President Abdulla YameenPresident Abdulla Yameen attends a Maldives cabinet meeting [photo from the President's website]

Four years ago, the Maldives’ nascent democracy came to a brutal and sudden end when the country’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Nasheed, was ousted in what amounted to a coup d’état. Officially his departure from power was presented as a resignation; in reality, his resignation statement was delivered at gunpoint.

For the past four years, the country known to the world as an idyllic tropical holiday destination has been the scene of bloody suppression backed up by lies and distortion.

Mohamed Nasheed was harassed, hounded, assaulted and arrested periodically, although he was permitted to contest fresh presidential elections held in 2013. Ahead in the first round though just falling short of an outright win, Mr Nasheed prepared to fight the run-off—until the Supreme Court annulled the poll and called for fresh elections two months later. In the end, Abdulla Yameen was elected president.

Mr Yameen just happens to be the half-brother of the former dictator, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. His foreign minister is Dunya Maumoon, Mr Gayoom’s daughter. In other words, the Gayoom regime—which Mr Nasheed and his Maldivian Democratic Party spent years opposing and finally defeated electorally in 2008—is back in power, albeit in an even crueller and more disturbing guise.

Despite Mr Nasheed’s extraordinarily gracious acceptance of the results of an electoral process which had been tampered with to ensure a Gayoom win, Mr Yameen was determined to ensure that the Maldives’ democratic leader would not be a political rival for long. In February last year, Mr Nasheed was arrested yet again, dragged violently to court, and endured an absurd sham trial. Many of his supporters were rounded up and beaten or jailed. Two of the three judges presiding over the trial appeared as witnesses for the prosecution, Mr Nasheed was prohibited from having his own defence witnesses and at times was denied access to legal counsel, and most hearings were held in the middle of the night. His trial was reminiscent of the trial scene in Alice in Wonderland, and the most absurd part was that he was charged with ‘terrorism’ and sentenced to 13 years in prison.

The allegation is that Mr Nasheed, as president, kidnapped a judge. He did not. Mr Nasheed has been a lifelong champion of democracy, human rights and the rule of law, compared to South Africa’s Nelson Mandela and Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi. The judge in question, Judge Abdulla, was someone whose conduct had been a cause for concern for many years. A formal complaint was registered by the Attorney-General against the judge even under Mr Gayoom’s regime. The judge was deemed a danger to society, and action needed to be taken. Mr Nasheed says he did not order the judge’s arrest. Instead, he ordered an investigation and, when the judiciary—consisting mostly of poorly educated stooges of the ancient regime—closed ranks to protect vested interests, he asked the minister of home affairs to act to protect public safety.

The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has ruled that it was ‘impossible to invoke any legal basis justifying [Nasheed’s] deprivation of liberty’. The US Secretary of State John Kerry condemned Mr Nasheed’s imprisonment as ‘an injustice that must be addressed soon’.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers, the International Commission of Jurists, Amnesty International, the European Parliament, the European Union and the British Prime Minister David Cameron, among others, have all said that Mr Nasheed’s trial was unfair, severely flawed, a mockery of the Maldives’ Constitution and in breach of international law.

Until 21 January 2016, Mr Nasheed—who had been arrested more than 20 times, tortured twice and spent years in solitary confinement and then house arrest under the Gayoom regime—faced more than a decade in jail and perhaps a lifetime excluded from political power. However, he suffers from chronic back pain as a result of the torture he endured in his earlier imprisonment, and he desperately needs medical treatment. For the past few months, his outstanding international legal team—Amal Clooney, Jared Genser and Ben Emmerson QC—have led a remarkable advocacy campaign to pressure the Yameen regime to allow Mr Nasheed temporary release from prison, in order to seek medical treatment in a place of his choice.

Mr Nasheed knew that he could not receive reliable medical treatment in the Maldives. For a start, his safety in a Maldivian hospital could not be guaranteed. In addition, his wife and children are in Britain. Finally, after sustained international pressure, the Maldivian regime gave in, and allowed him to travel to London. Initially, the regime demanded a guarantor, but after tense negotiations they waived that condition. They say, however, that he must return within 30 days to serve the remainder of his sentence.

Mr Nasheed’s release is a breakthrough. It may well have saved his life. But there is a long way to go to save the Maldives and prevent further suffering. Mr Yameen has become the Robert Mugabe, perhaps even bordering on the Kim Jong-Un, of Maldivian politics. He has locked up or forced into exile almost every political opponent, terrorised others into submission, and seen off several vice-presidents. He has killed democracy and civil society, and under his rule Islamist extremism has grown.

So although Mr Nasheed’s freedom is welcome, the freedom of the Maldives is yet to be restored. To make that happen, there is a very urgent need for the international community to act.

Mr Nasheed and his lawyers have called for targeted sanctions. Freedom Now, led by one of Mr Nasheed’s legal team, Jared Genser, released an excellent report, titled ‘Moving From Condemnation to Action: The Case for the United States to Impose Targeted Financial Sanctions and Travel Bans on Serious Human Rights Abusers in the Maldives’.

Similar sanctions should be adopted by the United Kingdom and other Commonwealth and European Union countries. Freeze the assets of senior Maldivian officials who own property or bank savings overseas; issue a travel ban on senior Maldivian officials; and encourage a targeted tourism boycott—not a blanket boycott of all resorts, but a carefully targeted boycott of those resorts whose owners are backers of the Yameen regime. Ethical Maldives can provide a list.

Also, the Commonwealth should think seriously about suspending the Maldives until democracy and respect for human rights are restored.

The world must wake up to the fact that the Maldives is not just sinking into the sea due to climate change and rising water levels; it is sinking due to a brutal, repressive, illegitimate, corrupt regime led by people with links to criminal gangs and radical Islamist groups. The Maldives has the highest per capita rate of jihadists joining ISIS—and the Yameen regime is doing nothing to stop them—so it is now a threat to us all, not just to its political opponents at home. It is therefore in all our interests to recognise that democracy and human rights urgently need to be restored in the archipelago.

Benedict Rogers is the East Asia Team Leader of the Christian Solidarity Worldwide.

Related articles

Times Of India: “John Kerry says Maldives democracy at risk after mass arrests,” May 2, 2015.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, OHCHR, “Conduct of trial of Maldives’ ex-President raises serious concerns – Zeid”, 18 March 2015.

OHCR, “Maldives: ‘No democracy is possible without fair and independent justice,’ UN rights expert “, 19 March 2015.

International Commission of Jurists, “Maldives: political crisis erodes rule of law and human rights”, 25 August 2015.

Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales, “BHRC concerned at proceedings in trial of former President of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed”.

European Parliament resolution on the Maldives, 15 December 2015.

The Guardian, “David Cameron ‘will continue to push for reform in Maldives’”, 23 January 2016.

The Ethical Maldives website.