“Copenhagen Accord was not an admission of defeat”: Foreign Minister

Minister of Foreign Affairs Ahmed Naseem has delivered a keynote address in Dhaka at the Climate Vulnerable Forum organized by the Government of Bangladesh.

The forum was inaugurated by Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and attended by United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

“Today, conventional wisdom suggests that Copenhagen was a failure,” Naseem said. “I beg to differ. In my opinion, the Copenhagen Accord was not an admission of defeat, but the first step on the road towards a solution – a solution based on the vision laid down in the Male’ Declaration. That vision was simple: that global warming will only be halted when States realize the futility of arguing over whom should cut emissions, and begin competing to become the leaders of the new industrial revolution – a revolution based not on the finite power of coal and oil, but on the infinite power of the sun, sea and wind.”

Minister highlighted that it was the hope of President Nasheed that this year’s meeting will achieve on to remind the world of the plight of the most climate vulnerable countries and in so doing confront the  growing sense of apathy and re-energise the international community to  act.

Naseem also called for “a strong progressive message [at] COP 17 in Durban, encouraging the UNFCCC to establish a new legal framework on climate change which encourages and helps states take positive action, in other words to invest in low carbon technology, rather than only demanding that they accept negative obligations – namely to cut emissions.”

In his statement Minister also stressed on the challenges and difficulties faced by developing countries in shifting to a low carbon development pathway, and to give guidance to the international community regarding how it can best held and support that shift.

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Maldives hails “new dawn” in Libya, increases international pressure on Syria

Maldives Foreign Minister Ahmed Naseem has welcomed “a new dawn in Libya” following reports yesterday that the rebel Transitional National Council (TNC) had all but taken control of Libya’s capital, Tripoli.

President Muammar Gaddafi remains nowhere to be found, but early reports yesterday – confirmed by the International Criminal Court (ICC) – suggested that the rebels had detained his son, Saif al-Islam.

Saif however appeared in front of journalists later in the day declaring that the rebels had “fallen into a trap”, and “screw the criminal court.”

The Maldives was among the first countries to formally recognise the TNC rebels as the sovereign representatives of the Libyan people, and helped organise several UN Human Rights Council resolutions increasing pressure on Gaddafi and legitimising Western military intervention.

“The Maldives took these steps because of our conviction that men such as Muammar Ghadaffi should not be allowed to check, through violence, the recent march of democracy and human rights across the Muslim world – the Muslim Awakening,” Naseem said.

“For decades, the government of Muammar Ghadaffi has ruled through a system of patronage, repression and fear. The Muslim Awakening brought hope that this system could be dismantled peacefully, through dialogue, reform and free and fair elections. However, instead Muammar Ghadaffi chose to use his security forces to attack and kill civilians.

“With the imminent fall of Ghadaffi, the Muslim Awakening lives on, and the Maldives looks forward to welcoming a new, democratic Libyan State into the international family of nations,” Naseem said.

Syria

The Maldives is taking a similar line on Syria it took with Libya earlier this year, insisting on democratic reforms and yesterday spearheading an emergency session of the UN Human Rights Council.

“The Maldives considers itself a friend of Syria and its people, and has watched with increasing alarm as the government there has responded to peaceful protests calling for democratic reform with violence and intimidation. Thousands have been arbitrarily detained and hundred of our Muslim brothers and sisters, including children, have been killed. Worse, these gross human rights violations have intensified during the Holy Month of Ramadan,” Naseem said, in another statement.

Syria, which has failed to respond to the Council or cooperate with the UN, is backed by Iran and has taken a hard line against civilian demonstrators calling for President Bashar al-Assad to step down.

Protests began in January 26 as the ‘Arab Spring’ demonstrations began to sweep through the Middle East, escalating into an uprising in which over 2200 people have reportedly been killed.

Involvement of the Maldives

At a press conference held yesterday in Male’, the Maldives Ambassador to the UN Abdul Ghafoor Mohamed said that the small size and relative isolation of the Maldives was “no impediment” the country’s pursuit of an international human rights agenda.

“I think we have shown that size is not everything in international relations,” Ghafoor said. “Even if you are a small country your commitments, your principles, and how you work with others can help you achieve many of your goals.

“Our relations with other countries and our record of promoting human rights both at home and in concert with other countries, and our cooperation with the Human Rights High Commissioner has given us respect and legitimacy in the international community, and we have been at the forefront of a number of resolutions that has been initiated on matters of grave concern,” he said.

Asked about the Maldives’ commitment to human rights locally, and whether he concurred with the Maldives’ recent delegation to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination that the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives was the “most active national institution in Asia”, Ghafoor observed that “I don’t think there’s any country that has a perfect human rights record.”

“Without exception I think all countries have human rights issues and problems, but what is more important is how do we deal with it and how do we address these issues,” he said.

“I think Maldives has shown that it is willing to address the shortcomings it has in its human rights promotion and making every effort possible within the resources we have to improve our human rights record.

We are willing to work with other countries, with the international human rights organisations, even with NGOs to make the human rights issue a non-issue hopefully some time in the future. But that maybe a bit too much to hope for. So long as there are human beings interacting with each other there’s likely to be human rights issues.”

Speaking as to the Maldives’ position on the UN report detailing war crimes in the closing days of Sri Lanka’s civil war, Ghafoor said he did not think the matter would create friction with the Maldives’ neighbour.

“I do not see the government having any issues at this stage with the Sri Lankan government,” he said.

“[Naseem] has stated that we would like to see the UN take a more comprehensive review of what has happened in Sri Lanka, rather than concentrate on the last few days. This could skew the whole issue. So we do not see our memberships of the Human Rights Council making it difficult for us to have good relations with Sri Lanka or speak on issues of sensitivity. I think as good friends Maldives can speak very frankly with Sri Lanka and I’m sure they would happy to listen to our views.”

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Maldives making strides: US State Department

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has praised the strides the Maldives is making, during a visit by Foreign Minister Ahmed Naseem.

“The United States is very impressed with the many strides that the Maldives is making, and also the role that you are playing regionally and even globally on important issues like climate change and so much else,” Clinton said.

Naseem thanked the State Department for the guidance and assistance from diplomats in Colombo and Washington towards the country’s transition from dictatorship.

“I think that was the pivoting of the Islamic awakening. And thank you very much for all that,” he said.

“And we are working very closely on the – in the areas of human rights in Geneva, also on the perils and the difficulties that the small island states are facing due to climate change and the climate extreme weather conditions that we are having at the moment. And I wish to thank the United States very much. And we have also cooperation in the areas of coast guard training and military training, and many of our social, health, and other areas.”

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Former prisons chief interrogated after release of DPRS torture photos

Former Prisons Division Head with the Department of Penitentiary and Rehabilitation Serivces (DPRS) Isthafa Ibrahim Manik has been detained and questioned by police, after disturbing photographs of tortured victims in custody were obtained by the Presidential Commission and leaked to the media.

Manik remains in custody at Maafushi after the courts granted police a 15-day extension of detention.

The photos released so far include images of men tied to coconut palms, caged, and bloodied. One of the photos, of a prisoner lying on a blood-soaked mattress, has a 2001 date stamp.

A senior government official told Minivan News that the photos were obtained by the Commission from the DPRS itself on Monday, and that those released “are just the tip of the iceberg.”

Inspector of Police Abdulla Nawaz confirmed in a statement to the state broadcaster MNBC that the matter involved severe cases of torture and suspected fatalities, and had been passed to police.

“Former heads of the Prisons Division will be interrogated,” he said. “We will also question former ministers if it is believed that they were involved,” he added, claiming that police would withhold the identities of some of those summoned for questioning.

One of the pictures, reportedly obtained from the DPRS

National Security Advisor and former Defence Minister Ameen Faisal, a member of the Presidential Commission, told MNBC that prison records had revealed that inmates were punished without court order “and subjected to inhumane torture and ill-treatment.”

“This commission has received information that some inmates who were tortured ended up dead,” Faisal said.

Many members of the current government, including President Mohamed Nasheed and Foreign Minister Ahmed Naseem, claim to have been tortured under the former administration.

“They were limited only by their imagination,” Naseem said, describing the describing the former government’s treatment of prisoners as “medieval”.

Gayoom’s spokesperson Mohamed Hussein ‘Mundhu’ Shareef told Haveeru that the government’s arrest of the former head of prisons was the “the third part of the drama” in a long-plotted lead up to the arrest of the former president.

“The attempt to arrest President Maumoon will only boost his profile. We see this simply as the government’s attempt to divert the people’s attention from the dollar crisis and rising commodity prices,” Shareef told Haveeru.

The Presidential Commission has previously summoned Gayoom, who refused to appear.

In October 2010, President Nasheed’s high profile support of elderly historian Ahmed Shafeeq, who has alleged that 111 people died in custody under the former administration and that he himself had been arrested and his diaries destroyed, prompted Gayoom to write to the British Prime Minister David Cameron.

In the letter, Gayoom appealed for pressure to be placed on President Mohamed Nasheed following “the escalation of attempts to harass and intimidate me and my family.”

The matter, he told the British PM, involved “unsubstantiated allegations by an elderly man by the name of Ahmed Shafeeq that I had, during my tenure as President, ordered the murder of 111 dissidents.”

“In a book authored by this Shafeeq, which was ceremoniously released [on October 10] by Mohamed Nasheed himself, it is accused that I also ordered the man’s arrest and supposed torture in prison. In a country of just over 300,000, it is safe to assume that even one ‘missing person’ would not go unnoticed, let alone 111.”

Men chained to coconut palms

Nasheed’s government had “escalated its attempts to harass me” in the run up to the local council elections, Gayoom wrote, despite his retirement from politics.

“After the government’s defeat in last year’s parliamentary elections, the popularity ratings of the ruling MDP have fallen further in recent months as a result of the government’s failure to deliver on its campaign promises, and its lack of respect for the law.”

“On the other hand,” Gayoom told the British PM, “I continue to enjoy the strong support, love and affection of the people, and have been voted by the public as ‘Personality of the Year’ in both years since stepping down from the presidency.”

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Parliament endorses Naseem as Foreign Minister and Muiz as Attorney General

Parliament has approved the appointment of Minister of Foreign Affairs Ahmed Nasheed and Attorney General Abdulla Muiz.

Muiz was approved by 74 out of the 76 members present while Naseem received 62 votes endorsing him as Foreign Minister, replacing Dr Ahmed Shaheed.

The appointments mark the end of an extensive cabinet reshuffle prompted by the short-lived resignation of Nasheed’s entire cabinet in July 2010, in a statement against what they described as the “scorched earth” politics of the opposition majority parliament.

However under the Maldivian constitution ministerial appointments are subject to parliamentary approval, and the opposition seized the opportunity to vote out seven of Nasheed’s 13-strong cabinet, and the Attorney General, during a vote in November 2010 that was boycotted by the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP). The vote came after three weeks of disruption in parliament, with some sessions terminated by Speaker Abdulla Shahid – himself an opposition Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) MP – mere minutes after opening.

Seven ministers – Finance Minister Ali Hashim, Education Minister Dr Musthafa Luthfy, Foreign Minister Dr Ahmed Shaheed, Fisheries Minister Dr Ibrahim Didi, Home Minister Mohamed Shihab, Defence Minister Ameen Faisal and Attorney General Dr Ahmed Ali Sawad – did not receive a majority of votes from the 42 MPs in attendance during the November vote.

The government had contested that the only way ministers could be removed was through a majority vote of no-confidence, and further argued that parliamentary approval of ministers appointed by Nasheed was a “ceremonial” function.

“No consent does not amount to no-confidence,” the President’s Press Secretary Mohamed Zuhair argued at the time.

The question of whether ministers could perform their duties without parliamentary approval eventually went before the Supreme Court, which ruled in favour of the opposition. A number of Ministers, including Dr Ahmed Shaheed, resigned on the eve of the ruling.

However the opposition’s victory celebration following the December 2010 ruling was short-lived, and came to blows when Umar Naseer, the party’s dismissed Deputy Leader prior to his dismissal by the party’s disciplinary committee, and his supporters gatecrashed the venue. What had been an acrimonious war of words descended into an outright split of the party into factions loyal to either the party’s ‘honorary leader’ former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, and elected leader Ahmed Thasmeen Ali and Speaker Ahmed Shahid.

The MDP saw the opportunity to rush the remaining appointments through parliament while the DRP was absorbed in  internal politics; Thasmeen was accused by Naseer’s more uncompromising faction of “secret meetings” with President Nasheed.

In a vote last month, replacement Education Minister Shifa Mohamed (66 in favour) and Tourism Minister Dr Mariyam Zulfa (71 in favour) were approved by parliament. More surprising was that Home Minister Hassan Afeef and Transport Minister Adhil Saleem were both narrowly approved despite being unpopular with the opposition and claims by the party that it would impose a three-line whip to reject the two nominees. Several senior figures in the President’s Office privately acknowledged that they had held little hope for either.

The only casualty was Attorney General Dr Ahmed Ali Sawad, whom Nasheed had appointed to the post a second time after his first dismissal by parliament, and who was ousted by one vote.

That same afternoon President Nasheed appointed State Minister Ahmed Naseem as Foreign Minister and Solicitor General Abdulla Muizz as Attorney General, the subject of today’s approval, suggesting that the MDP may indeed have gained leverage in parliament at the expense of the fractured opposition.

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Leader of MDP Religious Council resigns in protest

Chair of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP)’s Religious Council, Sheikh Adam ‘B.A’ Naseem, has resigned.

Sheikh Naseem confirmed to Minivan News that today he had sent the party a letter of resignation and requested the Elections Commission (EC) record his departure from the party.

“It was due to many issues,’’ Sheikh Naseem said. ‘’The education policy of this government is one issue.’’

There were other issues, he said, that he did “not wish to discuss”.

Spokesperson for MDP Ahmed Haleem said he had not received the information yet, and Chairperson of MDP MP Mariya Didi and Parliamentary Group leader MP Moosa Manik did not respond to Minivan News at time of press.

Last night protesters gathered near the house of Minister of Education Dr Musthafa Luthfy and called on the resignation of the minister, and some other senior officials at the ministry.

Religious NGOs such as Jamiyyathul Salaf and other NGOs have opposed to the introduction of co-education and warned the ministry that there will be “many social and religious issues” that would arise if the concept was introduced.

Dr Musthafa Luthfy recently told Minivan News that the ministry’s idea was not to introduce co-education, but was rather to combine primary grades to the current secondary schools, in which case the all-female and all-male schools would have to receive girls and boys.

There are currently four secondary schools in Male’, two for males only and the other two for females.

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Donor Conference pledges now US$487 million, says Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Aid commitments following the recent Maldives Donor Conference have reached US$487 million, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Foreign Minister Dr Ahmed Shaheed and State Minister Ahmed Naseem took to the stage this morning to dismiss claims made by the Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) that the donor conference had raised less US$20 million in pledges.

“That is their own number,” Dr Shaheed said.

“If you add up the money from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, the UN system, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the Islamic Development Bank (IDB) it’s almost US$200 million. That is 80 per cent of pledges coming from these big donors.”

Shaheed spoke about monitoring and implementation mechanisms, which would ensure the funds are used according to the donor’s wishes and the government’s pledges.

Coordinator for the UN in the Maldives Mansoor Ali said the donor conference had been very successful and it was “not the time to be negative” about the results.

Dr Shaheed also spoke of the recent climate change meeting held this week by the Progressive Group in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia, where delegates from 23 countries met to advance negotiations before the next international climate change summit scheduled to take place in Cancun, Mexico in November this year.

The Progressive Group brings together the countries with a “forward-looking and constructive attitude to international climate change negotiations,” and played a key role in last year’s international climate change summit in Copenhagen.

Delegates from over twenty countries came together in Colombia to “exchange opinions and promote active participation towards the next climate change summit.”

The meeting focused mostly on creating ministerial-level communication between countries, in hopes to ease dialogue between nations and to advance on key issues such as fast-start financing, adaptation, low-carbon development and verification of emission cuts.

Maldives proposed a second ministerial-level meeting to take place in Malé in July this year.

Dr Shaheed also spoke of President Mohamed Nasheed’s recent visit to Europe, and confirmed that German Police officers will be arriving in Malé “very soon” to begin training Maldives Police Service (MPS) officers to work in a democracy.

“They are the ones who retrained the Stasi in East Germany after German reunification, as well as the police force in Kosovo,” Shaheed said. “They are the best in the world at what they do.”

He said the German team will stay in the Maldives from one year to eighteen months, depending on when they believe the MPS is ready, “all at the German government’s expense.”

Dr Shaheed added that Icelandic President, Ólafur Grímsson, will be visiting the Maldives soon to promote sustainable green energy alongside President Nasheed.

Dr Shaheed spoke of the recently signed agreement with the Rothschild banking dynasty, which has agreed to help the Maldives in the bid to become carbon neutral by 2020.

“There needs to be a study on where we have most carbon emissions,” Dr Shaheed said, adding that “they will also try to carbon-proof our current systems.”

The Rothschild group will secure international financing to fund a carbon audit of the Maldives. Dr Shaheed said the surveying will take approximately nine months.

Dr Shaheed ended the press conference with news of the UN Human Rights Council’s decision to draft a new international human rights treaty as an additional optional protocol to the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child (CRC), which was proposed by the Maldives.

Maldives was chosen to chair the core group discussing the CRC in Geneva, joined by Slovenia, Slovakia, Egypt, Kenya, France, Finland, Thailand, Uruguay and Chile.

The CRC, which is the most ratified treaty in the world, was lacking in allowing cases regarding abuse of the rights of children to be submitted to international UN mechanisms.

The new treaty proposes to allow cases to be sent to international protection mechanisms to intervene when domestic institutions fail to offer protection.

Correction: In an earlier version of this story Dr Shaheed was quoted as saying the visiting German police trainers were  responsible for retraining the Gestapo after the Second World War. This has been clarified as the Stasi, the East German secret police, who were retrained after the reunification of Germany post-1990.

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Pain and politics: Torture Victims Association inaugurated

The Torture Victims Association (TVA) held its inaugural meeting last night, following its founding in January 2010 by Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) MP ‘Reeko’ Moosa Manik, State Minister for Foreign Affairs Ahmed Naseem, Tourism Minister and human rights lawyer Dr Ahmed Ali Sawad, and Foreign Minister Dr Ahmed Shaheed.

Naseem, who is president of the organisation, said the organisation’s purpose was to support torture victims and “prevent these types of things from happening again in Maldives.”

He said the organisation was founded “so there is a place [torture victims] can go and talk about what happened to them, and take some solace, get some comfort.”

“[Torture] happened a lot, openly,” said Naseem, who says he was himself a victim of torture.

“It happened under several governments… through government institutions. It wasn’t the exception, it was the norm here.”

A political thing

The TVA has come under scrutiny already for being an MDP-led NGO, of which President Nasheed has just become a member.

“It’s non-governmental, and it is not a political organisation,” Naseem insisted, “it is totally egalitarian.”

Torture through silence

“At the [inaugural] meeting, there were victims who were tortured as well as people who torturered through their silence,” Sawad said. “Through their silence, they condoned a culture of torture.”

The previous government has been accused of torture, but none of the accused have been taken to court.

The first step in bringing justice to victims of torture is, according to the TVA, gathering information and evidence.

“Gathering information is the very initial stage,” Naseem said. “We also need the support of the people of this country. It’s a traumatised society. Families have been traumatised.”

Creating a historical record of torture in the Maldives, and breaking the silence, are two major steps forward, claims the TVA.

“We are the only country in the world who doesn’t have a historical record regarding this,” Naseem noted. “In the Pol-Pot regime, in Nazi Germany, in Kosovo, they know how many people were killed. But here, we don’t know. We just see in the papers that some people have been lost. That’s it.”

Dr Sawad said the entire culture of torture “has been called a myth by powerful members of our community. But it happened. With that acknowledgement, we can focus on accountability.”

Kevin Laue, a lawyer with London-based human rights NGO Redress, is working with the TVA to seek justice for victims of torture.

“Finding out what happened is key…then we can decide what needs to be done,” said Laue.

Politics

Mohamed Hussain ‘Mundhu’ Shareef, spokesman for the former president, said there has been no formal response from Gayoom to the TVA’s allegations “because they are not an entity we recognise as being worthy of response.”

“Just look at who’s in charge. When the association starts with a name like Reeko Moosa, who hates Gayoom, there is very little reason to take them seriously.”

Mundhu said the TVA wanted people to believe it is was an NGO – impartial, free of government intervention and politically unbiased – but he said suggested that it had been formed as a “political ploy… to divert people’s attention from the failures of this government.”

When asked whether the number of politicians in the Association could be a liability for the impartiality of their work, Naseem answered, “what can you do?”

“All the people who participated in the human rights movement in the Maldives are now in government, so you can’t avoid it. Some went to jail, some people were brutalised and some people died. You can’t say it’s the government, we are human beings.”

Naseem reiterated that the TVA is “not a political thing” and it only becomes political when people are looking for a “quick fix.”

“A process like this takes years,” Naseem said. “We work through the government and the judiciary, and if the government doesn’t get involved, it is much better.”

The TVA says members of the former government “cannot” admit to torture allegations because they would be tried in court, but Mundhu said that none of the “ridiculous claims of defamation of character” against former president Gayoom have held up in a court of law.

“Gayoom is the single most popular individual in this country,” he said. “The government should be ashamed of accusing him of torture.”

Accountability

Dr Sawad said the TVA does not believe it was up to the government or the state to decide what would happen to the torturers.

“It’s for the victim to launch the claim and for the judicial system to decide. And we are here to facilitate that,” he explained.

He added that the TVA wants to “document and push the claims of torture within the judiciary.”

“If we believe that the claim has not been addressed through the domestic judicial system, we are prepared to take it to the next level.”

Laue said that “if [torturers] are not prosecuted [in the Maldives], we must not forget torture is a crime which is under universal jurisdiction.”

Assuming there is enough evidence, Laue claimed a perpetrator could be arrested and tried in a foreign country, extradited or sent to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

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Return of an exile

After 28 years of self-imposed exile, Moomina Haleem returned to the Maldives on November 15.

“I had not seen this Male’. It was absolutely amazing; when I left it was green and the only thing I could see was treetops. Now it looks like little Manhattan,” says Moomina, now 70 years old.

Harassed to the point of being forced to leave the country, one imagines the experience would have left Moomina bitter. But Moomina is the epitome of happiness, sitting in her home, surrounded by two visiting friends. She offers me nougat and Maldivian sweets, laughingly telling me this is what they do all day now.

She has the sweetest smile and looks like everyone’s favourite aunt. Black and white photos are framed on the walls behind her.

Her return to the Maldives started with a phone call. She describes it as her happiest moment in 28 years “when Mohamed Nasheed called me just after he won the election and told me, ‘you can come home now.’”

Her excitement was such that it took her three tries just to get home. The first time she lay awake the entire night and was sick, “so instead of airport I went to the hospital. The doctors found nothing wrong with me, I think it was extreme happiness playing havoc.”

Two days later she woke on departure day to realize she had lost her voice. Finally she arrived on November 15, 2008.

She says despite the invitation to to attend President Mohamed Nasheed’s inauguration, she insisted she would come back after he was sworn in.

“This time I was very happy to be able to participate in the festivities for the one year mark,” she says.

Keeping in touch

Moomina kept herself updated with what was happening in the Maldives through newspapers her husband bought her regularly, “although I am not sure everything I read was correct.”

‘Disappointment’ is the foremost emotion she feels about the years she lived in exile.

“I couldn’t help my countrymen, even when I was young and capable of doing so much for the people,” she laments.

She wasn’t completely ‘useless’ for her compatriots, as she puts it, acting as translator and accompanying Maldivians who travelled to Sri Llanka for medical treatment.

“Back then it was crucial help as most didn’t speak English. Now the youngsters are fluent in it,” she says.

A trained nurse by profession, it helped that she was familiar with the health sector, but she says “even then I could only help those I saw.”

She recalls a time she accompanied a couple to the doctor. When they saw her five days later after being cured, they tried to give her money for her help.

“I told them that I had been educated by Maldivian government when the country was very poor, and it was my duty to help and there was no way I would accept money from a Maldivian for that.”

Moomina laments that despite the state bestowing on her the gift of education, circumstances did not enable her to contribute back to the country to the extent she wanted to.

Leaving and travelling

Two years after Gayoom’s government came to power in late 1978, Moomina went to Sri Lanka for the treatment of her younger sister.

“I never imagined I would not come back then,” she says. Calls followed in quick succession, including from her mother who asked her not to return.

“By then there was practically no one in my family who hadn’t been detained on one pretext or another,” Moomina says.

Her husband, who suffered from epilepsy, had to take medicine every night and she recalls how every evening police would show up the moment he went to sleep to take him to the station where they would keep him awake until morning.

Moomina had to make the painful decision to not return for her two sons, then aged six years and two months.

“I had no money, I didn’t know what the future held, or how could I take them with me,” she says. It would be four years before she would see her children again.

Before making the decision to become an exile Moomina had been dragged to court and detained for questioning on numerous occasions. Once, the judge sentenced her to banishment, “although they never enforced the sentence. I never imagined I would ever be taken to court,” she says. She says being repeatedly dragged to court was one of her most difficult experiences.

She was frequently accused of inciting hatred among citizens towards the government, an offense under a particular article in the constitution “that was written in such a way that you could interpret it any way you wanted. It’s not in the constitution now.”

But her stay in Colombo was short lived. After three months she was summoned to the dreaded CID quarters in Colombo.

“People had fallen from that building, and been tortured, and I dared not go there,” she recalls. Instead she consulted her husband’s friend, who used a contact to ask the CID to come round and interview her at his place.

“Two CID officers arrived and said I had been placed under surveillance since my arrival on the request of Maldivian government,” she says.

While they said they had found nothing to indicate she was part of a revolution against the government, they couldn’t allow her to stay in Sri Lanka “owing to the close ties between the two countries.”

They also told her that the head of the revolution was her relative Ahmed Naseem (now state minister for foreign affairs).

“I was under that misconception for 15 years until I met Ilyas Ibrahim (brother-in-law of former president Gayoom) in London.”

Ilyas was undergoing self-imposed exile in London after he was sentenced in absentia to 15 years’ banishment for treason during Gayoom’s third term in power. The court claimed he had tried to overthrow the government using sorcery.

He was frank enough to tell Moomina that they had cooked up the story about Naseem, she alleges, adding this dumbfounded her “especially since Naseem had spent considerable time in jail for that.”

She claims he also told her that the government had been rigging elections ever since they came to power. She laughingly says she should have had a recorder then.

“I used to say this: when my husband gets banished it is to Baa Atoll Dhonfanu, when Ilyas gets banished it is to London.”

Back and forth

Moomina asked the Sri Lankan CID for 24 hours to leave the country, and chose UK as her destination as it was at the time the only country aside from Italy that would accept Maldivians without visas.

She bought a ticket with her remaining money, leaving her with five dollars. In London she lodged at a friend’s sister’s place.

As a member of Royal College of Nursing, she contacted them and was advised to apply for political asylum. The home affairs secretary told her she would be given permission to work the next day if she applied.

“I told them I couldn’t, because if the news travelled back to Maldives I was scared of what they would do to my family.”

After completing a refresher course offered by the college she applied for a job in Kuwait. She had barely started working as the director of nursing in a hospital when the first Iran-Iraq war broke out.

“I looked at the maps and I thought about this little country sandwiched between two giants, and what would happen to it [during the war].”

So she travelled back to London again, only returning to work in Kuwait five months later when she was sure it was safe. She says there were moments she was almost penniless but fear for her family’s safety kept preventing her from applying for political asylum.

She tells cute anecdotes. One night, she says, when she was left with only five pounds, she prayed before going to sleep that night and woke up to a phone call from the State Bank of India informing her there was 1,000 pounds waiting for her from her husband. When she asked him why he sent the money at that exact moment, two and a half years later “he told me he woke up and thought she must need money now.”

Several years after working in Kuwait she met the ambassador to Sri Lanka, and during their conversation she realized the Maldivian government’s objective was simply to ensure she didn’t return to Maldives. So she went back to Colombo where she was reunited with her children.

“My mom moved to Colombo with the children, as even their life was becoming more difficult.”

Contribution to the country

After her studies, Moomina started working in November 1963 as the matron of the hospital, when the country was still a sultanate.

“It was barely a hospital then, it was called the doctoruge (doctor’s house).” During her early career she even designed and commissioned a bed to help women give birth.

A few days into her job, the person in charge of the hospital complained that soap expenses had been skyrocketing ever since she arrived. Her explanation is fascinating especially at a time when we take such things for granted: “There were two untrained staff who applied dressings to patients, and one doubled as the undertaker.”

Noticing they didn’t wash their hands in between attending to different patients, Moomina trained them to do it. “Once they started hand washing, the expenses complaint came up.” She ended up taking soap from her house to the hospital.

The problem of patient privacy arose next, especially for those who needed to use bedpans.

“Without screens, I dared not do it,” she says. The solution involved buying three pieces of clothing to make up screens, “and that took care of my entire month’s salary.” As all this was new, there was no budget allocated for such things.

Expenses were such a problem that when she heard over the radio that Ibrahim Nasir had been assigned the head of the hospital, her first words were: “Better than him getting the salary would be giving the money to me to buy medicine for the poor.”

She was pleasantly surprised to be summoned and told that Nasir was donating his salary to the hospital.

Then there was a fund called Ranabadeyri kileygefanu fund, and she was assigned the task of spending its monthly stipend of Rf 1,000. “Back then for 100 rufiyya we could buy medicine for 10 people so it was a lot,” she says.

But the funds came with strings attached. “100 rufiyya was given at a time, once I spent that money on buying medicine for the poor I had to show records, with the patient’s signature, then I would be given the next 100.”

Her diligence was duly noted, and Nasir appointed her health minister in 1976 when he became president.

“I wrote the syllabus, included information on common illnesses, their causes and prevention methods as well as good, nutritional stuff to eat. But my biggest achievement was training health workers and sending one to each island – before that there was only one health worker per atoll,” she says, proud of her contribution even though she only held the portfolio for a short time before Nasir’s government was dissolved in 1978.

Moomina was also quite the trendsetter, and was one of the first women to ride a bicycle in the Maldives. “I was quite the sight”, she laughs, recalling she had to ride a man’s bicycle with her sari which was the uniform back then. Seeing her plight, Nasir introduced bicycles for women which made riding around easier.

Maldives now

Moomina can’t give a reason for Gayoom’s harassment of her.

“Back then a woman couldn’t even be president, so how could I have been a threat?” she wonders, admitting she would have quickly stood for election had the constitution allowed it.

The greatest change in the country, she believes, is the freedom to say what one wants.

“Sitting here I can say anything and I know I will not be detained by police. One year of this new government and no political prisoners – it’s simply amazing.”

The concept of MPs debating in parliament fascinates her, “as they can say what they want.”

“Though some do take it a bit extreme. Sometimes they seem to oppose just because it’s something that is not from their own party.”

She remains happy that at least they do vote together for things that benefit the people.

Moomina had been a parliament member during Nasir’s government, and was the only women for six years. “Before that there had been nominated women parliamentarians like my mother and two others during the first president Mohamed Ameen’s time, but I was the first one to be elected.”

She attributes her attitude to her mother, who frequented the market long before any women shopped there.

As for religious talks, she says she “quite likes” those of State Minister for Islamic Affairs, Mohamed Shaheem Ali Saeed.

“The things he says and the way he says it – it makes one want to listen more,” she says, but adds she would have a problem if she was forced to wear a veil “because the hair on my head never caused me any problem during all my travels.”

Moomina says she is ready to serve this government any way she can, “Though now I will no longer be able to do day-to-day affairs, as I am at the age of retirement and no longer live here.”

Living in the Maldives cost less in Nasir’s time considering the lower income of the country compared to Maumoon’s 30 years, she recalls.

“Then the average annual income was US$15,000-$20,000 thousand, but education and medicine were free, he introduced English medium studies and brought in foreign teachers – a lot was done.”

The current government’s work so far is “commendable”, she says, but adds “people expect things too fast. The government doesn’t have the money to deliver everything yet.” She hopes that once the government gets its financial situation under control, “they should not misuse it, and deliver on their pledges.”

She harbors no ill will towards Gayoom. “Bitterness ends up destroying oneself. As I got older I have decided I will not say hurtful things even to him,” she says.

Her only complaint is the amount of money Gayoom receives as an ex-president: “By this country’s standard that is too much.”

Dividing her time between Sri Lanka, London and Maldives, she says she will not stay here permanently because her husband is now used to living elsewhere.

“But it’s such a joy to be able to come back home to Maldives whenever I want, and to be able to say anything without fear.”

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