“Anti-semitism, racism, xenophobia and religious intolerance” deeply entrenched in Maldivian political discourse: Dr Shaheed

Anti-semitism, racism, xenophobia and religious intolerance “are deeply entrenched” in political parties currently opposed to the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), former Foreign Minister in both Nasheed and Gayoom’s government, Dr Ahmed Shaheed, has said.

Dr Shaheed’s comments follow reports in local media summarising US Embassy cables first published by Wikileaks in 2009, and discussed during the then-opposition parliament’s efforts to impeach the foreign minister.

In particular, the Maldivian government’s engagement with Israel was the subject of a parliamentary debate November 9, 2009, in which Shaheed narrowly avoided impeachment following a no-confidence motion.

Opposition to the Maldives’ recognition of Israel was seized by then opposition groups in December 2011 as a sign of the Nasheed government’s “anti-Islamic” policies. The previously disparate parties formed the ‘December 23 coalition’, following a large rally in Male’.

Dr Shaheed said “Growing extremism hurts the Maldives rather than anybody else, because whenever a state is unable to deliver what is in the public interest due to intimidation from others, it is the state that suffers.”

“The growth of extremism itself has numerous causes, but none of it is linked to government policy towards Israel or Palestine,” he added.

Many Maldivians firmly believe that policies pursued by Israel affect their solidarity with Arabs and other Muslims, Dr Shaheed explained.

“We care about how Israel treats the Palestinian people, because we care about the safety of the Muslim holy places under Israeli jurisdiction, and because we need to have a dialogue with Israel communicating our interests and concerns on these matters regularly,” he said.

More space for civic reasoning in Maldivian politics is needed for the Maldives to “behave like the rational nation-state, with friendship towards all, that we claim we are,” he said. “Silence may be golden but dialogue is the miracle tool of diplomacy.”

In the original cable referred to by Sun Online, Dr Shaheed told then US Ambassador Robert Blake that he believed “radical clerics ignited a reaction” among the Maldivian population and this was “a lot, but not a genuine undercurrent.”

Dr Shaheed “highlighted that former President Nasheed pledged to “renew ties” with Israel in his September 24 (2009) UN General Assembly speech,” that the Maldives Defense Minister and Minister for Natural Disasters would visit Israel later that year, and both nations “have already signed agreements on health, education, and tourism”.

Speaking to Minivan News, Dr Shaheed said he believed MDP’s rivals considered the cables “the perfect fog-machine to distract any discussion of bread and butter issues in the campaign.”

“Many in the Maldives see the Palestinian-Israeli dispute in religious terms, and religious sensitivities are played up during election time,” he added.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs meanwhile told Minivan News the Maldives is “not against Israel”.

“The Maldives’ government always supports Palestinian citizens to have their freedom and urges this in the United Nations,” said Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Muaz Ali.

“This does not mean Maldives is against Israel,” he said.

“Anti-semitism, racism, xenophobia and religious intolerance”

“Neither former President Maumoon Gayoom nor former President Mohamed Nasheed divided the world into a Dar al- Harb and a Dar al- Islam as in classical Islamic international relations theory, which is what the Salafists in the Maldives want to do,” stated Shaheed.

Shaheed explained that “anti-semitism runs deep in certain sections of Maldivian society”, highlighting as an example an article published in Dhivehi on local news website Dhi-Islam in January 2011, reporting on the agreements made between the Maldivian and Israeli government.

“Under this heinous agreement, these people have thrown the little children and the youth of the Maldives, as well as the country’s education sector and the health sector and many other matters, into the lap of the evil Zionist Israelis, who, as we have been informed through the seven heavens, will never wish anything but evil for Muslims,” the article reads.

“Jews have even historically been an evil people who have been cursed because they had killed prophets and spread corruption on earth, and that they are the biggest enemies of Muslims is proven by the teachings of the Holy Quran and forms of the core beliefs of Muslims. This agreement will impose pressures to prevent the dissemination of these teachings,” it adds.

The report claims that Jews have falsely exaggerated “incidents” of torture and killings during the Holocaust “to inculcate sympathy towards Israel in the minds of Maldivian youths; to convince the Maldivian youths that the jews are the victims of oppression and to make them blind and insensitive to the occupation of Palestine, the seizure of Muslim holy lands, and the endless oppression the jews inflict on the inhabitants of the land.”

“This agreement is high treason or the highest form treachery against the noble Islam and Maldivian identity, upon which this country is founded. It is a matter far more dangerous and grave than can be treated lightly,” said the report.

Historical Maldivian – Israeli relations

There is no document to support the claim that Maldives ever severed diplomatic relations with Israel, in Maldivian or Israeli records, explained Dr Shaheed.

Instead, what appears to have happened is a downgrading of the relationship where no Maldivian president since the early 1970s has been willing to receive an Israeli ambassador formally in his office.

The Maldives voted at the UN to accept the legitimacy of Israel, on December 17, 1991, at the request of then President George Bush, by repealing the 1975 UN resolution equating zionism with racism.

“The Maldives was not alone in changing its policies towards Israel – there were a number of Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) states doing the same thing, or had even restored full diplomatic relations,” said Dr Shaheed.

“Under Gayoom, the Maldives categorically accepted the two-state solution. All of these actions were firmly grounded in international law and state practice,” he added.

The Maldivian government discussed the question of restoring ties with Israel following the Oslo Accord agreement in 1993, which established a peace process framework to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Israel agreed to recognize Yasser Arafat as its partner in peace talks and essentially exchanged land for peace. The Palestinians in turn recognized Israel’s right to exist while also renouncing the use of terrorism and its long-held call for Israel’s destruction.

The Gayoom cabinet agreed on a three-stage restoration of ties with Israel, beginning in June 1994. The Maldivian government “agreed to recognize Israeli passports and ended the travel ban” during stage one, explained Shaheed. Shortly thereafter stage two saw trade and commercial relations were fully restored. Restoring political ties occurred during stage three, with regular meetings at senior diplomatic levels, between 1995 to 2008.

“So what President Nasheed said at the UN – and that was my formulation – was that Maldives wanted friendly relations with all states in the General Assembly,” said Dr Shaheed.

“This does not and has not prevented Maldives from criticizing actions of UN member states when they violate peremptory norms of international law, but Nasheed was not going to divide the world into the good the bad and the ugly,” he declared.

In recent years, attitudes toward Israel have greatly fluctuated with collaborative engagement by the Maldivian government being countered by some anti-semitic ‘blowback’ from elements within Maldivian society.

In February 2010, a team of experts from the Israeli Foreign Ministry are training 35 Maldivian officials in emergency preparedness, with a focus on the management of mass casualties.

Later that year, in November, the Islamic Foundation of the Maldives (IFM) called on the government to break off all diplomatic ties with Israel, a day after Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital (IGMH) announced that a team of seven Israeli doctors is due to arrive in the country to treat patients at the government hospital for a week.

The IFM reiterated calls to the Maldives government to “shun all medical aid from the Zionist regime” with a team of seven Israeli eye surgeons due to arrive in December 2012, claiming that Isreali doctors and surgeons “have become notorious for illegally harvesting organs from non-Jews around the world.”

The following month, Founders of the IFM NGO claimed that although they do not believe in “hysterical outbursts” and theories of an imminent “Jewish invasion” in the country, a week of anti-Israel protests and flag burning across Male’ has reflected “strong dissatisfaction with the government’s open attitude” to the Jewish state.

In May 2011, Ahmed Naseem became the first Maldivian Foreign Minister to visit Israel.

However, in September 2011, Deputy Leader of the Adhaalath Party Dr Mauroof Hussein has called for alarm after alleging that a delegation from an Israeli company, Teshuva Agricultural Products, was due to arrive in the Maldives to assess the country’s agricultural potential. The Israeli agricultural delegation that was supposed to arrive on Filadhoo cancelled the visit after the islanders warned that they would not let the delegation go further than the jetty.

In December 2011, Minister of Islamic Affairs Dr Abdul Majeed Abdul Bari requested parliament endorse a resolution forbidding the government to establish ties with Israel.

While in April 2012, MPs passed a resolution preventing Israeli national airline El Al from operating scheduled flights to the Maldives until Majlis’ National Security Committee completes further investigation into the matter. El Al applied to the Ministry of Civil Aviation in May 2011 requesting permission to fly to the Maldives starting in December 2011.

There was no direct flight from Israel to Maldives between 2009-2011, so the Maldives was “not able to maximize the benefits from the growing Israeli market,” Dr Shaheed remarked.

“Maldives could have significantly increased the direct income and benefits from Israeli tourism by accepting direct flights from Israel, resulting in a longer holidays and greater expenditure in Maldives while still making the holiday comparatively cheaper for the visitor,” he added.

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ICC membership expected to reform Maldivian judicial system

The Maldives has become the 118th country to adopt the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), the world’s first and only permanent international court with jurisdiction over crimes against humanity, crimes of aggression, genocide and war crimes.

The Maldives is the third state in South Asia to become an ICC member, following Bangladesh and Afghanistan. It is the ninth in the south asian region alongside Cambodia, Japan, Republic of Korea, Mongolia, the Philippines and Timor-Leste; plans to ratify the statute are advancing in Malaysia and Nepal.

Asia has been slower than other regions in adopting the ICC regulations, allegedly because they maintain the death penalty which is prohibited by the ICC. William R. Pace, Convenor of the Coalition for the International Criminal Court, said the Maldives’ decision to accede to the Rome Statue was a significant step for the region.

“It is vital that the momentum towards increasing respect for the rule of law and accountability for those responsible for the most serious crimes is seized by other states in the Asia-Pacific region, many of whom are close to joining the ICC,” Pace said in a press release. “Joining the Court represents a strong deterrent effect that will contribute toward the prevention of gross human rights violations in the Asia-Pacific region and to the global fight against impunity.”

Acceding to ICC regulations as defined by the Rome Statute has been a long process for the Maldivian government. In 2003, the Maldives took steps to reject its judicial authority.

Wikileaks cables published on 1 September 2011 cite the Maldivian government’s intent to “never turn over a US national to the International Criminal Court (ICC). The Maldivian government would not sign the ICC treaty and would not respect its claim to universal jurisdiction.” Other cables indicate that then president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom was seeking approval for a visit with then US President George W. Bush, allegedly to improve his chances of re-election.

Speaking to Minivan News today, the President’s Press Secretary Mohamed Zuhair said ratification of the ICC statute highlighted the different values of the current administration.

“For us, it’s transparency that is at the top of our priorities. So right now, our highest priority is to improve the judicial system of this country.”

The ICC covers major crimes which are widespread, systemic and of concern to the international community. The ICC does not deal with small cases, even if the victims may be in the hundreds.

Among the criteria for the ICC to take on a case in the Maldives is doubtful willingness and capacity of the country’s own judiciary to handle the case in question.

Zuhair said it was important for Maldivians to have access to an international judicial system. “Individuals who feel they have a complaint, even against a leader, could refer the complaint to the Maldivian judicial system or to the ICC. This is a big step for a country whose previous leaders have been accused of human rights violations. I believe their cases would be fairly addressed in the ICC,” he said.

Evelyn Balais-Serrano, Asia-Pacific Coordinator for the ICC’s advocacy NGO Coalition for the International Criminal Court (CICC) told Minivan News that ratification would support domestic legal reform, and that heads of state would face new levels of accountability.

“The ICC only deals with the big fish. In the past only the small fish may have been sacrificed to show a semblance of justice – but the ICC targets the highest level of responsibility: the head of state, generals, kings,” she said previously.

The Debate

In October 2010, the debate to join the ICC created sparks in Parliament.

MDP MPs condemned the “unlawful and authoritarian” practices of the previous government. Group Leader “Reeko” Moosa Manik referred to 2009 legislation protecting former presidents who he considered “the worst torturers in the country’s history,” and said the purpose of the international criminal court was to “arrest torturers like Maumoon [Abdul Gayoom], people like Ilyas Ibrahim [brother-in-law of the former president] who stole state property and funds, and Attorney Generals like Hassan Saeed who tried to hide it.”

MPs from opposition Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party-People’s Alliance (DRP-PA) said MDP MPs were overlooking the fact that Gayoom had never been reprimanded in a court of law, and accused the current administration of disregarding rules of law. MP Dr Abdulla Mausoom accused the MDP government of formulating policies only to “benefit certain people”, which he argued could be “considered a crime in international courts.”

The question of religion was also inflammatory. DRP MP Dr Afrashim Ali said convention should not be signed if it could lead to “the construction of temples here under the name of religious freedom.” Other MPs pointed out that several Muslim countries had not joined the ICC, and the MPs were concerned that ratification would “shatter Islamic principles” and encourage gay rights.

Shari’a experts in ICC signatories and Muslim countries Afghanistan, Jordan and Malaysia have not found conflict between the Rome Statute and Sharia.

On 14 June this year, Parliament voted almost unanimously to sign the Rome Statute of the ICC.

The Effects

Speaking to Minivan News today, Balais-Serrano pointed out that ratification of the Rome Statute was well-timed.

“As a chair of the SAARC summit, Maldives will have quite an influence on south asian countries attending this year’s event,” she said. “It will certainly be constructive in reviewing human rights, a key point we plan to address at the summit.”

The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit is scheduled for Addu City in mid-November this year.

Balais-Serrano also pointed out that by ratifying the Rome Statute, governments are committing to adapt current domestic legislation to meet international standards. She said ICC members could receive “training of local judges and prosecutors and other officials responsible for lawmaking and implementation”, and hoped the Maldives would forward with judicial reform.

“The judicial system in Maldives can benefit from the rules and procedures by which the ICC operates, for example, in the nomination and election of judges, in the protection of witnesses and victims and in ensuring due process,” said Balais-Serrano.

She said that ICC membership would expand Maldivian court procedures. “One of the motivations of joining the ICC is to let go of a commitment to include the domestic judicial system alone. Now, Maldivians can also refer to the ICC provisions and regulations. This is a timely event for the Maldives to review domestic law while making the ICC a reference point.”

As an ICC member, the Maldives will be able to send judges and lawyers abroad for internships and exchange programs in member countries. Balais-Serrano said that all member countries are obliged to send employees to the ICC to learn and assist with proceedings.

International liability

ICC membership could affect international relations. The Maldives recently made news headlines by supporting the Sri Lankan government, which is facing war crimes allegations by international human rights groups. A report from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has raised the likelihood of an investigation by the Human Rights Commission.

A Relationship Agreement between the ICC and the United Nations calls the UN “potentially the most important partner of the ICC on various levels,” and suggests that investigations by the UN are based on the same human rights standards put forth by the ICC.

“The Maldives cannot do anything if the ICC decides to investigate and put into trial the perpetrators of crimes in Sri Lanka,” said Balais-Serrano. “If suspected criminals from Sri Lanka seek refuge in the territory of the Maldives, as a state party to the ICC, the government is obliged to cooperate to the Court by arresting  the criminals.”

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Wikileaks releases details of Maldivian national’s detention in Guantanamo

Recently-released Wikileaks cables reveal that the Maldivian government in 2004 assured the United States that former Guantanamo prisoner Ibrahim Fauzee would not be able to leave the Maldives.

In a cable dated 2 August 2004, then Deputy Foreign Minister Hussain Shihab told then-US Ambassador Jeffrey Lunstead that the Maldives was “prepared to cooperate fully with [the US] in dealing with the detainee,” and at a minimum, the Maldivian government would put Fauzee under “close surveillance” and “on a watch list to ensure that he could not leave the country.”

The cable added: “Shihab noted that with the Maldives as an island nation, this would be effective in preventing him from traveling, unless, Shihab said, ‘he is very good at rowing.'”

Fauzee, of Thudhaadhoo island in Baa atoll, was originally arrested in Karachi, Pakistan during a raid on his landlord’s house. Files accessed through a collection of Wikileaks documents at UK’s The Guardian said the raid “just missed a group of Al Qaeda members who had gathered at the home for a meeting.”

Fauzee was then sent to Afghanistan, where he was handed over to US forces. According to a US Department of Defense file published by UK’s The Telegraph, Fauzee was identified as a “medium threat to the US, its interests, and its allies” when he arrived at Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba on August 5 2002.

The Telegraph Online published a document from the Department of Defense, dated 11 November 2003, suggested that suspicion of terrorist involvement was based on Fauzee’s recent travel and expenditure record. “[Fauzee] has traveled extensively in spite of his limited income and has failed to explain adequately the source(s) of the funds he used for travel. Detainee also attended a fundamentalist madrassa.”

The New York Times also published a document from the Combatant Status Review Board dated 13 December 2004. The document claims that Fauzy was detained at Guantanamo because his telephone number was discovered in another terrorist detainee’s pocket. The number was allegedly associated with “a Sudanese teacher who assisted Arabs traveling to training camps in Afghanistan.”

The cables

According to the cables, Maldivian Permanent Secretary Ahmed Shaheed requested that the United States share any intelligence it had gained from Fauzee on 5 November 2002. The cable noted that the Maldivian government “may have made similar requests via other channels”, but there is no evidence of any response to these requests.

“Shaheed specifically asked for any information on ties Fauzee may have with other Maldivian nationals,” read the cable. “In this regard, Shaheed also requested that the Maldivian government be permitted to conduct its own intelligence interview of Fauzee.”

Eighteen days later, cables show that Shaheed wrote to US officials requesting Fauzee’s release.

By August 2003, Maldivian government personnel were granted a visit to Guantanamo and an interview with Fauzee. The government’s assessment found Fauzee an unlikely threat, and after further investigation the Maldivian government requested his release on 5 November 2003.

No action was taken, although cables indicate at least one more request for Fauzee’s return was made on 11 May 2004.

By late 2004, the US government had agreed to return Fauzee to the Maldives under certain conditions. A cable dated 13 December of that year shows the Maldivian Foreign Ministry was interested in cooperating with these conditions, which included humane treatment upon release.

“Following the release of Mr. Ibrahim Fauzee from US military detention in Guantanamo Bay and upon his return to the Maldives, the Government of Maldives undertakes to treat him humanely in accordance with the laws, and its international obligations.”

The Maldivian government also agreed to enter Fauzee “into relevant national and international watch lists and to apply every measure consistent with its laws to keep him under surveillance, to monitor his movements, and if necessary and appropriate, to restrict them, in order to prevent him from actively engaging in terrorism related activities or associating himself with terrorist organizations.”

On the same date, the US Combatant Status Review Board offered Fauzee a chance to contest his status as an enemy combatant.

Three and a half months later, the US government determined Fauzee “to no longer be an enemy combatant.” Fauzee was extradited to the Maldives on 11 March 2005, where he is currently president of local religious NGO, the Islamic Foundation.

Fauzee is the only Maldivian on record to be detained at Guantanamo Bay. After his release from Guantanamo, Fauzee discovered that his vital documents, which Pakistani authorities had seized during his arrest in 2002, were not in his possession. Since May 2005, the Maldivian government and Human Rights Commission have requested their return from the US government. Fauzee told Minivan News today that his documents were returned to him, but declined to comment on the release of the Wikileaks cables.

The cables were released on Friday, September 2 along with tens of thousands from countries with which the US has difficult relationships, including Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran. Files on Guantanamo prisoners were among those released. Since the release, the Wikileaks website has crashed repeatedly due to high traffic.

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Comment: Diplomats must engage in frank discussions with their colleagues

President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton have made it a priority to reinvigorate America’s relationships around the world. They have been working hard to strengthen our existing partnerships and build new ones to meet shared challenges, from climate change to ending the threat of nuclear weapons to fighting disease and poverty. As the United States Ambassador to Maldives, I’m proud to be part of this effort.

Under the leadership of President Obama, we have greatly expanded our engagement in Maldives. We have strengthened our security cooperation, and we have broadened our mutual efforts on climate change (including $3.5 million from our development agency, USAID). As a sign of this growing friendship, Farah Pandith, the first ever US Special Representative to Muslim Communities, visited the Maldives just last week, where she met ordinary citizens and government officials.

In the past few days, documents purportedly downloaded from US Defence Department computers have become the subject of reports in the media. I cannot vouch for the authenticity of any one of these documents. But I can say that the United States would deeply regret the disclosure of any information that was intended to be confidential. And we condemn it.

Diplomats must engage in frank discussions with their colleagues, and they must be assured that these discussions will remain private. Honest dialogue—within governments and between them—is part of the basic bargain of international relations; we couldn’t maintain peace, security, and international stability without it.

People of good faith will recognise that diplomats’ internal reports do not represent a government’s official foreign policy. In the United States, they are one element out of many that shape our policies, which are ultimately set by the President and the Secretary of State. And those policies are a matter of public record, the subject of thousands of pages of speeches, statements, white papers, and other documents that the State Department makes freely available online and elsewhere.

But relations between governments aren’t the only concern. US diplomats meet with local human rights workers, journalists, religious leaders, and others outside the government who offer their own candid insights. These conversations depend on trust and confidence as well. In some countries, if an anti-corruption activist shares information about official misconduct, or a social worker passes along documentation of sexual violence, revealing that person’s identity could have serious repercussions: imprisonment, torture, even death.

The owners of the WikiLeaks website claim to possess some 250,000 classified documents, many of which have been released to the media. Whatever their motives are in publishing these documents, it is clear that releasing them poses real risks to real people, and often to particular people who have dedicated their lives to protecting others. We support and are willing to have genuine debates about pressing questions of public policy. But releasing documents carelessly and without regard for the consequences is not the way to start such a debate.

For our part, the US government is committed to maintaining the security of our diplomatic communications and is taking steps to make sure they are kept in confidence. We are moving aggressively to make sure this kind of breach does not happen again. And we will continue to work to strengthen our partnership with the Maldives and make progress on the issues that are important for our two countries. We can’t afford anything less. I am in close contact with President Nasheed to make sure we continue to focus on the issues and tasks at hand. President Obama, Secretary Clinton, and I remain committed to being trusted partners as we seek to build a better, more prosperous world for everyone.

Patricia A Butenis is the US Ambassador to the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka and the Republic of Maldives.

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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WikiLeaks publishes 1.4 GB encrypted ‘insurance’ file

A mysterious 1.4 GB encrypted file named “insurance” has appeared on the WikiLeaks Afghan War page that released tens of thousands of secret documents last Sunday.

The “insurance” file is also available for download through bittorrent.

Cryptome, a separate secret-spilling site, has speculated that the file may have been posted as insurance in case something happens to the WikiLeaks website or to the organization’s founder, Julian Assange,” reports Kim Zetter for Wired Magazine. “In either scenario, WikiLeaks volunteers, under a prearranged agreement with Assange, could send out a password or passphrase to allow anyone who has downloaded the file to open it.”

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Secret US military Afghanistan files released by Wikileaks

200,000 pages of secret US military files concerning the war in Afghanistan have been released by the whistleblowing site Wikileaks, and simultaneously published online by the UK Guardian, US New York Times and German Der Speigel.

The news organisations have been examining the documents for weeks, after receiving them from Wikileaks which is headed by Australian Julian Assange.

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