By Richard Howitt*
One key test of democracy in countries where it has only recently emerged is based on how far the rights of the political opposition are fully respected. There is a temptation for governments to dismantle the tools that enabled them to be elected in fledgling democracies, to use newly-acquired power to hold on to that power. In countries where there has been conflict – real and political – there is further fuel to exact reprisals against political opponents.
In small nations, it is highly personalised too. Such is the case of the Maldives. World famous for its luxury holidays, the Maldives has become notorious for abuse of democratic and human rights.
A thirty-year dictatorship ended in the country with the first democratic transition of power in 2008, only for its newly elected president to be removed in what he alleged was a coup four years later, but where anti-democratic claims exist on both sides.
Today, human rights groups point to what they call a large number of political prisoners; opposition parties allege large-scale corruption; security forces prevent rallies and political campaigning by the opposition parties and any attempt to publicly criticise the government makes the attempter subject to arrest and intimidation.
The same human rights groups also accuse the international community of pressing local parties to accept the inquiry commission’s findings that allowed a return to elections after 2012 but of failing to press on for the implementation of fundamental police and judicial reforms contained in the same report.
With the situation deteriorating in the period since, in 2015, the European Parliament voted to support moves towards targeted sanctions against political and business figures responsible for the abuses, while the Commonwealth appointed a Ministerial Action Group, which may suggest moves towards its own ultimate sanction of possible suspension.
The European Parliament’s standing delegation with South Asia visited the Maldives last week. Polarisation in the country is personalised around the treatment of the former President Mohamed Nasheed, who was arrested by his successors for illegally ordering the detention of a judge and later seeing that the charge converted to terrorism, and subsequent conviction to thirteen years in prison. Conceding to international pressure, Nasheed was recently flown to London for medical treatment.
The Delegation was the first of the international observers to be able to publicly inspect the prison conditions in which he is being held. The “special protection quarters” inside the prison were clean and with basic comforts, but were still far from the Maldivian foreign minister’s outlandish claim that he “had access to his own swimming pool.”
A separate meeting with Nasheed’s legal team yielded first-hand evidence of how defence lawyers had been given insufficient time to prepare the case; of defence witnesses unable to be called; and of deep ‘conflicts of interest’ in the court – for instance, the judge and prosecutor also acted as witnesses in the same case.
The challenge for Europe and others internationally, is to raise these concerns without appearing to be partisan towards the former president and running the risk of alienating the incumbent government, whom we most hope will listen.
The Delegation also raised high profile cases of alleged political prisoners, such as those of former Vice-President Ahmed Adeeb; Col (retd) Mohamed Nazim; and the apparent lack of a credible investigation in the disappearance of journalist Ahmed Rilwan Abdullah who is still missing.
Incumbent Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen made a speech telling foreigners to mind their own business just hours after telling the aforementioned visiting Delegation that he would “follow the trail of evidence in corruption cases, wherever it leads.”
Candid admissions during informal exchanges by the members of parliament from the governing party that “we are only doing to the opposition what they did to us,” suggests that the roots of the country’s problems do not lie with one person or party, but with the political maturity inside this young nation. However, the wealth of the tourist market and the integral part it plays within the country’s politics mean the threat of sanctions may be one of the few actions that can have real impact.
Given the rising Saudi and Chinese influence, and the island nation’s notorious distinction of being the source of the highest number of foreign fighters per capita to the Islamic State (IS) in Syria, the Maldives is not a country Europe should disengage with.
Nevertheless, there is evidence that its senior political and business figures do not want their foreign travel banned or their foreign bank accounts frozen, even more than genuinely those of us in Europe reluctantly consider deterring our tourists from enjoying the islands’ exotic charms.
Already, the EU has sent an Italian judge to assess the country’s legal system, which may lead to joint action between ourselves and the Maldives to address the fundamental judicial flaws that beset the country.
Later this month, the Commonwealth Ministers will produce their report and the European Parliament and a UN Assistant Secretary-General will visit the islands, in a fresh attempt to kick-start inter-party talks that can seek to overcome the current crisis.
Such concerted international pressure has already succeeded in getting one political prisoner free, least temporarily.
The same pressure must be continued – the threat of sanctions included – to permanently ensure that democracy is not lost in the whole country.
* Richard Howitt
MEP; Vice Chair, European Parliament’s Delegation to South Asia; and British Labour Spokesperson on Foreign Affairs and Human Rights