Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Trial of the Island President

While America and most of the world was concentrating on the Academy Awards and the speeches of famous actors, the star of the documentary the Island President was arrested under terrorism charges. The arrest of former Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed came as a shock but not as a surprise to the climate activism community and to those who have been following the political birth pangs of the island nation off the tip of India.

Nasheed, the country's first democratically elected president of the Maldives following more than 30 years of despotic totalitarianism was a climate change advocate and one of the loudest voices in the UN climate talks at Copenhagen. His fervor and urgency came from concern for his people, citing the fact that with long-term sea level rise the Maldives is set to disappear from the face of the Earth.

A reformer, religious moderate and charismatic leader, Mohamed Nasheed was subject of the 2011 documentary the Island President.  The film depicted the heartbreaking efforts of the President to fight on the international level for action on climate change, being blocked by the United States and China. Five month's after the movie's release, internal forces caused Nasheed to withdraw from office, under dubious circumstances that some have claimed a coup.

Superficially, the spark that ignited the political unrest that ended Nasheed's Presidency surrounds the arrest and detainment of a Judge who was being investigated on corruption charges and had suspended officers investigating corruption in the government. The arrest was called illegal by the opposition party and became the impetus for protests by local police and religious hardliners in the country who were uncomfortable with some of Nasheed's interactions with non Muslims.

The country seems divided on the issue of the arrest, with calls on Twitter to #FreeNasheed and from those that say #ISupportNasheedArrest. For the outside observer, this appears to be a domestic dispute that holds no bearing over our daily lives. To truly understand the situation, and why it is important, we need to dive into the full details.

History of the Maldives

The nation of 350,000 is made up of over 500 islands surrounded by coral in the Indian Ocean. It is destination spot of approximately 100,000 tourists a month who come for the fishing, diving, snorkeling and exotic hotel hot spots

The island nation also boasts a tumultuous political history. The country has been briefly dominated by foreign powers in three separate occasions including the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British. In 1965 the Maldives gained independence from the British Empire and in 1968 became a republic ruled by an authoritarian government through a presidency and a "Constitutional Shari'ah" law which is still in place. These laws include Hudud punishments (ranging from exile to public lashing and death) for crimes like adultery, fornication, homosexuality, apostasy, and consuming intoxicants. 

For example, in February of 2013, the judiciary sentenced a fifteen-year-old girl to 100 lashes and house arrest for 8 months for premarital sex after her stepfather had raped her and killed their baby. He is still to face trial. After international attention was put on the situation, the High Courts overturned the ruling but it is just one example of the current status of law in the Islamic country.  

In 1978, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom took power and over the next 30 years created a booming tourist economy (see above) at the expense of the freedoms and the equality of the Maldivians. During his three decades in power, President Gayoom systematically replaced leadership rolls throughout the government with family and friends. During that time he has been accused of being a "dictator" and authoritarian with policies including suppressiontorture, and unlawful detainment. In 1997 the Special Majlis, a selected group of parliamentarians, produced a new constitution that vastly expanded powers of the executive. According to an Amnesty International report from 2003 "...there were severe restrictions on freedom of the press, and political parties were unable to function."

It has also been reported that Gayoom misappropriated government funds and received kickbacks from local resort and tourism owners. 
Among Gayoom’s assets mentioned $9.5 million spent for a luxury yacht, $17 million to renovate the presidential plaice, as well as the purchase of 11 speed boats and 55 cars with government money.
Amid growing international pressure in 2008 Gayoom finally allowed for open elections for the president and lost %54 to 46% to a former political prisoner under his regime, Mohamed Nasheed. The 30 year President left office, but the legacy of those he placed in office still lingered including in his Judicial appointments.

Mohamed Nasheed 

During Maumoon Abdul Gayoom's regime, Mohamed "Anni" Nasheed set up a magazine and published articles critical of the regime, reporting of corruption and brutality. Nasheed was promptly arrested. His imprisonment included torture and solitary confinement. This was just one of 16 separate times he was jailed and has spent a total of 6 years in work camps or prison. Amnesty International listed him as a "Prisoner of Conscience", before he fled into exile in 2003.

In 2005, Nasheed returned to the Maldives and was promptly arrested that August, causing a civil uproar. In June of 2005 "Anni" was able to official register with political party, the MDP in the Maldives.

After declaring a state of emergency, and attempting to deal with local civil unrest, President Gayoom buckled to international pressure to hold open elections, a divisive race was run where Gayoom's party accused Nasheed of spreading Christianity, a serious allegation in the Islamic nation via his links with foreign countries. His message of change coupled with a call for social and economic liberalism drew support behind him and he became the first democratically elected leader of the island nation.

During Nasheed's tenure, the country found itself in the center of democratic reforms including moving away from strict sharia laws, efforts to ban female genital mutilation and climate activism including being linked with the international organization Nasheed gave an especially stirring speech on the subject stating;
But physics isn't politics. On climate change there are things on which we cannot negotiate…The most important number in the world. The most important number you'll ever hear. The most important number you'll ever say. These three words: Three-five-oh.
In October of 2009, then President Nasheed drew international attention to sea level rise by holding a cabinet meeting underwater. The video of the scuba-clad colleagues deliberating the works of the state rang poignantly throughout the world and sounded a clarion call for action.

The charismatic and obviously driven Nasheed found himself the center of international attention and the subject of a widely distributed and respected documentary. The Island President tells the story of his fight for climate action during the international climate talks in Copenhagen and the anguishing process of international negotiation. In the film the Chinese delegation make it entirely clearn that they are against international monitoring of their emissions, arguing that it compromises their sovereignty. "It's simply madness of China and India not to take it up," says Nasheed in the film. "Just because the West has pumped so much poisonous gas into the atmosphere, that doesn't mean we have to do it again." 

Eventually in the film Nasheed compromises his efforts and his moral high ground, even posing with the Chinese delegation. Leaving Copenhagen, there is an agreement with nice language, but no enforcement and the audience is left grief-stricken the driven hero looks so dismayed. 

Little did the film makers know that they were documenting the end of the President's time in office. In fact, the moment that the film was shown at the 2012 BLUE Ocean film festival in Monterey, the attendees and shocked audience were informed that Nasheed had been forcibly removed from office. 

Following the detainment of a Supreme Court Judge, who had been appointed during the regime of Gayoom, on charges of corruption police protests broke out in the Maldives. As the result of rising protests, allegedly orchestrated by the opposition and Gayoom remnants, the Maldives President and climate change activist resigned "under pressure," and stated on a nationally televised address, "I don't want to hurt any Maldivian. I feel my staying on in power will only increase the problems, and it will hurt our citizens. So the best option available to me is to step down."

In an op-ed in the New York Times, Nasheed wrote, "the former president’s supporters protested in the streets, and police officers and army personnel loyal to the old government mutinied and forced me, at gunpoint, to resign. To avoid bloodshed, I did so. I believe this to be a coup d’├ętat and suspect that my vice president, who has since been sworn into office, helped to plan it." 

Mere hours after the Nasheed resigned office, the Chief Justice of the Criminal Court was released from detention

Here are Nasheed's statements on a 2012 Daily Show appearance:

2012 saw the start of an odd political and legal situation within the country. The new government, headed by former Vice-President, issued a warrant for his arrest and threatened him with life imprisonment. He was dragged from his home and peppersprayed by a group of riot-gear clad police.  

In 2013, new elections were held where Nasheed actually won, but the results were thrown out by the sitting Supreme Court, including the Judge which had been being examined for corruption. A few months later, in a new election Nasheed won the most votes, which should have triggered a run-off, but was again interfered with by the courts under pressure from candidate Abdulla Yameen Gayoom, the former President Gayoom's younger brother.  

Eventually Abdulla Yameen Gayoom was elected and the legal status of Nasheed has been in question ever since. 

Internationally, especially in the climate, human rights and ocean communities. Nasheed has been seen as a hero and friend. Over the years he has been a featured speaker at conferences and has received an incredible number of awards for his work. At the BLUE Ocean Film Festival this year he won the Mission Blue award for his work on ocean issues, presented by Dr. Sylvia Earle.

Just a few months later, when he returned to his home, he was once again arrested.

The Arresting Issue

In 2012 a leading member of the opposition Dhivehi Qaumee Party, Mohamed Jameel Ahmed, was arrested on charges of hate-speech. Jameel was said to have accused Nasheed of acting under the influence of Jews and "Christian priests" to undermine Islam in the Maldives. As one can imagine, under an Islamic nation that follows Sharia law, this is a incendiary charge.

Ahmed's statements were on the tail end of increasing Islamic extremist rhetoric in the island nation that has now become a hotbed of Isis and terrorist activities.

As the deputy chairman of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission in Britain wrote in an op-ed:
The rising influence of the Islamists is equally troubling. There is growing intolerance of non-Muslims, anti-Western sentiment is being whipped up and there is talk of fully implementing Shariah law. A prominent blogger, Ismail Rasheed, who dared to speak for religious freedom, was nearly killed in a knife attack, and later fled the country.
Supreme Court Judge Abdulla Mohamed, a remnant from the previous 30 year administration, ordered Ahmed's release and was detained by the Maldive's military for approximately 23 days. The detainment was surrounding the Judge's 14 cases of obstruction of police duty including the suspension of two police lawyers who were investigating corruption in parliament and the courts on “ethical grounds” and the release of a wide range of detainees including murderers and Mohamed Jameel Ahmed.

The Vice President under Nasheed called to suspend Judge Abdulla Mohamed for his alleged corruption and other actions and the Home Minister Hassan Afeef requested military assistance for "fear of loss of public order and safety and national security" because of the Judge who, according to the minister had "taken the entire criminal justice system in his fist."

Maldivian law requires that any arrested suspect must be released if not brought to trial within 15 days, though the President may extend pretrial detention for an additional 30 days. This is well within the limits of the 23 days that the Judge was detained.

Nasheed apparently had mixed feelings about the arrest:
"I didn't like arresting a judge, and as a long and dedicated Amnesty member I must say yes, Amnesty's point was that I must try and find a procedure within the system to deal with this another way. And I was asking everyone, can you spot that procedure? But I just couldn't let him sit on the bench. There is a huge lack of confidence in the judiciary, and I had to do something and the constitution calls upon me to do that. It's not a nice thing to do. And it's not a thing that I would want to do. And it's not a thing that I liked doing. But it had to be done."
It should be noted that the catalyst for these events, Mohamed Jameel Ahmed who is now Home Minister under the new regime, has been accused of influencing Nasheed's trial and attempted to bar Nasheed from the 2013 elections.

On February 22nd, the current administration arrested Nasheed on the charge of Terrorism, has barred press entry to the proceedings and have even refused bail for the former president.

A Country Divided.

The news broke on twitter that Mohamed Nasheed had been arrested and detained. Soon the country seemed divided on twitter with some vocal posters lauding the arrest using the phrase "no one is above the law" while others pushed for Nasheed's immediate release.

While being taken to court Nasheed attempted to talk to some members of the press before his closed proceedings occurred to make a statement. The police grabbed him and an altercation occurred causing the former president to fall to the ground and be grappled by the police.

The images of this altercation came to be a rallying cry for both the pro-Nasheed and pro-arrest camps. On one side saying he was being brutalized and beaten, on the other claiming that Nasheed orchestrated the altercation and was a "drama queen." But the images of Nasheed in anguish has spread throughout the British and Indianan news like wild fire.

Calls to action on both sides of the discussion have been launched including a petition for his release that, as of this article holds 3,500 signatures. An opposing petition, which has been running for the same length of time currently holds 115.

One main undertone that has been running through the political struggle has been that of moderate Islamists in the nation, and those who take a more hard-line view. One video that has been circulating shows Nasheed speaking on the need for a reformation and modernized Islam.

As one Maldivian stated in a post, "this is enough" for his arrest. One source who requested to remain anonymous told me;
You should keep in mind that Maldives is an Islamic nation. Mohamed Nasheed was probably the best politician Maldives have ever seen. He fought against the dictatorship, against corruption and more. Nasheed is a moderate, but he failed to recognize the moderate people out from the extremists. He gave number is speeches which he should not have being the President of the Maldives. That's his weakness. For example the one in Denmark. He asked Jesuits to come and assist Maldives to fight against extremism. As a politician of an Islamic nation he shouldn't have reached out to the Jesuits. It's all politics. The current government can easily trap him for what happened during his term.
Earlier this week, an angry crowd threatened to assault Human Rights Commissioners over a statement which "condemned the police’s disproportionate use of force against Nasheed, and urged the state to immediately extend medical attention and access to a lawyer."

According to press, "President Yameen has recently become alienated from key former colleagues. He arrested his defence minister, accusing him of plotting a coup. He has also been deserted by another former ally, a resort tycoon who has now joined hands with Mr Nasheed."

In fact, recently, thousands of Maldivians took to the streets to rally against Nasheed's detention in Male. This is an impressive view from above as witnesses were eager to share the news of the demonstrations.

Twitter user @nazeee took some amazing shots on the ground as well.

Free President Nasheed

Protester engulfed in the Maldivian flags at the MDP JP rally calling for
the release of President Nasheed and all political detainees.

Friends and family of the detained MP Ali Azim near his family home
30 of the thousands of protesters were arrested and the demonstrations were brushed off by the current administration with one Minister stating the government, "can't be overthrown in the streets" seemingly counter to the Maldives recent history.  

Foreign Response

One of the most interesting players in the Maldives situation is the nation of China. Unlike the nations of India, the United States, the European Union and the UK joining the call of Bill McKibben and Richard Branson's concern of the situation, China has remained relatively silent. China's official statement of this being a "domestic issue" that they will not "interfere" is very similar to the party line of the current regime.

This is not very surprising as Nasheed was China's enemy number one during the Copenhagen climate talks. The country has been eyeing the island nation for a military base location. There are even those who theorize the arrest and coup was a push from this foreign, non-interfering government. The relationship between the Maldives and the Chinese is a strangely close one.

As stated by the previous President Gayoom:
China, like India, has been with us for a very long time. During my time [as President] also they provided a lot of assistance. China has been with us for 40 years. It is natural for a country with such huge resources to come and help us…This is not a case of us preferring China and dislodging India
While the relationship is an interesting one, any further analysis of China's involvement in the ousting and subsequent trial of the climate activist, moderate Islamic reformer president is just speculation.

The rest of the world can only watch on and continue to put pressure for this process to be open and fair while the Island President faces on uncertain future. My thoughts are with you Anni.

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