Duplicitous attacks on the Maldives

Duplicitous attacks on the Maldives
February 10 13:50 2016

It is a compelling tale. A longtime political activist leads his party to victory in a closely fought election in a country famed for its pristine archipelagos and on the front of the war against climate change. There is no doubt that Mohamed Nasheed, the former president of the Maldives, was adept at using the international media to promote his agenda while in government. He employed a series of American and British spin doctors stationed in his office and even commissioned a documentary about himself. If there was an encapsulation of a media-savvy politician, he is it. Sadly, he now finds himself in more trying circumstances.

Mr. Nasheed has been charged and convicted in the Maldives for ordering the arrest of a senior criminal court judge — a man who had released one of his most vociferous critics. He also padlocked the Supreme Court gates. It was an act that precipitated three months of protests that eventually led to the downfall of his government.

Last month, Mr. Nasheed was again thrust into the spotlight. This time it was not his underwater Cabinet meeting but rather his temporary release from prison that set the world’s media alight — a release that was granted by the Maldivian government so he could undergo surgery in the United Kingdom.

What followed was a carefully scripted and tightly controlled media campaign in London, spearheaded by Mr. Nasheed’s lawyer, Amal Clooney. Mr. Nasheed’s back ailment was remarkably absent, his medical leave taking on a rather different dimension.

For many Maldivians, the attacks that followed were deeply disappointing. And as they increased in viciousness and bravado, they began to reveal a profound hypocrisy at the heart of the carefully spun narrative that has survived for so long since Mr. Nasheed assumed office in 2008. More importantly, they craftily masked an uncomfortable reality — that he had fought and lost four elections (including the parliamentary elections while he was president), and had made some grave strategic errors that catalysed a forfeiture of his presidency.

With paparazzi camped outside his lawyer’s office, journalists at his London press conference failed to ask him once about how or why he had to resign as president, perhaps hypnotised by the Hollywood PR sheen. In fact, Mr. Nasheed’s election loss was recognised as fair by the EU and other international organisations. A Commonwealth investigation concluded he resigned voluntarily in 2012. The British government also backed this finding. Bizarrely, he was never even queried about the act that triggered his arrest — despite a confession that he did abuse his executive powers in a BBC interview in 2012, in an op-ed in The New York Times the same year. Ben Emmerson, his British lawyer, compared him to Nelson Mandela. Yet that great statesman did not arrest members of the judiciary, detain leaders of three different political parties without a warrant, or expel members of his own party who challenged his leadership. Neither did Mandela court the world’s media with such veracity.

As a politician myself, I am used to the rough and tumble that defines our profession. And as head of state, I must be held to account for my actions and my ability to deliver on our promises to the people of the Maldives. Yet the events of last month are concerning. This is not because they are politically uncomfortable for my government, but that they unfairly punish the country Mr. Nasheed professes to love, and that he once led as president.

The narrative spun last week was clearly a ploy rooted in politics, not moral duty. But it is equally founded in fantasy. Despite the global economic downturn, our economy continues to grow and we are the only Millennium Development Goals Plus country in South Asia. U.N. figures indicate that since 1998 extreme poverty is down by 94 percent and hunger by 57 percent. There has been 156 percent increase of women’s share in employment. As in any embryonic democracy, we have experienced growing pains and differences in opinion. A reform agenda, proposed by then-President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom in June 2004, culminated in the adoption of a new constitution in 2008. That constitution is regarded as one of the most rights-based in the world. I have also ensured a broad base of professional experience is present among my ministers.

However, it is clear that Mr. Nasheed realises that trash-talking the Maldives is a way to justify his return and political redemption. He cannot, of course, become a hero if the Maldives continues to do well. He warns of an impending terror attack — yet the Maldives remains one of the safest tourist destinations in the world, while international travel advice paints a polar opposite picture to his claims. My government has never been more alert to the threat of terrorism, as is every other peaceful nation in the world at the moment. We work tirelessly to protect our people and visitors. But to fear-monger and gamble with Maldivian jobs is profoundly self-serving.

Mrs. Clooney’s bellicose calls for sanctions also reflect a disconnect from reality. She paints the Maldives as a banana republic. Sanctions, she says, are not there to punish the Maldivian people. Yet it was the people of our islands that voted for its current leaders in an internationally recognised election. The threats are a grave affront to our young democracy and treat our voters with disdain.

The answers to this increasingly international spectacle lie in the Maldives. The country’s prosecutor general — an independent statutory body — has appealed Mr. Nasheed’s conviction at the country’s Supreme Court. That court is now ready to hear from his lawyers. We want to be held to account for our performance by the people who voted for us. Yet we cannot allow mud to be thrown from afar for short-term political gain.

It is worth remembering that as journalists began to ask questions at Mr. Nasheed’s press conference last month, the live feed was cut, denying access to thousands of Maldivians watching at home. A member of our embassy was barred from attending. This was in stark contrast to the open access his lawyers and accompanying journalists were given on their previous visit to our capital. Clearly, Mr. Nasheed has difficult questions to answer. Let us hope that all sides in this debate can negotiate from a more honest stance next time.

This op-ed was published by the Washington Times on February 9. It has been republished with permission from the President’s Office.

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