Senior UN political official Miroslav Jenča has assured President Abdulla Yameen of UN assistance for all-party talks announced amidst continuing international concern over human rights in the Maldives.
The talks however appear dead on arrival with the government and the opposition at loggerheads over the release of opposition politicians sentenced to lengthy jail terms in trials widely criticised for due process violations.
The president had first invited UN officials to the Maldives during a call with the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon in June last year, shortly after announcing that he would begin talks with opposition parties separately.
The talks failed when former President Mohamed Nasheed, who had been sentenced to 13 years in jail on a terrorism charge, was returned to jail after a brief reprieve in house-imprisonment.
The government, which is facing mounting international pressure over the jailing of opposition leaders and allegations of grand corruption, extended a second invitation for all-party talks last week.
The opposition has said it would only sit down if the government releases opposition leaders, noting the invitation for all-party talks came shortly before a fourth opposition politician, Sheikh Imran Abdulla, the president of religious conservative Adhaalath Party, was sentenced to 12 years in jail on terrorism charges.
“Without establishing an atmosphere of trust, it is atrocious for the government to even talk about all-party talks,” said Mohamed Shifaz, the vice president of the Maldivian Democratic Party.
Ali Zahir, Adhaalath Party vice president, said their condition for release of political prisoners was based on past experience.
During the 2015 talks, the opposition had backed government proposed constitutional amendments setting new age limits for the presidency and authorising foreign freeholds in the Maldives for the first time. The government however made no concessions.
Zahir added: “Adhaalath Party got the invite for party talks a day after our party president was handed a 12-year-jail sentence. This shows exactly how committed the government is to talks.”
If the government refuses to free opposition leaders, the proposed talks only amounts to a ploy to fool the international community, the pair said.
The Jumhooree Party, which left the opposition coalition after the government cracked down on its leader Gasim Ibrahim’s business interests, is the only major party that has agreed to sit down for talks.
Ibrahim Muaz Ali, the president’s spokesman, told local media today that the opposition’s conditions were unacceptable. “It is not at podiums that we discuss our concerns, but at the table. Setting pre conditions will result in the public questioning the opposition’s sincerity.”
The government does not want to discuss “convicts,” but “progress, development and national unity,” he said.
The president’s office meanwhile said Yameen had told Jenča that the all-party talks “are one of the important ways to build confidence between the relevant political actors in the country.
“That could also create a conducive environment on which the Government could focus on implementing the economic development projects and accelerate the democracy consolidation process.”
Jenča’s was initially scheduled to visit in October, but the visit was was abruptly called off by the government amidst a second crisis triggered by an explosion on Yameen’s speedboat and the subsequent arrest of his deputy.
Yameen went onto declare an unprecedented state of emergency that was lifted after six days.
British MP Sir David Amess said Thursday that Yameen has agreed to international mediation, and criticized the opposition’s conditions for release of prisoners as “ridiculous.” Amess is the only international actor that have spoken out in defence of Yameen’s regime.
UN Secretary General Ban has previously urged Yameen to grant clemency to Nasheed after a UN human rights panel found his imprisonment illegal and arbitrary.
The move would “send a powerful signal to advance the dialogue process in good faith.”
Jenča’s visit follows that by prominent delegations from the Commonwealth and the European Union.
An overwhelming majority of the EU parliament passed a resolution in December urging member states to impose targeted sanctions on officials responsible for human rights abuses here.
A visiting delegation from the European parliament reiterated earlier this month that the EU will consider imposing sanctions against top Maldivian officials if the government does not release “political prisoners” and convene “genuine inter-party talks” with an international mediator if required.
“That dialogue cannot take place whilst political leaders are in detention. All leaders should be free to engage and the public must be informed,” said Richard Howitt, MEP and vice president of the delegation.
The Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group is also scheduled to review the Maldives’ human rights situation in a meeting in March.
Jenča’s predecessor, Oscar Fernandez-Taranco, during a 2013 visit, called for judicial reform, investigation of allegations of police brutality and intimidation, and strengthening of independent bodies.