We Must Send the Maldivian Regime a Clear, Unambiguous and Robust Message: Their Behaviour Is Unacceptable

22/03/2015 23:05 | Updated 22 May 2015

Miscarriages of justice occur throughout the world, but few are as blatant and outrageous as the trial and thirteen-year prison sentence inflicted on the former president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed.

Best known for its luxurious tourist resorts, pristine beaches and glistening sapphire-blue ocean, the Maldives is currently facing a human rights crisis and the destruction of its nascent democracy.

Seven years ago, the Maldives was held up as a rare example of a Muslim-majority country which made a peaceful, seemingly stable transition from authoritarian rule to multi-party democracy. Mr Nasheed, who led the struggle for democracy for almost two decades and spent many years in prison, solitary confinement and house arrest, defeated Asia's longest serving dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who had ruled for thirty years, in the country's first democratic elections in 2008. A transition to democracy which was begun by reformist ministers in the final years of Mr Gayoom's rule appeared to have been successful.

That lasted for just under four years. In 2012 allies of Mr Gayoom struck back in a coup d'etat, forcing Mr Nasheed to resign the presidency. He was surrounded by mutinying police and soldiers, and threatened with death if he did not step down.

The following year fresh elections were held, but when Mr Nasheed was once again ahead in the first round, the regime cancelled the election and called for a re-run.

Several months later, Mr Nasheed just failed to win an outright majority in the first round, and was narrowly defeated in the second round by Mr Gayoom's brother, Abdullah Yameen. The Gayoom family is now back in power, his brother as president, his daughter as Foreign Minister, and the old man manoeuvring behind the scenes.

Mr Nasheed is a graduate of Liverpool John Moores University, where I hold the chair as Professor of Citizenship and hosted a Roscoe Lecture by the former High Commissioner for the Maldives, Dr Farah Faizal, after she resigned in protest at the overthrow of Mr Nasheed. Throughout his ordeal, he has shown extraordinary good grace. Despite irregularities, he accepted the election result in 2013, in the interests of 'stability', and vowed to serve as leader of the opposition. Yet the regime has shown itself determined to get Mr Nasheed out of the way - for good. And so they seized on an incident from the final months of his presidency, and pressed charges.

Mr Nasheed was accused of "abducting" a judge, Abdulla Mohamed and charged under terrorism laws. Two such accusations against the Maldives' symbol of non-violent democracy are in themselves absurd.

During his presidency, Mr Nasheed tried to reform the judiciary but, consisting of Mr Gayoom's appointees, he came up against vested interests. When allegations of corruption and misconduct were made against Judge Mohamed, the government tried to take action - but again the judiciary closed ranks. Judge Mohamed was accused of repeatedly acquitting known criminals, including murderers, who immediately re-offended, and thus was deemed to be a threat to national security. The Defence Minister ordered his arrest.

Mr Nasheed's trial was an extraordinary farce. He was manhandled by the police, violently dragged into court, his shirt ripped, his arm injured. He appeared in a sling, but was denied medical treatment. For much of his trial, conducted late at night, he was refused access to legal representation. Two of the judges hearing the case provided witness statements for the prosecution. One of the judges already has a criminal record. The court refused to hear Mr Nasheed's defence witnesses. Prosecution witnesses were allegedly coached by the police. It resembled the trial in Alice in Wonderland.

Upon hearing the verdict and sentence, on his twenty-first wedding anniversary, Mr Nasheed responded with typical courage and conviction. He called on Maldivians to take the streets, peacefully, in protest, and to begin a new movement to challenge the dictatorship. But he also displayed a remarkable absence of bitterness. "In this time of profound injustice, I harbour no hatred," he told the court. "And to those who seek to destroy me, I say: I wish upon you good grace and blessings. I wish for good blessings upon us all, in this world and the next." Comparisons with Nelson Mandela or Aung San Suu Kyi are deserved.

In new rules rushed in just before Mr Nasheed's trial, an appeal must be lodged within ten days of sentencing. Mr Nasheed filed an appeal against his arrest, which the High Court was due to hear just two days after he had been sentenced. Yet the court insisted on a closed session, which Mr Nasheed rightly refused. Now, in the latest blow to due process, the Criminal Court only released the summary of the trial proceedings two days before the deadline for lodging an appeal against his sentence. They have still not released the full record of the proceedings, which are required for an appeal to be heard. His legal team have described this as "an obstruction" of his right to appeal. By all accounts, President Yameen will stop at nothing to ensure that his rival is out of the way before the next election in 2018.

There are now real fears for Mr Nasheed's life. His wife and his party, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), have pointed to plots to assassinate him.

Such a gross miscarriage of justice cannot go unchallenged by the international community. As an MDP spokesperson put it: "Democracy is dead in the Maldives. In its place, we have thuggish authoritarian rule." Hundreds of Maldivians have been peacefully protesting every night in recent days - at least 120 of whom have been arrested and charged with "terrorism". Police and criminal gangs have violently attacked peaceful demonstrations.

The international community has started to speak out. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has expressed concern about the "hasty and apparently unfair trial", while the UN Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers has said the trial makes a "mockery" of the Maldivian Constitution.

It is clear that Mr Yameen's regime does not respond to soft diplomacy. It is therefore time to speak to the regime in language it will understand, hitting it where it hurts: in its wallet. Targeted sanctions are needed. The European Union should freeze the assets of senior regime officials and their crony backers. A travel ban should be imposed on senior regime leaders. And a carefully targeted tourism boycott, aimed at resorts owned by regime associates, is needed. Sir Richard Branson has already called for such a boycott, and others should join that call.

Democracy, justice and human rights cannot be trampled on with such impunity in a country which had previously made such progress towards these values. This is a Commonwealth country and, given the Commonwealth Charter's commitment to the rule of law, democracy and human rights, the Commonwealth has a particular responsibility to engage directly. If necessary, the Maldives should be suspended from the Commonwealth. Mr Nasheed should be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. It is in all our interests to send the Maldivian regime a clear, unambiguous and robust message: their behaviour is unacceptable. Mr Nasheed must be released, the charges dropped and the democratic process restored.