Far from its popular image as a tranquil, tropical paradise, with sun-drenched beaches, crystal-clear blue waters and honeymoon couples, the Maldives today is a cross between Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe and Alice in Wonderland, with elements of North Korea, Burma and radical Islamism thrown in.
Just under a decade ago, the Maldives embarked on a political reform process leading to a democratic transition. The country was ruled by Asia's longest serving dictator, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who appointed reform-minded ministers in response to growing international criticism of his repressive leadership. The reformers, led by then Foreign Minister Ahmed Shaheed, were appointed, presumably, to create a veneer of liberalisation while keeping Gayoom in power. In reality, they turned out to be more reformist than Gayoom intended.
In 2006, I visited the Maldives on behalf of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission. I was impressed by Dr Shaheed, who gave me unrestricted access not only to government ministers but also to the then opposition leader Mohamed Nasheed, who was under house arrest at the time. I also met a detained journalist, Jennifer Latheef. Dr Shaheed invited me to give a public talk on human rights. I left feeling that the Maldives was beginning to move in the right direction.
I published a report following the visit, to which both the government and the opposition responded positively. Reforms led to Nasheed's release, after years in house arrest, prison and solitary confinement. He was the Maldives' Mandela or Aung San Suu Kyi. In 2008, the country held its first ever democratic elections - and Gayoom was voted out. Mohamed Nasheed became President.
For four years, the Maldives looked like a success story of a Muslim country that had transitioned peacefully from dictatorship to democracy. Nasheed showed extraordinary generosity towards the old regime, refusing to allow revenge and encouraging their participation in multi-party politics. Such graciousness was to his credit, but not to his advantage.
In 2012, Gayoom's cronies staged a coup d'etat, forcing Nasheed from office. A year later, fresh elections were held. Nasheed was allowed to contest, and won 45% in the first round, just short of an outright victory. However, the regime annulled the ballot before it went to a second round, and held a re-run some months later. After repeated delays, fresh elections were held. Nasheed won again in the first round, but in the second round his rival, Gayoom's brother Abdullah Yameen, played the religion card, portraying Nasheed as a secularist in a fiercely conservative Muslim country, and won. The Gayoom clan were back in power.
Despite numerous irregularities in the election process, Nasheed accepted the result with typical good grace, and vowed to continue as opposition leader. The Gayoom clan did not reciprocate graciousness. Not content with victory, they wanted to ensure that Nasheed would never again threaten their power. Hence his arrest last month and the absurd trial he is currently facing.
The charges against Nasheed relate to an incident in the final weeks of his presidency, which precipitated the coup. Throughout his presidency he had attempted to reform the legal system, establish judicial independence and revise legislation, but repeatedly came up against the vested interests of the old regime. Judges were Gayoom appointees whose sympathies were not with reform. Many were unqualified, with only a very basic level of education, but they resisted efforts to remove from the judiciary those who failed to meet proposed standards of educational attainment and ethical conduct.
The crunch came in 2012 when Judge Abdulla Mohamed faced accusations of political bias. Political figures associated with the old regime were repeatedly acquitted despite charges of serious crimes. The judge blocked a police investigation into an alleged attempted murder case involving Gayoom's son, Gassan Maumoon. Judge Mohamed reportedly previously asked an under-age victim of sexual abuse to re-enact her attack during a court hearing - an allegation on which Gayoom's own Attorney-General had filed a complaint.
Nasheed's government tried every mechanism available to hold Judge Mohamed accountable, but all were blocked by his personal interference using his powers as a judge, as the country descended into a culture of impunity and religious extremism. Finally, his refusal to honour a police summons for an investigation into his alleged corruption led to military intervention in his case.
Who ordered the arrest is still unclear. Its legality may be debateable. With hindsight, the wisdom of it is certainly questionable. But to charge Nasheed with a terrorism offence, for "kidnapping" a judge, is an absurdity. By all accounts the judge was held in comfortable conditions and was well-treated. Certainly, his treatment stands in stark contrast with Nasheed's now or with dissidents under the Gayoom regime. There can be little doubt that Judge Mohamed under President Nasheed would have faced a much fairer trial than Nasheed is now facing.
On 22 February this year, Nasheed was arrested by the police, charged with "terrorism". He was imprisoned, and refused bail. It is believed he was mistreated while in police custody, and the following day when he arrived at court he was violently dragged along the ground by police. Images of his face, a look of terror in his eyes as police officers ripped his shirt and injured his arm, say it all. A former President manhandled by thugs. He was denied medical attention for his injuries, and appeared in court with a make-shift sling.
In the first day of his trial, he was denied access to his lawyer. Throughout his trial so far, judges have appeared as witnesses for the prosecution, other judges have been accused of leading the witnesses, and some witnesses have claimed they spent time with the police preparing their evidence in advance.
The background of the Prosecutor General and the three judges appointed for the trial raises questions. The Prosecutor General is a former associate of Judge Mohamed; the lead judge in the case had refused to take disciplinary action against Judge Mohamed as deputy head of the Judicial Services Commission and is rumoured to have destroyed his own academic and professional records; another judge faces allegations of bribery and the third has a criminal record. Amnesty International has said that Nasheed's arrest, mistreatment and lack of fair trial "highlight a selective approach to justice in the Maldives". To put it less diplomatically, watch the court scene in Alice in Wonderland and it is like raw footage from Nasheed's trial.
The timing and nature of Nasheed's arrest and prosecution has a blatantly clear political design. If convicted, he could face up to 15 years in prison - disqualifying him from contesting the presidency again. And not content with that, the regime has responded brutally to the mass protests in support of Nasheed, sending in thugs armed with iron rods and truncheons, and arresting dozens.
There are parallels, of course, with other dictatorships, because the modus operandi of dictators is similar everywhere. In 2009 the Burmese regime extended Aung San Suu Kyi's house arrest after a foreigner, John Yettaw, swam to her home - conveniently making it impossible for her to contest the 2010 election. Burma's regime uses religion in a similar way to the Gayoom regime, and - as last week's crackdown on student protests in Rangoon illustrates - deploys gangs of thugs to do their dirty work just as Yameen does. The gang warfare in the Maldivian capital Male also evokes memories of the pro-Indonesian militia in East Timor.
The Gayoom clan has echoes of the Kim dynasty in North Korea. The Maldives does not have the gulags and there is more space for dissent, but in both places dictatorship is a family business. Gayoom's daughter is now Foreign Minister, his other children all hold ministerial positions, and his brother is President, while the old man continues to pull the strings from behind.
The current dictator Yameen is increasingly looking like Robert Mugabe: erratic, megalomaniac, illogical, paranoid or just plain mad. His Foreign Ministry officials resort to foul-mouthed abuse on Twitter, or wild conspiracy theories about Christian missionaries and gay rights activists joining hands to conquer the Maldives. Charging Nasheed, a champion of non-violent democracy, with "terrorism" is ironic, coming from a regime that terrorises its own people and that has done nothing to curb the rise of radical Islamism on its shores.
There is, therefore, an urgent need for the international community to act. Left to their own devices, there is no chance of a fair trial. Democracy in the Maldives is being strangled in its infancy.
Britain has a particular responsibility, and the current Conservative-led Coalition government especially so. Nasheed spoke at a Conservative Party conference; David Cameron described him as his "best friend". Conservative activists helped Nasheed's Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) in the 2008 elections.
Working with partners in the EU, the Commonwealth, South Asia, the UN and with the United States, Britain should call for targeted sanctions aimed at freezing the overseas assets of senior regime leaders. The Commonwealth should suspend the Maldives' membership. Tourists should consider either boycotting the Maldives and especially resorts owned by regime leaders or cronies, or travelling to the Maldives to support democracy. Yellow is the colour of Nasheed's party, the Maldivian Democratic Party, so tourists could go wearing yellow and distribute yellow clothing or umbrellas across the Maldives. Paint the country yellow, and launch a Hong Kong-style Umbrella Revolution. Outside, we need a global public awareness campaign. And lastly, former President Nasheed should be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Turning a blind eye to the erosion of democracy and the rule of law is not an option. Nasheed should be freed, and since a fair trial is almost impossible, the charges should be dropped. He should be allowed to contest elections in 2018. Then, it is for the Maldivian people to decide.