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Mohamed Nasheed: abuses of power in the Maldives

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Some of you were lucky enough to attend our screening of The Island President at this year’s Human Rights Arts and Film Festival, featuring President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives in his fight against climate change.

Since then, Mr Nasheed has been imprisoned and writes from his jail cell about the charges placed against him:

Most people know the Maldives for its luxurious over-water honeymoon suites or ‘how to spend it’ beach villas. But I write this article having just spent a night in an altogether different class of accommodation: a Maldivian jail cell. I am no stranger to these institutions, having spent many years of my adult life in various forms of incarceration — punishment I received for advocating democracy and speaking out against human rights abuses. Amnesty International labeled me a ‘prisoner of conscience’.

I was jailed in similar circumstances back in 2006, when the Maldives was still an autocracy — ruled by the country’s then dictator, Maumoon Gayoom. I was facing terrorism charges at the time, for giving a speech against corruption the regime claimed ‘terrorised’ listeners. But, in a precursor to the Arab Spring, change was in the air and the Maldives was gearing up for its first, multi-party presidential elections. I was concerned that the charges against me would prevent me from contesting. In the end, the regime relented, and I was fortunate to stand and be elected president, in late 2008.

Fast forward six years to today, and things seem to have turned full circle. Once again, I have been jailed. Once again, an authoritarian regime, effectively controlled by the old dictator, is pressing politically-motivated charges against me. Once again, it seems I may be prevented from competing in upcoming presidential elections, which must be held by the end of next year.

What has happened in the Maldives — a youthful, Muslim country whose people rose up and shook off 30 years of Gayoom’s authoritarian rule — should serve as an important lesson for democrats in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and other Arab Spring countries. The Maldives has shown that even after the revolution, the old guard can linger on, and slowly suffocate the fledgling democracy.

Following the watershed 2008 elections, things started to improve in the Maldives. My administration quickly freed all political prisoners. With support from the IMF, we managed to reduce the budget deficit from 22% of GDP in 2009, to 9% by the end of last year. And we put in place a social safety net, including a state pension, support for the disabled and universal health insurance.

We were unable, however, to adequately dismantle the remnants of the Gayoom autocracy — his cronies continued to hold powerful positions in the judiciary, the parliament and the security forces. In February this year, the former dictator’s allies, along with Islamic extremists and my Vice President, conspired to topple me in a coup. Following a police and army mutiny, I was presented with a stark ultimatum: resign within the hour or face bloodshed. I chose the former.

Since then, my country — famously vulnerable to climate change because of its proximity to the sea — has metaphorically, as well as physically, been slipping into the abyss. My former Vice President, Mohamed Waheed, has been obliged to pay off the people who put him in the president’s office: the police and military have received large pay hikes while coup financiers have been assured that planned new taxes will be shelved. The country’s biggest foreign investor, GMR, which is spending some $500 million revamping Male’ International Airport, has been hounded by a government comprising corrupt businessmen keen to get their hands on the airport contract themselves. As a result, the economy is in free-fall, with the budget deficit approaching 30% of GDP. Meanwhile, hundreds of pro-democracy supporters have been beaten, detained and, in some cases, tortured in what Amnesty International describes as a “human rights crisis”.

My party, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), the country’s largest, recently selected me as its candidate for the upcoming presidential elections. But now, with these new charges, the regime seems intent on preventing me from standing. From the regime’s point of view, February’s coup has not been completed: only once they have removed me and my party from politics, can they be sure of their long term survival. Injustice begets injustice.

On Tuesday, the police escorted me from my prison cell to an extra-ordinary court, established especially for my case. Three magistrates will decide if I am guilty — they have been specifically selected by a judicial committee, on which sits the chief financier of the coup. I am to be tried for abuse of power while in office, in particular, for the arrest of a notoriously corrupt and unsavoury judge, who was an ally of Gayoom. In one infamous incident, the judge instructed a child to act out the sex abuse she had suffered, in open court and in front of the accused.

It doesn’t really matter what I am charged with: my conviction is a foregone conclusion. President Waheed may decide to magnanimously pardon me — but only in a way that ensures I remain barred from seeking office next year.

It is not in anyone’s interest to allow this slide towards autocracy to continue. It is not in the international community’s interest to see a Muslim democracy fail, or political instability blight another Indian Ocean nation. It is not in India’s interest to see unrest on their doorstep, or their corporations unfairly targeted. And it is certainly not in the Maldivian people’s interests to see their economy collapse and their democracy stolen from them.

I sincerely hope the international community pressures the Waheed regime to relent and make good on the promises they have made: to bring human rights abusers in the security forces to book; to cease the harassment of peaceful political activists; and to uphold democracy by allowing internationally-monitored, free and fair elections in which all candidates are allowed to stand.

Whether I win or lose those elections is irrelevant. What is important is that genuine elections are held, democracy is restored and the will of the Maldivian people — not the military’s force of arms — is the final adjudicator of the nation’s future.

This letter was originally published in the Huffington Post.