Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Choking off Freedom in the Maldives

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Choking off Freedom in the Maldives

Article excerpt

The West offers tepid protests as a cabal backed by Islamist extremists consolidates power.

In February, a cabal backed by an ousted dictator and a group of extremist Islamists dealt a severe blow to nascent democracy in a country many people consider an island paradise: the Maldives.

In the past few weeks, the forces behind the new rulers have driven the knife deeper into the country's wounded democracy. Without serious international pressure, people who struggled for freedom against dictatorship for so many years -- and briefly tasted liberty -- will be plunged into authoritarian rule coupled with a rapidly growing extremist Islamist agenda.

Three Danish legal experts published a report this month on their independent investigation into the events surrounding the resignation five months ago of the Maldives' first democratically elected president, Mohamed Nasheed. They concluded that, according to international law, his ouster amounted to a coup d'etat. The international community needs to take this report seriously.

Nasheed was charged this month with illegally arresting a judge while he served as president. It is clear that the charges are politically motivated, designed to eliminate him from contesting any future elections -- if any are held. There is no chance he can expect a fair trial. If convicted, he could serve three years in jail.

The former president is not the only opposition activist being harassed by the new regime. The leader of the youth wing of his party, the Maldivian Democratic Party, Shauna Aminath, was arrested and detained, and other people who have taken part in pro-democracy protests have been severely beaten by the police. Demonstrators were released on condition that they did not participate in another protest for 30 days, in violation of the Constitution. Exiled democracy advocates have received death threats.

The Maldives' journey to democracy was long and arduous. For 30 years, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom ruled the archipelago with an iron fist. Opponents were jailed, torture was rampant, freedom of speech nonexistent. Toward the end of his rule, however, he developed a thirst for legitimacy and respectability, and appointed several reformist ministers in the hope that they could give him a better image in the international community.

In 2006, I visited the Maldives on behalf of Britain's Conservative Party Human Rights Commission. I met Nasheed, who spent some 18 years in confinement or exile and at the time was under house arrest. I also visited others in detention and had discussions with leading reformers in the regime. I published a report calling for Nasheed's release and a dialogue between the reformers and the opposition. To my surprise, events happened more rapidly -- and seemingly more positively -- than I had imagined. …

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