Sir Richard Branson, British billionaire and founder of the Virgin Group, has renewed calls for the release of former President Mohamed Nasheed in the wake of a UN rights panel declaring his imprisonment arbitrary and illegal.
The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) has ruled that Nasheed’s conviction on a terrorism charge in March was politically motivated and violated international law. But the government last week called the judgment “flawed and premature” and said it “will not be made to act on the basis of a non-binding opinion.”
Writing on the Virgin website, Branson noted that the government is refusing to abide by the UN judgment despite engaging in the process.
“Nasheed’s pro-bono legal team say the next step will be calling on governments to impose targeted sanctions on regime officials who are guilty of human rights abuses,” he wrote.
“They don’t want economic sanctions that would hurt ordinary Maldivians, nor a tourism boycott, but rather travel bans and asset freezes that hit officials responsible for violating Mohamed Nasheed’s human rights.”
Nasheed’s high-profile international lawyers Jared Genser and Amal Clooney have launched a campaign lobbying for targeted sanctions against state officials if the government continues to detain the opposition leader.
“I hope that the US, European Union and Britain now follow through and impose sanctions on rights abusers in the Maldives. In the spirit of democracy and the rule of law, we shouldn’t rest until Mohamed Nasheed is a free man,” Branson said.
In March, Branson had called Nasheed’s conviction on a terrorism charge “beyond a joke” and urged “everyone worldwide who believes in freedom to boycott the Maldives until true democracy is restored.”
— Richard Branson (@richardbranson) October 8, 2015
Meanwhile, at a press conference this afternoon, Foreign Minister Dunya Maumoon reiterated the government’s position that the working group’s decision is biased and non-binding.
Dunya suggested that the celebrity status of Nasheed’s lawyers has a “very big impact” on international media coverage.
“Unfortunately, everyone doesn’t look at the facts. A lot of the time when a certain person speaks, even if that person doesn’t know any truth about the Maldives, when that person talks, [people] hear and it makes newspaper headlines and very much forms people’s opinion,” she said.
As a small nation, she added, the Maldives’ voice is not easily heard in the international arena.
Dunya suggested that some countries supported Nasheed because the former president wanted to introduce freedom of religion in the Maldives.
Speaking at the press conference, Toby Cadman, a partner at Omnia Strategy – an international law firm that the government hired to respond to Nasheed’s petition at the working group – said the working group did not take into account the government’s 111-page response.
“We will be communicating again with the working group and the government will be issuing a summary of our submissions,” he said.
Cadman stressed that the working group is “not a judicial body or a court” that deliberates after adversarial proceedings. It does not issue orders, but rather makes recommendations, he said, and referred to the US refusing to implement the WGAD’s decisions on detainees at the Guantanamo Bay prison.
The Maldivian Supreme Court will have to consider the WGAD opinion when it hears the Prosecutor General’s (PG) appeal, he continued, and decide whether Nasheed was given a fair trial in accordance with the Maldives’ obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
The PG filed the appeal at the apex court after the High Court decided it could not hear the appeal as it was not filed by Nasheed.
Cadman noted that WGAD had said that proceedings in Nasheed’s case should be brought in line with international standards, which is “exactly what the Supreme Court has been asked to do.”
Cadman also said that sanctions is “not an appropriate mechanism for addressing a situation where there is an allegation of a single person having been detained arbitrary, when that person has been convicted of a very serious criminal offence.”
Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) today meanwhile welcomed calls from India’s BJP leader Subramanian Swamy for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to send an envoy to the Maldives to seek Nasheed’s release.
The former Union Minister said Nasheed’s 19-day trial “appeared to have been politically biased, inadequate and subject to external influence” and that the UN Human Rights Council had described it as “vastly unfair, the conviction unjust, and arbitrary and disproportionate to the alleged crime”.
Swamy said that India as a democratic nation and the largest South Asian country has a duty to “intervene and ensure this bogus sentence of 13 years is scrapped, and Mr Nasheed freed to resume his political activities.”
India has not made any public statements on Nasheed’s case since his conviction in March or after the UN WGAD ruling.
Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj is due to visit the Maldives on Saturday for a meeting of the Maldives-India joint commission after a 15-year hiatus.
But according to Indian media reports, Swaraj’s visit comes amid growing worries over China’s influence in the Maldives. She will be the highest-ranking Indian official to visit the Maldives since Nasheed’s arrest in February triggered a political crisis.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi subsequently dropped the Maldives from his Indian Ocean tour in March.
Branson meanwhile recalled that he had met Nasheed when he was still president.
“He is a democracy and human-rights hero within his own country – some people call him the ‘Mandela of the Maldives,'” he wrote.
“Abroad, we know him as a champion of the environment, who famously held a meeting of his cabinet underwater to highlight the Maldives’ vulnerability to sea level rises due to climate change. He’s the sort of leader the world needs more of.”