Top government officials appeared last night in the Maldives public broadcaster’s first-ever English talk show to dismiss former President Mohamed Nasheed’s damning comments on terrorist recruitment in the Maldives and call for targeted sanctions.
Nasheed, who was temporarily freed from jail last week, has made international headlines since his arrival in London, angering the government, which has since labeled his 30-day medical leave as “media-leave.”
During the first episode of Television Maldives’ Talk Maldives, Tourism Minister Moosa Zameer acknowledged the damage wrought by Nasheed’s comments and sought to portray him as an economic threat, while Azima Shakoor, the newly appointed minister for legal affairs, downplayed the risk of terrorism, insisting that only 35 Maldivians, and not 200, had left the Maldives to fight in the Middle East.
Amidst leading questions by the show’s host, Nasheed’s heavyweight international lawyers – Jared Genser, founder of renowned campaign group for political prisoners, Amal Clooney, wife of actor George, and Ben Emmerson, a UN rights expert – were accused of being irresponsible and spreading “blatant lies” to further their own celebrity agenda.
“When people of celebrity status go out there and tell lies, I’m sure there will be a community of people who will believe that,” Zameer said. “There will certainly be a slowdown in the arrivals. We see concern from some of our investors.”
Foreign Secretary Dr Ali Naseer, likened Clooney to pop starts who “like to be seen as helping countries that are impoverished” while Zameer said the lawyers’ engagement with Maldives “can increase one’s celebrity status”
Naseer argued against sanctions, saying the Maldives’ economic growth, near-universal literacy rates, increasing life expectancy as well as two cycles of elections without violence meant there was no reason to impose sanctions.
Azima characterised the calls for targeted sanctions as a ploy to free Nasheed and pave the way for him to contest in the 2018 elections.
“For that one person to be freed from jail, and to be allowed to run the elections, we are being exploited for our weakest points, saying that we have got extremism here, human rights abuses … this has no relation to what President Nasheed did in 2011. That’s by any means exaggeration.”
Nasheed was sentenced to 13 years in jail on a terrorism charge relating to the military’s detention of a top judge. A UN human rights panel has declared his imprisonment illegal, but the government insists only the Supreme Court that can overturn his sentence.
Zameer went on to blame Nasheed for extremism, saying: “We can safely say these elements of religious extremism flourished during President Nasheed’s tenure for the three years. Because of his promises that he had with extreme groups when he came to power, he was not able to contain it.
“So as a result, there was recruitments done by foreign elements in these separatists groups, specially in Male also, I think we saw it. But when we came into power, we had to contain it and ensure there was religious harmony,” he said.
The only religious group Nasheed had officially allied with was the Adhaalath Party during polls in 2008. The AP had split with Nasheed months later, and backed the current regime in a successful religious nationalist campaign to oust Nasheed.
In a surreal twist that is typical of Maldivian politics today, the AP is now back in alliance with Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party.
Zameer said that the Maldivian government has taken adequate measures to ensure terrorism is contained, including the passing of an Anti-Terrorism Act. He said the government has also intervened to stop Maldivians from leaving to Syria, without specifying how many would-be militants had been stopped.
Azima meanwhile stressed: “Definitely the figure of 200 is not correct. The ministry of home affairs’ figure is not more than 35,” she said.
Her claim contradicts statements made by the home minister, the former police chief and the foreign minister earlier. A year ago, the ex-police chief put the figure at 50, while Foreign Minister Dunya told the press it was closer to 100 at mid-year and Home Minister Umar Naseer said the figure was 79 in December.
The government is working with its own public relations firms and governments in the region to counter Nasheed and his lawyers’ “blatant lies,” Zameer said.
“[Nasheed] is going against his own people. His own pwople elected the current president. So it is his responsibility to give him fair five years in office and try and beat him in elections.”
Azima, who had stressed Nasheed’s past “trouble with the law,” said the former president would be prosecuted if he doesn’t return within the time frame specified.