He noted the president and vice president “get on well at the office” and everything is running normally.

Zuhair said Dr Waheed’s comments on “colour coding” were taken out of context by the media. “I don’t believe this is correct,” he said. “The government does not favour any one party, which I believe is a compliment to the government.”

He said “the vice president accepted the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) manifesto. He is raising these problems with the government but he is part of it, so perhaps he should be more proactive in solving them.”

Zuhair added the opposition would surely try to use this to drive a wedge into the government, saying “it’s already happening.”

Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) Spokesperson Ibrahim Shareef said he believes there have been “some misunderstandings between the president and vice president.”

He said he doesn’t see anything wrong with the vice president making his comments public, as he “wasn’t criticising the government.”

Shareef said many people, both in the government and general population, were “blowing it out of proportion” making many people think there is disunity in the government.

He added Dr Waheed was asked difficult questions, and “I believe the vice president has answered correctly. Everybody knows it to be the truth.”

He said the government’s problem was they were “trying to change things for the sake of change” and had “so far failed to deliver anything concrete.”

Shareef said “people’s lives are becoming very difficult”, especially for those in the civil service, and noted that even if the government could not deliver on anything concrete, people were still expecting it from them.

“It’s only been a year and a half,” he said, “but some decisions are very hasty and not thought out properly.”

Spokesperson for MDP Ahmed Haleem said he thought the vice president “wants to get more sheets for the local elections [to be held in June]” and “wants to show he is still alive.”

“Seventy-five percent of the people reject this vice president,” Haleem said, adding the Vice President’s recent comments were not injuring the image of the government or the MDP, but were injuring Dr Waheed himself.

Haleem said there is “no more coalition” in the government, since most parties withdrew from the coalition. But noted the GIP was “very supportive of us” and are supportive of democracy, too.

According to GIP’s website, the party joined the MDP to “create a platform for those individuals who wish to present new ideas, who value honest leadership that cares about the Maldivian people.”

The GIP promises to “bring new ideas on health care, education, housing and other development to better improve our country and give our citizens something we’ve never had – a truly representational government.”

As of last week, the GIP has 3,508 members according to the Elections Commission.


Vice President launches teaching aid donation programme

Vice President Dr Mohamed Waheed attended the pre-inaugural ceremony of the 2010 Science Exhibition at Aminiya School.

Dr Waheed launched a teaching aid donation programme at the school which has been initiated by Maldives National Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Holiday Inn Malé.

Dr Waheed said he was encouraged that the private sector took initiative to support education in the Maldives and hoped the science fair would encourage students to learn more about science.

He added that teachers should encourage inquiry-based learning in all subjects.

The 2010 Science Exhibition will be held later this year in June.