By N. Sathiya Moorthy
Now that the UK’s granting of ‘political asylum’ to former Maldivian President Mohammed ‘Anni’ Nasheed is a reality, the question arises as to what next would/could the Yameen leadership do about it. In its initial reaction, the government of President Abdulla Yameen said the British decision was ‘very saddening’ and later added that it was ‘disappointed’ by the same — but more may follow.
It may be a one-off affair between the two nations in diplomatic terms. Politically, it may even suit the Yameen leadership to let things remain this way for some more time at the very least. It may not be a final solution, especially for the Nasheed camp and his Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP). They would expect further ‘positive movement’ from the ‘international community’ to help him to return home as a free bird capable of contesting the presidential polls when due in 2018.
Nasheed, as may be recalled, was serving a 13 year prison term back home in the ‘Judge Abdulla abduction case’, when the Yameen government granted him a month long medical leave to go to the UK. While in the UK, he met with a lot of foreign leaders, including British Prime Minister David Cameron, in the latter’s official residence at 10 Downing Street, to take forward his case on ‘political prisoners’ and democracy issues in his country.
On record, Nasheed’s medical leave extension ended on May 18. It was around this time that the British asylum decision was announced. This has since given a new twist to the script. However, it was not wholly unexpected, either.
Earlier, the Maldivian government had expressed enough reservations about granting such leave extensions without ‘convincing’ support-documents. Twice in the past when the extension was granted, government leaders, including President Yameen, had referred to Nasheed using his ‘medical leave’ to campaign against his nation, and not use it for the purpose for which (alone) it was meant.
India’s Foreign Secretary S. Jaishanker, and also Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera and Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake were among the overseas visitors who had argued Nasheed’s case for ‘medical leave’ with President Yameen. They (too) might not have accurately foreseen subsequent developments. Nor could they have stood guarantee for Nasheed’s returning home to either serve pending jail-term or face local court processes that he had initiated, or both.
Yet, what purportedly may be a unilateral British decision might have also embarrassed all nations and governments that had pleaded for Nasheed’s ‘medical leave’ with the Yameen leadership. In their (collective) eyes, it might have also shown Nasheed in poor light, as against the iconic image he had developed in many outside Maldives, too.
‘Fugitive’ under the law?
Pending a final decision from the Maldivian court appeal processes in the ‘Judge Abdulla case’, Nasheed could be declared a ‘fugitive’ in the eyes of the local legal and judicial processes. It would require formal paperwork from the Maldivian Correctional Service and consequent court processes to have him declared as one under the local laws.
The Yameen government could, if it so desired, take it up with the UK for the return of Nasheed to serve out his term and/or face the Supreme Court verdict in the appeal against the Trial Court, conviction and sentence. Until ruled otherwise by the Maldivian Supreme Court, Nasheed is also an offender under the nation’s anti-terrorism law, under which alone he was tried, convicted and sentenced to 13 years in prison.
There are UN, Commonwealth and other international conventions, not only on democracy issues, as is being argued by and on behalf of Nasheed and other ‘political prisoners’ in Maldives. There are even more stringent conventions and mutual and institutional commitments on terrorism-related issues.
Despite the post-9/11 US-led western initiatives, there has not been any universal definition for ‘terrorism’ and ‘terrorist’. Nations thus respect one another’s definition — and presentation of respective cases by the other, to act upon in the latter’s favour. The benefit of doubt, including those especially viz the ‘Guantanamo Bay inmates’ of the US, has not gone in favour of the ‘suspect-terrorist’.
This means that other members of the Commonwealth, starting with the British Chair, may not be able to challenge Maldivian definition, which covers what otherwise is a ‘common criminal offence’ in most member-nations. If push came to shove, it is not unlikely that Maldives might take up its case to the Commonwealth, where now the Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) is looking only at democracy issues in the Indian Ocean archipelago.
La affaire Seleznyov
In arguing its case in international fora and also with international friends of Nasheed, the Yameen leadership, again if it chose so, could point to the case of Roman Valerevich Seleznyov, son of a Russian parliamentarian, whom the US claimed was a ‘hacker and bank fraud’ wanted by American courts since 2011. In July 2014, Maldivian police apprehended Seleznyov at the Ibrahim Nasir International Airport (INIA) in Male and handed him over to the waiting US Secret Service agents. They whisked him away in their waiting aircraft, and produced him before American courts.
At the height of the Ukraine-Crimea crisis, the Russian Government of President Vladimir Putin and Seleznyov’s parliamentarian father described the ‘arrest’ as ‘abduction’ and ‘kidnapping’. The episode threatened Russo-Maldivian diplomatic relations. But through a deft-handling of the issues and governments involved, the Yameen leadership could defuse the situation.
In doing so, the Yameen government argued (with Russia) that they were only cooperating with a fellow member-State of the UN that had also produced a valid court order of the host-nation for Seleznyov’s arrest. The American media and the administration appreciated both the Maldivian government decision and logic.
However, the US was on Nasheed’s side, since his arrest, trial and sentencing. So has been the UN. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had appealed time and again on Nasheed’s behalf. The UN Group on Arbitrary Detentions went one step ahead, and came down on Maldivian judiciary and investigators on the Nasheed case.
In the pre-Nasheed past, the then Maldivian leadership of President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom had batted on its own on democracy issues. His leadership did get the pro-democracy movement of the times wrong, and the strong British backing for Nasheed and the rest, who had taken ‘refuge’, then again in London.
Yameen seems to have learned from his half brother’s ‘political mistakes’. If Gayoom was happy with neighbours like India not interfering or intervening in the ‘domestic affairs’ of Maldives, Yameen seems to be hoping on ‘timely backing’ from investor nations in China and Saudi Arabia — the former in the UN Security Council in particular, and the latter through the use of its good offices viz the US and through the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC).
It’s anybody’s guess if such surmises have validity — or, would work accordingly. It also remains to be seen if Russia would be with Maldives in the UNSC, if it came to that. There is also no knowing if and how Washington would react should Maldives cite the Seleznyov precedent precedent, either for the US to intervene with the trans-Atlantic British ally on its behalf, or not to intervene with Maldives on behalf of others, one way or the other.
It could be argued that the Yameen leadership made a ‘cunning move’ on the ‘Seleznyov detention’, if only to cite it later on, in the kind of situation that Nasheed and his UK hosts are now finding themselves in. Yet, the fact remains that the Seleznyov affair occurred weeks and months before Nasheed’s arrest in the ‘Judge Abdulla case’, its conversion from an ordinary criminal matter to an ‘act of terror’, and his later-day trial, conviction and sentencing.
The fact however remains that the Nasheed case was still pending in the Trial Court. It was not taken up, pending the 2013 presidential elections that Yameen ‘ultimately’ won against Nasheed. Post victory, Yameen did declare that there would be no ‘personal vendetta’ against Nasheed, post poll.
Nasheed himself had set the health precedent viz Gayoom after winning the nation’s first multiparty presidential polls of 2008. The polls were then conducted under a new Constitution that the pro-democracy group(s) authored and Gayoom authorised and attested, under international pressure, headed by the UK at the time.
If it came to it, the Yameen leadership could well seek return favours from the Sri Lankan neighbour, whose last-minute appeal on Nasheed’s ‘medical leave’, they had honoured. India, whom he had thanked after the earlier rounds of CMAG talks, has its own problems with seeking the return of ‘fugitives’ from Indian laws, now residing in the UK — billionaire-businessman Vijay Mallya and one-time cricket czar, Lalith Modi, among others.
While seeking to address India’s strategic security concerns viz China, especially through recent bilateral visits at different levels, Yameen also thanked Pakistan for support at the CMAG. Maldivian Defence Minister Adam Shareef, was in Islamabad recently, to accept a $10 million Pakistani loan for the purchase of weapons and two aircraft for the Maldivian National Defence Force (MNDF).
A retired MNDF official, Shareef was Maldives High Commissioner in Islamabad before being named Defence Minister. His appointment followed the midnight raid on incumbent Defence Minister, Col. Mohamad Nazim (retd), and his subsequent arrest in January 2015. At present, MNDF has two helicopters, gifted by India, for which IAF is also training Maldivian personnel, in flying and maintaining them.