Former President Mohamed Nasheed went on a media blitz in the UK yesterday, appearing on CNN, BBC, and Channel 4 to talk about his imprisonment, political repression, and the recruitment of Maldivians by militant groups.
In an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour alongside his celebrity lawyer Amal Clooney, the 48-year-old opposition leader said he will challenge President Abdulla Yameen in the 2018 presidential election.
“I think I will have to fight the next election. It’s unfinished business. Everything seems to be very half-baked,” he said.
“But I would rather sit and read, and watch a film, but I think there’s a lot that needs to be done,” he added.
Nasheed is in the UK after the government authorised a month-long medical leave in the face of mounting diplomatic pressure and the threat of sanctions. Following his release, he met with top diplomats in Colombo and went on to meet British Prime Minister David Cameron a day after his arrival in London.
Meeting the press on Monday, he called for sanctions on government officials, expressing concern over growing radicalisation and continuing political oppression. Some 200 Maldivians are thought to be fighting in Iraq and Syria, he said.
Nasheed’s meeting with Cameron and Monday’s press conference made headlines in newspapers across the world, with stories appearing on The New York Times, The Guardian, Reuters, AP, AFP, People Magazine, Variety, OK Magazine, and US Weekly among others.
The media attention is likely to anger the government, which has sought to downplay the threat of extremism in the Maldives over fears it may impact the country’s luxury tourism sector.
Ahead of Monday’s press conference, the government accused the former president of “exploiting the terms of a 30-day medical release to embark on a lobbying and media campaign abroad.”
“The government acted in good faith in allowing Mr Nasheed to travel abroad for treatment. Yet it is now clear his primary goal was to court publicity in the United Kingdom. This is not medical leave, but media leave,” Foreign Minister Dunya Maumoon said.
Responding to the criticism, Clooney, a UK-based human rights lawyer and wife of Hollywood actor George, told Amanpour that the government is “doing the least they that they have to do based on the amount of international pressure they feel.”
Her client’s temporary release was prompted by the fear of “real consequences to their intransigence” after the lawyers began lobbying the US, UK, and the EU to impose targeted sanctions against top Maldivian officials, Clooney said.
Nasheed is due to see a doctor today. “I’ve had these chronic back aches for quite some time. I was tortured twice in my 20s. And again to have been restrained in these conditions, it doesn’t help my condition. So the prison doctors said I should have surgery,” he told Amanpour.
Last year, Clooney and her co-counsels Jared Genser and Ben Emmerson successfully petitioned a UN human rights panel to declare Nasheed’s imprisonment illegal and politically motivated.
After initially dismissing the non-binding opinion of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention as “flawed and premature,” the government now says the Supreme Court will consider the judgment when it hears Nasheed’s appeal.
Nasheed will only be able to contest the 2018 polls if the apex court overturns the terrorism conviction. He was found guilty of ordering the arrest of a judge and sentenced to 13 years in prison after a rushed trial in March.
The Maldives Police Service meanwhile released a statement yesterday dismissing Nasheed’s contention that more than 1,700 opposition supporters are “facing charges for their peaceful political activity.”
Citing statistics, the police said only 109 people were arrested from protests during the past two years on charges ranging from disobeying orders, obstructing police duty, encouraging acts of terrorism, damaging public and private property, and unlawful assembly.
The police also forwarded cases against some 140 individuals for prosecution during the period, the statement added.
“Therefore, claims by some politicians that there are 1,700 political prisoners in the Maldives and that charges have been pressed against all of them are entirely baseless and untrue,” the police said.
The police also denied Nasheed’s claim that more than 200 Maldivians are fighting in Syria and Iraq with extremist militant groups. Records show that the real figure is less than half or closer to 100, the police said.
Nasheed’s claims could “adversely affect national interest”, “damage the country’s sovereignty and unity”, “undermine the Maldives’ independence and religious unity”, and “sow discord the public”, the police said.
Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party meanwhile issued a press release today condemning the police for “acting like another political party” with its statements.
The police’s appeal against contradicting official figures is akin to “an order made in a police state,” the main opposition party said.
More than 230 people were arrested from last year’s May Day anti-government rally alone, the MDP noted, whilst more than 1,700 individuals have been arrested since Nasheed’s ouster in February 2012.
Information about the 1,700 opposition supporters were also submitted to the government during failed negotiations in July last year, the party said.
Referring to Yameen acknowledging corruption and bribery within the police force last year, the MDP urged the new police chief to undertake efforts to ensure that the institution can function professionally and free from undue political influence.
Meanwhile, asked about his intention to return the Maldives, Nasheed told the BBC and Channel 4 that the government should “release all political prisoners” and engage in talks with opposition parties to “map a way forward for the people of the Maldives.”
The government says it is in Nasheed’s interest to come back and “clear his name” through the Supreme Court appeal. Foreign Minister Dunya told Duetsche Welle that the opposition leader will be liable for prosecution if he fails to return after the 30-day period expires in February.