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Radical Islamism Will Continue to Grow in the Maldives if Left Unchecked

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When a democratically elected president is forced to resign by rebels within the police and military, threatened with bloodshed if he refuses, frog-marched by police and military to a press conference to announce his decision, detained for several hours, beaten up as he addresses a peaceful gathering of supporters, and then a warrant for his arrest is issued, I call that a coup d'état.

This is precisely what occurred in the Maldives this week, when the country's first democratically elected leader, Mohamed Nasheed, was forced from the presidency. Yet astonishingly the international community, including the British government, the European Union, the United States, the Commonwealth and the United Nations, refuses to see it as a coup. Lulled by the charm of Nasheed's smooth-talking successor and former Vice-President, Mohammed Waheed Hassan, widely believed to be complicit in the plot, the statements put out by world leaders so far have been, in the words of one politician, "worse than hopeless".

I first met Mohamed Nasheed, or 'Anni' as he is known, in 2006, when I travelled to the Maldives on behalf of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission. The previous year, Maldivian activists approached the Commission to ask us to look at the human rights situation in the country under the then dictator, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. We took up the issue, and discovered that under the surface this idyllic paradise holiday destination was ruled by a brutal and corrupt dictatorship that jailed and tortured its opponents.

When I met him, Anni was under house arrest. He had already been arrested twelve times, tortured twice and spent over six years in prison including 18 months in solitary confinement. By 2006, he had established the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), and was the country's leader of the opposition. Gayoom, facing growing international pressure, had brought in reformers to paint a veneer of change. The reformers, however, turned out to be more reformist than Gayoom had expected, and embarked on a process of genuine democratisation. During my visit, I met several of Gayoom's Ministers, and they gave me access to Anni and a detained journalist, Jennifer Latheef.

I had expected to meet a street-fighting radical, given the Gayoom's regime portrayal of him. Instead, I met one of the most inspiring people I have ever come to know. Despite his years of incarceration, Anni was incredibly up-to-date in his knowledge and thoughtful in his approach. I remember, for example, being stunned at how much homework he had done about me.

A few days after my visit to the Maldives, I issued a report, published by the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission. I did not think it was rocket science - it contained two very simple recommendations. If the regime's reformers were genuine, the first step they should take is release Anni and Latheef. If Anni was released, I recommended that he and his party engage with the reformers to lead the country on the path to democracy.

Within days, I started receiving phone calls from the Foreign Minister and Anni. Both said they agreed entirely with my recommendations. The Foreign Minister told me Anni would be released, and asked me to encourage him to engage with the reformers. Anni told me to tell the reformers that if he was released, he was more than ready to work with them. I went back and forth between them, relaying messages, and a few months later, the Foreign Minister called me to inform me that Gayoom had signed Anni's release papers.

Two years later, the Maldives held the first genuinely free and fair multi-party elections, which Anni and the MDP overwhelmingly won. Anni became President, but graciously refused to seek revenge or even justice against Gayoom, allowing him to continue to operate in opposition. Anni set about developing the country as a new democracy, tackling corruption, reforming the institutions and fighting climate change.

In addition, Anni took a very close interest in the struggle for freedom in other countries. I work on Burma, and Anni offered help and support for their democracy movement. He promised the Maldives as a place of sanctuary for exiled Burmese writers and activists. I held him up as an example to my Burmese friends.

Anni has a wonderful sense of humour. I will never forget attending a lecture he gave at the Commonwealth Institute. I held up my hand to ask a question, and introduced myself formally as the protocol demanded. "I know who you are," he laughed, in front of a crowd of several hundred. "You visited me when I was under house arrest." Humbled by that recognition, I was then embarrassed by his next remark. "I tried to call you last week, because I wanted to discuss how I can help Burma." Then, the killer line, delivered with perfect timing: "I left you a voicemail, but you never called me back." By this point everyone was wondering who this person was who did not return a president's phone call. The fact that I had been in the jungles of eastern Burma was beside the point. The point is that it illustrates Anni's down-to-earth humanity, and unflinching commitment to the universal values of freedom and human rights.

It is ironic that just ten days before Anni was overthrown, I had a meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi. Now, it would seem, there is room for cautious optimism in Burma, while reasons to be very epressed about the Maldives.

It cannot be in our interests to allow this coup to go unchallenged. The Conservative Party owes it to the MDP to stand with them. The links between the two parties are strong. The Conservative Party International Office provided regular advice and support to the MDP. In 2009, Anni addressed the Conservative Party conference. David Cameron described Anni as his new best friend.

Britain should use its influence, bi-laterally and within international fora such as the Commonwealth, the European Union and the United Nations, to ensure a restoration of democracy. The Commonwealth should recognise this as a coup, and suspend the Maldives as a member. The EU should consider freezing the assets of members of the new regime, and imposing a travel ban. Other sanctions should be explored. Tour operators linked to the coup should be boycotted. Unless fresh elections are held soon, and Anni and his party allowed to contest them freely and without harassment or restriction, the new regime should not be given the legitimacy it seeks.

And if the bonds of friendship are not enough to cause Britain to help Anni in his hour of need, our national interest should compel us to act. Gayoom is pulling the strings behind this coup, in league with the Islamists. He has said he does not rule out a return to the presidency. After so much progress in the past six years, do we really want to see it all reversed?

Dictatorship is never in our long-term interests, for dictators create instability and reek of corruption. If they are allied to Islamists, that should be of even greater concern. Radical Islamism has grown in the Maldives, and will continue to do so if left unchecked. An illegal, undemocratic, unconstitutional dictatorship with Islamist links is not a regime we should do business with.