The Maldives government has authorised jailed former President Mohamed Nasheed leave to travel to the United Kingdom for a surgery on his spine, according to a tweet by the ministry of foreign affairs.
The announcement is a reversal of the government’s earlier stance, and come just hours before the UK Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Hugo Swire’s arrival in Malé for an official visit.
GoM has granted permission to former President Nasheed to travel to UK to undergo surgery, at his request
— MFA-Maldives (@MDVForeign) January 16, 2016
Nasheed “was granted permission under the condition to serve the remainder of the sentence upon return to the Maldives after surgery,” the foreign ministry has said in a brief statement.
It was Nasheed who choose the UK, the ministry said.
Pressure is increasing on the government to release the opposition leader, who was sentenced to 13 years in jail following a terrorism trial that the UN has called politically motivated.
The announcement is the first sign that President Abdulla Yameen’s administration is pervious to foreign pressure and is likely to hearten opposition supporters, whose ability to mobilize and protest were curtailed further in recent months.
World leaders including UK Prime Minister David Cameron and UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon have called for Nasheed’s release. But Yameen says he will not bow down to foreign pressure, describing appeals for Nasheed’s freedom as an attack on Maldives’ sovereignty.
An overwhelming majority of the European Union parliament in December urged member states to impose targeted sanctions on government officials and pro-government businesses over deteriorating human rights in the Maldives.
Nasheed’s international lawyers are currently making the rounds in Washington lobbying the US government and Congress to apply financial sanctions such as asset freezes. A confidential list of potential targets has now been delivered to the governments of the UK and the US.
Reasons for the government’s sudden change in stance was unclear as the president’s office and the foreign ministry were not responding to calls at the time of going to press.
A spokesman for the Maldives Correctional Services, the organization that administers prisons, said he was not aware of the decision.
Home Minister Umar Naseer had previously insisted that Nasheed would not be allowed to leave the country, arguing that the surgery to correct slipped discs in the opposition leader’s spine is available in the Maldives.
Other high-profile political prisoners who also require medical care abroad were not allowed a choice except for Singapore.
Inmates are allowed to seek treatment abroad if it is not available in the Maldives. Healthcare services are poor in the country.
Nasheed’s wife Laila Ali and his two daughters are currently in the UK.
Three key opposition figures who led protests following Nasheed’s jailing and former Vice President Dr Mohamed Jameel Ahmed, who was impeached in July, are also living in self-imposed exile in the UK.
An appeal of Nasheed’s terrorism conviction is now before the Supreme Court.