Democracy on trial in the Maldives

(Flickr/Dying Regime)

On October 8 the first democratically elected president of the Republic of Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, was arrested in a violent raid conducted by police SWAT units while campaigning for reelection. Orders for the arrest were issued by the regime that had forced President Nasheed out of office seven months ago in a coup. Following the arrest, Nasheed was detained and appeared in court on the following day to stand trial for alleged abuse of power. The court then placed Nasheed under town-arrest, forbidding him to leave the island city of Male and suspending the proceedings for 25 days until November 4.

The prospects for Nasheed don’t appear hopeful. Nasheed’s party, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), has cited in recent statements the government’s track record of disregard for the Maldivian constitution and argued that there is “no chance” that he will receive a fair trial. The violent nature of the arrest — during which eyewitnesses say Nasheed’s supporters were beaten and pepper sprayed despite offering no resistance — also further demonstrates the government’s willingness to use armed repression against nonviolent political opposition.

This is just the latest incident in a decade-long struggle over how the small Indian Ocean archipelago will be governed. The outcome appeared to be settled in 2008, after a popular nonviolent movement led by Nasheed and civil society groups succeeded in ousting South Asia’s longest standing dictator, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. Gayoom had modeled his government after Hosni Mubarak’s secular-Islamic state, and, like the Mubarak regime, Gayoom’s government was marked by countless human rights violations — many of them related to the arbitrary detention and torture of political dissidents. Gayoom’s government was also able to monopolize the profits from the nation’s lucrative tourism industry, allowing him and his clique to amass extravagant personal fortunes while a majority of the nation’s 300,000 people lived in poverty.

Political parties were strictly prohibited, but that didn’t stop the MDP from organizing much of the population into a movement demanding free and fair elections. In 2008, after nearly a decade of nonviolent resistance, Nasheed and his supporters — along with timely pressure from the international community — forced Gayoom to acquiesce to an internationally monitored election.

After winning the election, Nasheed went on to serve as president of the Maldives for almost four years. But on February 7, 2012, he was forced to resign at gunpoint by members of the Maldivian police force, apparently acting in concert with his vice president and members of the former regime. A number of observers, such as Stephen Zunes of the University of San Francisco, regarded this as nothing less than a bloodless coup — and it has paved the way for the forces of the old order to restore control over the country.

The new government has tried to justify its actions based on allegations that Nasheed was guilty of “abuse of power” — charges which he now faces in court. Twenty days before the coup, President Nasheed had ordered the arrest of the nation’s highest judicial authority, Chief Justice Abdulla Mohamed, for repeatedly refusing to cooperate with an investigation into his record. The investigation was initiated after a constitutionally appointed committee tasked with judicial oversight was concerned by Mohamed’s constant quashing of cases involving members of the old regime.

After the coup, Nasheed noted that the World Bank had described the conditions that his government inherited in 2008 as “the worst economic conditions of any country undergoing democratic reform since the 1950s.” Thirty years of dictatorship had allowed the nation’s institutions, infrastructure and social fabric to decay. One reason for the widespread disrepair was that the income from tourism had been channeled directly to the dictator, his family members and his cronies through their ownership of most of the land on which hundreds of five-star tourist resorts are situated. From 2008 onward, the new democratically elected government tried to begin the process of disentangling these corrupt relationships so that some of this income could be clawed back for public use. Nasheed’s decision to arrest the chief justice would have cleared the way for members of the old regime to be held accountable for corruption and human rights abuses.

This is why Nasheed was forced from office earlier this year, and why the new government is determined to keep him from running in any upcoming election. The nation’s judiciary was, and still is, in the pocket of the old regime. Today, all but one of the eight members serving on the Judicial Services Commission were appointed by Gayoom while he was in power, and since that body is responsible for the appointment and dismissal of new judges, the problem of corruption remains throughout the judiciary.

Nearly everyone in the Maldives is aware of this, but it’s also becoming clearer to outside observers as well. Just days before the coup, in February 2012, an MP from Britain’s ruling Conservative Party stated before the parliament, “Although the judiciary is constitutionally independent, the sitting judges are under-qualified, often corrupt and hostile to the democratically elected regime.” In response to this statement, George Young — an MP and leader of the House of Commons — acknowledged that British Under Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs Alistair Burt “understands the problems inherent in the Maldivian judiciary and is in discussions with President Nasheed to find a way to solve the problem.”

Some international observers were misled into thinking that the coup was justified by the fact that, following the chief justice’s arrest, gatherings of 100 to 200 people took to the streets of Male to protest Nasheed’s “abuse of power,” demanding that he resign. However, nearly all of these protesters were supporters of the Adhaalath Party (Islamic Party) and they represented a small minority of the population that opposed Nasheed for his secular tendencies. To understand how the average Maldivian felt about the MDP and Nasheed, one need only look back to the parliamentary elections that took place one year prior to the coup. In Male the MDP won an overwhelming victory, receiving nine out of the 11 possible legislative seats.

Those who came to power following the coup claimed that there was enough evidence against Nasheed to put him in jail for the rest of his life. But now they seem to have realized that if they lock him up just long enough to remove him from active politics before the next elections, they will have a sufficient opportunity to consolidate control.

“Honorable judges,” Nasheed stated before the court, “this charge against me is a deliberate attempt by the prosecutor general to bar the presidential candidate of the largest opposition political party of this country from contesting the next presidential election.”

This position was echoed by the MDP as well as the hundreds of Maldivian citizens who started gathering in Male to demonstrate their support for Nasheed shortly after his arrest. The next day, protesters again gathered, this time outside the courthouse to further demonstrate solidarity and to await court’s decision.

After being placed under town-arrest in the wake of the ruling on October 9, Nasheed addressed a crowed of roughly 1,500 supporters. He reiterated his position, stating:

The prosecutor general’s only objective is to ensure that I cannot contest in the next presidential elections. To do so, he has identified an article which would provide just the required period of detention to cancel my candidacy.

He went on to say:

What is the specific moment during the orchestration of the coup that all political actors were noting as most important? The moment when Abdulla Ghazi [Judge Abdulla Mohamed] was released. The coup d’etat that was brought in this country was made possible because our criminal justice system has failed.

Nasheed’s decision to continue openly criticize the new regime, and the enthusiastic support he has received from tens of thousands of Maldivians, are all signs indicating that those who want genuine democracy will not give up without a fight. For most Maldivians, memories of how they effectively resisted the old dictatorship are undoubtedly still alive.

Out of that struggle emerged a number of skilled organizers and strategists who know how to raise the cost of oppression and expose its lack of legitimacy. A renewed popular movement in the Maldives has the potential to disrupt business as usual by making it impossible for other governments that profess concern for rights and democracy to ignore political repression in the Maldives, as they are now doing.

The majority of Maldivians want to govern themselves by electing their own leaders in a free and fair election. Will the world support that legitimate desire, and press the existing regime to cooperate? Or will other governments make their own arrangements with a regime that lacks any mandate from the people and seeks to reimpose the abuse of rights and the corruption that prevailed in the Maldives for decades?

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