In the LR of August 2004 I highlighted the Sandhaanu case in the Maldives, and also wrote about the writer and politician Mohamed Nasheed, an elected member of parliament who was ‘expelled’ while he was in detention. An advocate of reform, Nasheed has been harassed and periodically detained since 1990. Not allowed to earn a living as a journalist or to publish his work as a historian in his own country, he was subsequently granted political asylum in the UK.
On 30 April this year Nasheed decided to return to the Maldives, in order to further establish the opposition, Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), of which he is a co-founder. He had been creating awareness of the Party in the international sphere prior to returning to the Maldives. Nasheed pressed the government to allow the registration of political parties, and in June parliament unanimously voted to back plans to give the nation its first multi-party democracy, allowing political parties to register and fight elections for the first time.
Nasheed spoke to me before he left and was particularly anxious that human rights organisations remained alert to his situation, in case he was re-arrested. He had been tortured during previous detentions and considered himself a primary target of President Gayoom, who, having ruled the country for more than twenty-five years, is Asia’s longest-serving leader. It was not long before his worst fears were confirmed. On 12 August Nasheed took part in a peaceful vigil in the central square of the capital, Malé, in remembrance of the crackdown on peaceful demonstrations held a year before, known locally as ‘Black Friday’. The riot police moved in and the politician and several members of the MDP were arrested and forcibly removed from the area. This was followed by demonstrations calling for his release and the resignation of President Gayoom. I was telephoned at home, half an hour after the arrests, and PEN, the international writers’ organisation, sent appeals the same day.
According to BBC reports, officials initially said Nasheed had been held for his own safety and to help disperse a 600-strong crowd. Around 100 others were also held. But the politician was charged on 23 August 2005 with ‘terrorism’ and ‘sedition’ for a speech he made in July, and faces a sentence of between two years and life. Nasheed is accused of saying the President would face ‘a violent overthrow’ unless he held democratic elections or stepped down.
PEN and other human rights organisations consider that the charges are completely without foundation and that the opposition leader is being persecuted in order to curb his legitimate political activities. Nasheed has been a fierce critic of the Maldivian government for many years, and his arrest appears to be an attempt by President Gayoom to remove one of his most outspoken opponents.
The Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs responded to PEN’s appeals by stating, ‘Mr Nasheed is arrested on suspicion of instigating public disorder and violence’. In fact, his arrest was captured on camera and there is an amateur video recording available on the Internet showing Nasheed and three other peaceful protesters sitting on the ground surrounded by riot police. There are also photographs of Nasheed being dragged along the ground by the riot police.
According to David Hardingham, founder of the UK-based human rights campaigners, Friends of Maldives (FoM), Nasheed has been refused basic safeguards of due process and is unaware of the specific charges or evidence against him so is unable to prepare a defence.
Hari Kunzru highlighted Nasheed’s case in a highly critical article on the Maldives he wrote for the travel section of The Observer on 16 October 2005. Soon after, we received details of an angry response apparently published in a government newsletter, containing the threat, ‘Kunzru if you need to chill out, I suggest you go to Michu Bichu [sic]. How do you sign up for this destination? Meet me in a dark lane and I will tell you how.’ At the same time, PEN was derided as ‘an organization that has lost all credibility for entertaining losers and jobless writers who lament over their own woe tales’.
It becomes more and more apparent that these idyllic holiday islands harbour a heart of darkness, and that international pressure is crucial. The British government could become more active in encouraging the Maldivian government to carry through democratic reforms. In the most recent human rights report, compiled by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the sole caveat mentioned in respect of the Maldives is that ‘the constitution proclaims Islam as the only permitted faith.’ An Amnesty International delegation visiting the Maldives in October 2004 gathered ‘detailed and consistent testimonies [that] showed detainees had been … subjected to physical assault, food deprivation, and in some cases, to sexual violence. No one has been brought to justice for these abuses.’
Worryingly, Nasheed’s arrest and trial follows a familiar pattern for opponents of the government. Jennifer Latheef, an outspoken human rights activist, pro-democracy campaigner and daughter of the co-founder of the MDP, Mohamed Latheef, was recently given a ten-year jail sentence for exercising her right to peaceful protest in 2003. Amnesty deems the sentencing of Jennifer Latheef to be politically motivated and is concerned that she has not received a fair trial.
Readers may like to send appeals calling for Mohamed Nasheed’s immediate and unconditional release (in accordance with Article 19 of the United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights), and seeking immediate guarantees that Nasheed is being treated humanely and granted any necessary medical care to:
His Excellency President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom
The President’s Palace
Republic of Maldives
Fax: 00 960 32 55 00