US never considered establishing military presence in Maldives

“The US has not and is not considering a permanent military presence in the Maldives. We continue to share a close bilateral defence relationship on areas of mutual interest,” Pentagon spokesperson Lt Col Jeffery Pool has told the Press Trust of India.

The comments come after President Abdulla Yameen was reported to have told Sri Lankan media that he had opted against a status of forces agreement (SOFA) with the US.

“There have been discussions before… we are not going to pursue it,” Yameen was quoted as telling media in Colombo.

Minister at the President’s Office Mohamed Hussain Shareef has told media the agreement was rejected for fear of upsetting both Sri Lanka and India.

“We have told them that we can’t do it because both India and Sri Lanka are also not happy with it,” Shareef was quoted as saying.

US officials have repeatedly denied any intentions to establish a base in the Maldives – long associated with military strategists’ ‘String of Pearls’ theory for Chinese military expansion in the Indian Ocean.

The initial document – leaked in April last year – proposed a ten-year agreement which would grant the US unspecified access to facilities within Maldivian territory, with the right to “undertake new construction works and make alterations and improvements.”

The US would also be granted access to and use of “aerial ports, sea ports and agreed facilities for transit, support and related activities; bunkering of ships, refueling of aircraft, maintenance of vessels, aircraft, vehicles and equipment, accommodation of personnel, communications, ship visits, training, exercises, humanitarian activities,”read the leaked draft.

US officials argued that it had around one hundred similar agreements with friendly nations in support of ongoing operation.

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President considers access for Sri Lankan vessels, rejects US military deal

President Abdulla Yameen has agreed to “explore the possibility” of giving innocent passage to Sri Lankan fishing vessels through Maldivian waters under the UN Law of the Sea, the Sri Lankan government has said.

Yameen is currently on a three-day official state visit to the Maldives’ closest neighbour.

During the visit, the president is also reported to have revealed his decision to reject the US proposal for a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which some had feared would see the establishment of a US military base in the country.

“There have been discussions before… we are not going to pursue it,” Yameen was quoted as telling media in Colombo.

Minister at the President’s Office Mohamed Hussain Shareef has told media the agreement was rejected for fear of upsetting both Sri Lanka and India.

“We have told them that we can’t do it because both India and Sri Lanka are also not happy with it,” Shareef was quoted as saying.

An arrangement to allow the use of Maldivian waters for Sri Lankan vessels was made during President Mohamed Nasheed’s term, being met with harsh criticism from Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) – the parent party of President Yameen’s  Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM).

The issue was debated in the parliament at the time, with some MPs saying that the Maldives did not have the capacity to identify and stop foreign vessels fishing illegally fishing, and that such an agreement could further complicate monitoring of the economic zone.

According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, there should not be any fishing activities during an ‘innocent passage’ through territorial sea of a country.

Just two weeks after he concluded a visit to neighboring India, Yameen is now visiting Sri Lanka following an invitation from his counterpart Mahindha Rajapaksa. Official talks between the two leaders have focused on expanding trade relations between the two countries and bilateral cooperation at international level.

Strengthening cooperation in areas including banking, finance, fisheries, agriculture, tourism, education, health, defence, maritime and culture were also discussed.

During the talks the two countries agreed to expedite the exchange of prisoners and to explore the possibility of removing travel visa requirements.

President Yameen assured the Maldives’ support to Sri Lanka at international and regional forums of common membership, and highlighted the importance of working together at international level in dealing with issues of mutual concern.

President Rajapaksa assured Sri Lanka’s support for development programs in Maldives, and agreed to provide more placements for Maldivian students in Sri Lankan universities, as well as offering training facilities in professional institutions and defence training centres.

Meeting the Sri Lankan Minister of Industry and Commerce Rishad Bathiudeen, Yameen discussed the importance of reviving the Sri Lanka-Maldives Joint Economic Commission at the earliest opportunity. Sri Lankan Fisheries Minister Dr Rajitah Senaratne also urged the Maldives to purchase boats from Sri Lanka.

Three agreements were signed between Maldives and Sri Lanka following the official talks – a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on combating Transnational Crime and Developing Police Cooperation between Sri Lanka and the Maldives, an MoU for Vocational Training and Skills Development between Sri Lanka and the Maldives and an MoU on Sports Cooperation between Sri Lanka and Maldives.

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Hong Kong court sentences Maldivian man to life imprisonment for murder of British woman

A 31 year-old Maldivian man has been sentenced to life imprisonment in Hong Kong for the murder of 64 year-old British woman Janet Gilson, a retired major in the Salvation Army.

Ahmed Fareed was arrested by Hong Kong police in March 2011 after the discovery of Janet Gilson’s body under a sofa in a flat belonging to her niece, Julia Fareed – the estranged wife of the accused.

During sentencing at Hong Kong’s Court of First Instance on Thursday (June 20), the presiding judge described Fareed as being “highly dangerous”, stating that the crime was a most brutal killing of a woman aged 64 who had done no harm to the defendant, the South China Morning Post reported.

Sentencing Fareed to life imprisonment, the judge said no motive had been established for the killing of Gilson.

During the trial, the jury heard that the accused had been previously barred via a court order from entering his wife’s home over concerns about his temper.

Media reported that the jury were told during the six day trial how Fareed stood accused of tying up Gilson with rope, before hitting her hard on her forehead. He was then accused of suffocating the victim by stuffing a towel in her mouth while she was still alive. Gilson’s body was later discovered with four broken ribs after being recovered by authorities.

The judge also accused Fareed of committing a calculated murder after the jury were told how he had sent a text message from Gilson’s phone telling her niece she had travelled to Aberdeen in Scotland.

The jury were unanimous in declaring Fareed guilty of the crime.

“Ultimate sacrifice”

Speaking to media after the trial, Julia Fareed praised her late aunt for the “ultimate sacrifice” she had made to allow both herself and her daughter to leave her ex-husband “without fear”.

“To those people that are in relationships with violent partners: I strongly urge you to get away, putting [yourselves at a] sufficient distance to end matters peacefully,” she was quoted as saying.

“I made the mistake of believing I could help change my ex-husband, giving him many chances,” she said. “I realise the error of that judgement now and hope that others can also learn from that.”

Speaking to local media today, Fareed’s family in the Maldives expressed “shock” at the life sentence passed by the Hong Kong court.

Ramzee Mohamed, Fareed’s brother, told Haveeru that his family had previously been informed by the Foreign Ministry that there was insufficient evidence to secure a conviction.

Ramzee claimed Fareed had also never displayed any behaviour in line with the violent nature of the attack, adding that his family did not understand why he attacked the victim instead of his ex-wife.

“He had problems with his wife. So it’s difficult to understand why he would murder her aunt. It’s difficult to believe. But when a court has passed the judgement, what can we do? We could appeal the judgment if it was the Maldives,” he was quoted as saying.

According to Haveeru, Fareed’s family also accused his ex-wife of influencing the trial, alleging she was “extremely influential” in Honk Kong, but without clarifying further.

A Foreign Ministry spokesperson confirmed today that no official notice had been received informing them of the outcome of the trial.

“We have not received a letter yet confirming the verdict, as it was announced over the weekend here,” the spokesperson said today. “However, I think we will get the verdict soon.”

The Foreign Ministry said that in cases where Maldives nationals were imprisoned of facing trial abroad, it was required to provide assistance such as establishing communications with their family.

“From the start of this case, we have been in contact [with Fareed] through our Chinese Embassy and honorary consulate in Hong Kong to provide services like translation and to keep him in touch with his family,” said the spokesperson.

The Foreign Ministry spokesperson said that the Maldives itself had no agreements with Chinese authorities regarding the transfer of prisoners in custody, adding that Fareed would be expected to serve his sentence in Hong Kong “for the time being”.

Fareed’s arrest

Fareed was arrested in March 2011 on Hong Kong pier after Janet Gilson’s body had been found during a second search of her niece’s flat.  Gilson went missing on March 15, 10 days after arriving in Hong Kong. The body was reported to have severe head injuries when discovered.

Local media in the UK reported that Gilson was a long-serving Major in the British branch of the Salvation Army, an international Christian institution with a quasi-military structure known for its charitable work and rehabilitation of alcoholics and drug addicts, and had worked for 40 years as a Christian missionary.

“She had stopped the missionary work but she was still active and in a very high position [in the Salvation Army],” Gilson’s neighbour in her home of Leigh-on-Sea told local media at the time.

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Govt will not sign current draft of SOFA, Defence Minister tells parliament

Defence Minister Mohamed Nazim has informed parliament’s opposition-dominated Executive Oversight Committee that the government will not sign the current draft of a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the United States.

Nazim alleged that a leaked draft of the agreement had been “doctored”, according to local media, however he refused to share the current draft with the committee.

The government would only share the draft with the National Security Committee, Attorney General Aisthath Bisham told the oversight committee.

“It’s just a draft, and is at a very infant stage,” Nazim was reported to have told the committee. “We discussed it with relevant government authorities. I myself don’t believe that the draft can be finalised without making the necessary amendments.”

Islamic Minister Sheikh Mohamed Shaheem Ali Saeed has also opposed the signing of the SOFA agreement.

“There is no way that the SOFA agreement can be signed, allowing foreign forces to stay on our land. Nor can we allow them to make the Maldives a destination in which to refuel their ships,” Shaheem stated previously on social media.

“The reason is, the US might attempt to use the Maldives as a centre when they are attacking another Muslim state. There is no way we will let that happen,” he said, asserting that he “will not compromise on the matter at all”.

The agreement

The leaked draft of the proposed SOFA with between the Maldives and the US “incorporates the principal provisions and necessary authorisations for the temporary presence and activities of United States forces in the Republic of Maldives and, in the specific situations indicated herein, the presence and activities of United States contractors in the Republic of Maldives.”

Under the proposed 10 year agreement outlined in the draft, the Maldives would “furnish, without charge” to the United States unspecified “Agreed Facilities and Areas”, and “such other facilities and areas in the territory and territorial seas of the Republic of Maldives as may be provided by the Republic of Maldives in the future.”

“The Republic of the Maldives authorizes United States forces to exercise all rights and authorities with Agreed Facilities and Areas that are necessary for their use, operation, defense or control, including the right to undertake new construction works and make alterations and improvements,” the document states.

The US would be authorised to “control entry” to areas provided for its “exclusive use”, and would be permitted to operate its own telecommunications system and use the radio spectrum “free of cost to the United States”.

The US would also be granted access to and use of “aerial ports, sea ports and agreed facilities for transit, support and related activities; bunkering of ships, refueling of aircraft, maintenance of vessels, aircraft, vehicles and equipment, accommodation of personnel, communications, ship visits, training, exercises, humanitarian activities.”

US position

US authorities have reiterated they have no intention to establish a base in the Maldives, and emphasised that the SOFA is a standard agreement used for conducting joint military exercises.

Former US Ambassador to Sri Lanka and the Maldives, now Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Robert Blake, told the Press Trust of India in May that the agreement referred to joint military exercises and not a future base-building endeavor.

“We do not have any plans to have a military presence in Maldives,” Blake said, echoing an earlier statement from the US Embassy in Colombo.

“As I said, we have exercise programs very frequently and we anticipate that those would continue. But we do not anticipate any permanent military presence. Absolutely no bases of any kind,” Blake said.

“I want to reassure everybody that this SOFA does not imply some new uptick in military co-operation or certainly does not apply any new military presence. It would just be to support our ongoing activities,” he said.

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Comment: Small island state to superpower

“I would like to reassure all our friends in India, what it is and what it isn’t. We have status of forces agreements with more than 100 nations around the world. And these are basically agreements we have with partners where we have significant military activities, typically exercises.

“So for example, with Maldives we have coconut grove, which is an annual marine exercise. So the status of forces agreement helps to provides framework for those kinds of cooperative activities.

“And they are desirable things to have. But it does not in any way signify an expansion of our military presence or some major new development in the US-Maldivian military co-operation. It’s simply more of a framework to provide for (ongoing) co-operation…”

That was the US assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia, Robert Blake, speaking to the Press Trust of India (PTI) on the question of a SOFA to be signed between the US and the Maldives.

In an interview on May 7, 2013 widely reported around the world, Blake is reported to have said; “I haven’t seen the draft agreement. So I can’t comment,” before confirming that the US is “in the process of negotiating one now”.

“These are standard texts round the world, nothing very secret about them,” Blake is reported to have said, adding; “I do not foresee that this (SOFA) is going to be difficult negotiations (with Maldives). These are the things we do with partners around the world,” he said adding that it might be very well should be able to signed very soon.”

Emphasis, here is my own, to highlight a confounding sentence which appears not only in the Zee News report shared by US @StateDept with Maldivian tweeps, but is reproduced in almost all media reports. Petty as this may be, but really, what does it mean?

(a) Maldives-US SOFA might be signed very soon.
(b) Maldives-US SOFA should be signed very soon.
(c) Maldives-US SOFA might very well be signed very soon.
(d) Maldives-US SOFA might be very well.
(e) Maldives-US SOFA it might be very well should be able to signed very soon.”

It might very well be simply an editor’s miss, reproduced by all.

Of more significance to me, is the fact that Blake could not verify the authenticity of the alleged draft of the SOFA agreement published on www.dhivehisitee.com.

“I haven’t seen the draft agreement. So I can’t comment,” Blake is reported to have said. Yet, instead of stopping at that, Blake went into a detailed explanation quite outside the real questions the leaked draft raises.

The US Embassy in Colombo had earlier confirmed to Minivan News that they are in discussion with the government of Maldives to sign a SOFA, but had not confirmed or denied the leaked draft is the draft under discussion.

The Maldives government has been far more elusive, the Minister for Defence Mohamed Nazim denying it all in an interview to local daily Haveeru published after the US Embassy had confirmed discussions were ongoing. But then Defence Minister Nazim is not known for his forthrightness or honesty in the Maldives or Sandhurst, from where he is reported to have been expelled for dishonesty.

All in all, what we have learnt so far is:

(a) What a SOFA is.
(b) What a SOFA is not.
(c) That there are US plans to sign a SOFA with the Maldives “very soon”.
(d) Maldives government is not comfortable acknowledging plans to sign a SOFA with the US.

Courtesy Ahmed Abbas (@Qaumuge Mehi on Facebook)

Very little has been said on the real subject of concern – the terms and conditions in the leaked draft SOFA – that gives US absolute access and free run in the Maldives, without check or restraint. The US can place boots on the ground if, when, where and how the US deem necessary at any given time during agreement period.

No?

Does “no boots on the ground” guarantee no boots on the ground in the future? What if America fears the rise of China and the advent of the “nightmare scenario”? How would the Maldives feature in such a scenario? What opportunity does SOFA provide if the US deems it necessary for the US to “be operational” in the Maldives to “watch terrorists,” “protect waters,” ensure regional security or any other such purpose necessary for “reasons of security”?

The United States, together with India, were the first to accept the February 7, 2012 transfer of power in the Maldives. They reacted even before the people of Maldives did, shocked as the public were by the scenes of February 6 and 7, 2012 and the weeks leading up to it, they had witnessed live on local TV. By the time public reacted on February 8, 2013, and the overwhelming public support for President Nasheed became too obvious to be dismissed, the coup had been stamped legitimate by both India and the US.

To their credit, both US and India did step back a bit, but the US has not only continued its support to the government but has worked closely with the coup leaders, strengthening the coup-backing military, bringing in PISCES, the border surveillance system, and now the SOFA.

The US has no diplomatic presence or shoes on the ground in the Maldives, but has been on the ground far more than usual, with diplomats from Colombo flying in regularly and US missions on the ground almost monthly.

So, what could be Dr Waheed’s game plan? Given that it is undeniable that Mohamed Nasheed would win the public vote and there are less than a 100 days to voting, why is Dr Waheed sitting so comfortable? What could be Waheed’s surprise manifesto?

The only thing left now for Dr Waheed to come up with is Green Cards for all!

Dr Waheed, who is himself said to be a US permanent resident or Green Card holder, might very well be planning a bigger surprise with his ‘Forward with the Nation” campaign; taking the Maldives all the way from a small-island-state to a superpower, in less than five years.

A novel strategic pivot for the US as it stands to gain not only the SOFA and retain Coconut Grove, but gets to have its very own 100 percent Islamic State within the United States which would no doubt please the Islamists in the Maldives, the US itself, and outside.

The greening of Male’ initiated just this week by the Maldives Police Services too, all suggest Dr Waheed may go green, and issue Green Cards for all.

Would the people of Maldives vote to be the 51st State?

Aishath Velezinee (@Velezinee on twitter) is an independent democracy activist and writer. She was the Editor of Adduvas Weekly 2005-07 and served on the Maldives’ Judicial Service Commission (2009-11). She claims the Commission she sat on breached constitution in transition; and advocates for redress of Article 285, and a full overhaul of the judiciary as a necessary step for democracy consolidation.

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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