Nasheed ‘an innocent man and the Maldives’ great hope’: Amal Clooney

“It may be famous for the pristine holiday beaches of its Indian Ocean coastline but the Maldives has taken a dark authoritarian turn. In 2008, the island nation became a democracy after Mohamed Nasheed was sworn in as president after the country’s first-ever free and fair elections,” writes Amal Clooney in the Guardian.

“A charismatic leader, Nasheed introduced liberalising reforms at home, while calling for global action against climate change in an attempt to combat the rising sea levels that threaten to inundate the low-lying nation. His remarkable story is chronicled in the acclaimed documentary The Island President.

“Seven years later, however, Nasheed is in prison, having been sentenced to 13 years imprisonment for the crime of “terrorism” following a politically motivated show trial.

“As a young man, Nasheed made a name for himself as a dissident journalist who challenged the repressive regime of Maumoon Gayoom, the Maldives’ long-serving dictator. Over a 15-year period, Nasheed was arrested more than 20 times. He was twice named by Amnesty International a prisoner of conscience.”

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Comment: The darkest hour is just before the dawn

Latheefa Ahmed Verall is former President Mohamed Nasheed’s maternal aunt

I was twenty-eight when Maumoon Abdul Gayoom became the president of the Maldives. President Nasir had been demonised and vilified, and a saviour, like a shining beacon of virtue from the deep, ancient bowels of Al- Azhar had appeared. He came in trailing clouds of glory that was Islamic scholarship. I was simply bowled over – to use a phrase that he and I probably share as lovers of cricket!

The year 1978 was an auspicious year for us both. I was expecting my first child; he was starting on his life’s work as the longest ruling dictator of Asia. Our paths never crossed of course because he was in the business of silencing public dissent in a frenzy of torture and authoritarian heavy handedness, while miles away in New Zealand, I was in the business of teaching my students and eventually my own children, the importance of asking the question ‘why’.

I want to talk to you, the readers of this website and also to others in our extremely divided nation, so that you may open your minds enough to listen to the reason why we must never, never give up striving for our rights. Get over the fact that I am [former President Mohamed] Nasheed’s aunt, get over the fact I live over eleven thousand kilometres away. I am 65 years old and smart enough to separate what I want for my nephew and what I want for my country. They are two different things. This is for my country.

For those people who question my right to voice these concerns, I have this to say. My generation in the Maldives had no voice. We did not have the know-how or the belief that we could stand up to what was unfair, corrupt or unjust. Most of us, particularly women, believed that life was about accepting the status quo, being obedient, humble and respectful towards authority and power. That was the world-view we held and we strived to live ’good’ lives within it. We forgot to ask the question why things were the way they were.

When I saw the pictures of Evan Naseem, his dead body beaten and bruised, his hair matted in his own blood, I realised this was an atrocity that had been years in the making. This lack of respect for human life and dignity had its roots years before 2003. My generation had allowed the regime to come to that point of inhumanity because of our impotency and lack of action. I wept as the words, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing,” resonated in me. I have never forgotten their significance.

Our impotency came in many guises: we thought bowing down to authority, however unfair, was part of our heritage, we thought it was what our religion demanded of us, we assumed that deference was owed to a ruler simply because he was the ruler and finally we feared that the regime was too powerful to be affected by our concerns.

Today, the imprisonment of Nasheed and the unleashing of the regime’s vendetta on any who disagreed with their Grand Design, are natural progressions for a group of people who had always dealt with problems in a predictable and unimaginative way. They have no answers other than sheer brutality. But now, we the people, no longer find this acceptable. We are no longer prepared to consider it the norm. Those early activists and opposition supporters have helped liberate us all. And all of us working together have finally brought the eyes of the world on the Yameen/Maumoon regime.

[President Abdulla] Yameen, with the same lack of imagination, is following in his brother’s footsteps, and the prisons are once again filling up with their opponents. The events of the last few months scream out the desperation of a group that has once again run out of options: an ex-president jailed by a regime-controlled judiciary who, because of their incompetence and the political pressure of their masters, turned Nasheed’s trial into a farce, a defence minister sentenced for terrorism because of insurmountable differences and divisions in their own dog eat dog cabinet, a predictable falling out with their rich coalition partner who facilitated the regime’s return to power and is currently kept impotent by the threat of financial ruin and finally the country spurned by all freedom loving citizens of the world. Their solution: to move towards a state of emergency because they cannot control the citizenry other than by force.

This mounting opposition to the regime makes it abundantly clear that this is not Nasheed’s fight alone. He is not the only one to suffer brutality and injustice. Under this regime, to various degrees, we have all been within prison walls and we have all suffered from huge injustices. And our fathers, mothers, brothers, uncles, aunts, nieces, nephews and friends have been affected by this cancer that has destroyed the very soul of the country which we hold dear to our hearts.

I am a student of history and I know that in any great struggle between the forces of tradition and modernity or the rights and wellbeing of all people and the greed of the few, the hardest time is when we feel that fortune has taken a dramatic turn for the worse. With Nasheed in prison, the regime in control of the judiciary so that they can dish out their malice willy-nilly, and the police high on testosterone, it may appear that our objectives are all but unattainable.

But life’s great lesson is that this is exactly the time for us to view our achievements and persevere in the face of adversity. The darkest time is always before the dawn. This is the time to have faith in our ability and not give up. This is the time to increase our resolve, increase our determination and increase our action.

Why?

Unlike my generation, today’s Maldivians are not incapacitated by years of tradition and social isolation. The question ‘why’ has been asked. People have dared. And more than that, we have several leaders in prison and this may well be a positive turning point, as for the first time, the eyes of the world are turned on the Maldives as never before. The time is ripe for our action, to actively insist that we do not want a future of brutality and suppression.

The regime believes that by imprisoning Nasheed and other leaders they can curb the move towards democracy and return to the good old days of untrammelled power. But these arrests give all of us the unheralded power to break this regime. We can prove them wrong. They can continue to imprison people, but they cannot suppress an idea. They cannot imprison or beat an ideal.

The time to unhinge this crumbling, ancient relic of a regime is now. This is our time to act.

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to [email protected]

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Comment: Consolidating democracy

“A truth that many political parties active in the Maldives accept is that the MDP is unmatched when it comes to election campaigns,” declared a Haveeru report or op-ed published on April 21, 2013. The high praise was surprising coming from a publication that is not known to favour the Maldivian Democratic Party.

It was a sign of shifting political tides. The report appeared a day after the MDP held the largest rally by a political party in the country’s history to celebrate the signing of Speaker of Parliament Abdulla Shahid. Grudging acknowledgment of the MDP’s grassroots support, innovation and enterprise was a common sentiment in the aftermath of the mass rally.

The most significant observation in the Haveeru report, to my mind, was this: “MDP is the party that introduced many democratic concepts [to the Maldives].” The author observed that it was the MDP that introduced “door to door campaigning,” “manifesto,” “haruge and campaign jagaha (meeting halls)” into the local vocabulary. Other political parties have since followed in the footsteps of the pioneering party by adopting these phrases.

The MDP was born out of a pro-democracy movement in the wake of unprecedented civil unrest in September 2003, which was precipitated by a custodial death exposed to the public and fatal shooting of inmates. The movement culminated in the election of Mohamed Nasheed as president in October 2008, ending a 30-year autocracy and heralding a new dawn for the Maldives with unheard-of levels of freedom of expression and civil liberties.

As a voter in tomorrow’s historic election, the considerations for choosing a candidate sadly remain much the same as in 2008. Five years ago, a majority reached the conclusion that Nasheed was the only choice. Apart from Ibrahim Ismail ‘Ibra,’ he was the only candidate with genuine democratic credentials. The others could not be trusted to dismantle the autocratic status quo.

The dictatorship of President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom was characterised by repression, torture, nepotism, wanton corruption, income inequality and self-serving Islamo-nationalist propaganda on state media. If Gayoom was re-elected and emboldened with a mandate, the fear was that he would crush the opposition and jail its leaders or force them into exile. An independent auditor general would not dare reveal illegal expenditure, the judiciary would remain under his thumb, and the nefarious security forces would once again be used to stifle dissent.

As for the rest, including current presidential candidate Gasim Ibrahim and his running mate Dr Hassan Saeed, they lost credibility to speak of democracy by perpetrating the televised coup d’etat on February 7, 2012 and because of their disgraceful behaviour while in opposition: relentless efforts to topple the government, blocking the Nasheed administration at every turn, obstructing essential tax reforms, deliberately sabotaging the economy and whipping up religious hatred. Their commitment to stability and democratic processes was on display at the Republic Square on the day we lost our hard-won democracy.

I believe the overriding issue of this election is saying no to the coup and police brutality. What is at stake here is a second chance at consolidating democracy. According to the “two-turnover test” of political scientist Samuel Huntington, an emergent democracy must undergo two peaceful transfers of power to become stable. The February 7 coup threatened a complete authoritarian reversal and imperilled the fraught transition. If the coup had not happened, tomorrow’s election would take the Maldives closer to a functioning democracy regardless of the winner. As it stands, the only hope is a victory for the democratic party.

It is for this reason that voters cannot afford to be apathetic. In established democracies such as the UK or US, a liberal could arguably rationalise non-participation in the political process if the choice is “voting for the lesser evil.”

The same cannot be said of the Maldives. It is harder to justify withholding support to the most liberal president we are likely to see in our lifetime when the other candidates represent a cabal of authoritarian loyalists, oligarchs and Islamists that employed mutinous security forces to overthrow the first democratically-elected government.

In other words, the possibility of coup perpetrators winning the election should be part of the equation for voters unconvinced by Nasheed. This election is bigger than one person. Idealists who cannot bring themselves to vote for Nasheed should consider the consequences of the alternative and take a long view: living in a police state ten years from now where the Islamist party has revamped the education curriculum. Whatever issue you have with Nasheed will seem petty then.

The track record of the coup government speaks for itself as a sign of things to come under “Baaghee” rule. Consider the following before you cast your ballot tomorrow,

* In the first 24 hours, the same Specialist Operations (SO) police officers who instigated the coup d’etat with a violent mutiny baton charged an MDP march, leaving dozens of unarmed civilians in the ICU with head injuries.

* Al Jazeera reported that “the police and military charged, beating demonstrators as they ran – women, the elderly, dozens left nursing their wounds.”

* In the wake of the brutal crackdown, the SO officers bore down on the capital’s two main hospitals and arrested dozens of people visiting their injured friends and relatives. The BBC reported “a baton charge by police on crowds gathered outside one of the main hospitals.”

* The toothless and politically-compromised Human Rights Commission of the Maldives was forced to acknowledge that the crackdown was “brutal” and “without warning.”

* Amnesty International observed in May 2012 that failure to prosecute police officers accused of human rights violations and “serious failings in the justice system entrenched impunity.”

* In a report titled “The Other Side of Paradise: A Human Rights Crisis in the Maldives,” Amnesty International warned that “the country is slipping back into the old pattern of repression and injustice.”

* In June this year, the police disciplinary board decided not to take any administrative action, such as suspension, against five officers facing criminal prosecution over police brutality on February 8, 2012. In the most egregious case of impunity, a staff sergeant who was caught on tape kicking a fallen protester was promoted despite the Police Integrity Commission forwarding a case against the officer for prosecution in May 2012.

* Pressed on police brutality, the California liberal Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan dismissed it as “a matter of opinion.”

* The Maldives was dropped from Freedom House’s list of electoral democracies “due to the forcible removal of democratically elected president Mohamed Nasheed, violence perpetrated against him and his party, the suspension of the parliament’s summer session, and the role of the military in facilitating these events.”

* The Maldives plummeted to 103rd in the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index, a return to pre-2008 levels after climbing to 51st in 2009. I can personally testify to the state of press freedom in the aftermath of the coup. On August 30, 2012, I was arrested for the crime of pointing a camera at SO officers.

* Weeks after coming to power, the new government rewarded resort tycoons by allowing extended resort leases to be paid in instalments rather than upfront or in a lump sum at the end of the lease. The Maldives Inland Revenue Authority (MIRA) revealed in April 2012 that revenue collected in March was 37.9 percent lower than the projected revenue “mainly due to the unrealised revenue from the Lease Extension Period.” The lost revenue amounted to MVR352 million (US$23 million).

* Despite an ongoing budget crisis, the government had the funds to promote more than 1000 officers, hire 110 new officers, seek recruits for a “special constabulary” reserve force, introduce a loan scheme for police officers, make arrangements for officers and their families to receive cheap accommodations and medical treatment in Sri Lanka and award 600 flats to police and military officers.

* In January 2013, former chief of police intelligence, Chief Superintendent Mohamed ‘MC’ Hameed revealed to a parliamentary committee that 1,112 officers were promoted the previous year despite only 600 forms being submitted under the normal promotion procedure. “What we saw was that officers with a disciplinary record from the floor to the ceiling were given promotion by the executive board,” Hameed told MPs.

* In late November 2012, the Finance Ministry revealed that GDP growth of the tourism industry had flatlined in 2012 to 0.7 percent, falling from 15.8 percent in 2010 and 9.1 percent in 2011. Economic growth meanwhile slowed to an anaemic 3.5 percent, significantly down from 7.1 percent growth in 2010 and 7 percent in 2011.

* In February 2012, the new administration abolished the Maldives Volunteer Corps.

* The public sector wage bill skyrocketed 37 percent in 2013 with MVR1.3 billion in additional recurrent expenditure, including a 14 percent hike in military spending and plans to hire 864 new staff for the security services.

* “[The coup perpetrators] have destroyed US$2-3 billion worth of investment and condemned the country to an unstable economic future based upon diesel”: Mike Mason in June 2012.

* In June this year, the government accused UN Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers of undermining “national jurisdiction and the court system.”

* In November 2012, the President’s Office Spokesperson publicly insulted the Indian High Commissioner, sparking a diplomatic incident and souring relations with India.

* In the next month, the government arbitrarily terminated a concession agreement with the GMR-MAHB consortium to manage and develop the Ibrahim Nasir International Airport, a move that arguably shattered investor confidence and could force the country to pay the GMR US$1.4 billion as compensation.

* In December 2012, the pro-government majority in parliament passed a draconian law that restricts freedom of assembly.

* Also in December 2012, it emerged that the Maldives would be omitted from Transparency International’s global Corruption Perception Index (CPI) due to “insufficient data.”

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to [email protected]

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