By N Sathiya Moorthy*
While the Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena received him at his official residence en route to UK, and the US Secretary of State John Kerry dubbed it as ‘release’, the jailed former President of Maldives, Mohammed ‘Anni’ Nasheed, flew out of the country for a spinal surgery after his brother had cleared last-minute hitches by signing in as his guarantor. Earlier, Nasheed had refused to travel out if the government insisted on an existing provision for a surety to sign in on his return, which the former President said amounted to holding the guarantor ‘hostage’.
The ‘release’ of Nasheed was a step in the right direction, Kerry said in an early reaction. He had tweeted, “urge more engagement from government of Maldives on democracy, shared challenges.” If anything, Kerry’s tweet seemed to underline the position taken by Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) on his imprisonment and attendant issues on the domestic front. The Yameen Government has opposed such positions, reiterating time and again that Nasheed’s imprisonment flowed from a pending criminal case that they had inherited from the predecessor Waheed regime.
It is another matter that the MDP does not recognise the predecessor regime of President Mohamad Waheed Hassan Manik, who was Vice-President under Nasheed, despite a Commonwealth Inquiry holding the constitutional validity of the power-transfer of 7 February 2012. It however should be a matter of concern as to how the Yameen leadership chose to convert what was essentially a pending criminal case over the arbitrary detention of Criminal Court Chief Judge, Mohamad Abdulla, into a terrorism case, and that too mid-way through the pendency of the criminal case.
For his part, Nasheed too had defied the trial court summons during the Waheed era more than once, including a 10-day unilateral stay-in at the Indian High Commission, Male, causing a further strain in bilateral relations impacted by the ‘GMR row’. If for the time, the trial got delayed, facilitating Nasheed contesting the 2013 presidential polls, which he lost in the second round, but with a high voter-support, post-poll, the new government revived the case after a gap, but ‘upgrading’ it into an ‘anti-terror’ case.
Local and other media reports claimed that the Government’s decision to permit Nasheed to travel overseas was a result of international pressure, especially from India, Sri Lanka and the UK being mounted on it. Senior officials from these countries had visited Male and met with President Yameen and Foreign Minister Dunya Maumoon, among others, during the preceding days.Since then several western diplomats in Colombo have also called on Nasheed The Government had earlier claimed that the surgical facility was locally available, but changed its mind after Attorney-General Mohamad Anil cited the precedents set in the case of jailed former Defence Minister, Colonel Mohamad Nazim, among others.
The Government’s decision faced a hitch at implementation after Nasheed refused to make any relative of his guarantor and confining them to Male even within the country, until he returned from the UK after his 30-day medical leave. It was again an existing provision, like the court summons for his appearance on earlier occasions, that he was challenging – and in the name of more democracy and within what is otherwise a moderate Islamic nation.
However, the Government seemed to have had its way and ex-President Nasheed’s elder brother, Dr Ibrahim Nashid, signed the relevant papers. Local media, Haveeru Online, reported Home Minister Umar Naseer’s tweet that Nasheed had signed all the legal documents. “… His brother Ibrahim Nashid has signed as a guarantor,” the tweet claimed, reproducing with it a copy of the declaration.”
The declaration signed by Nashid requires him to inform to the correctional service at the earliest if Nasheed goes missing or flees. In cases of negligence, the guarantor is required to take the responsibility. Indications are that better counsel prevailed over the Nasheed camp as the State’s requirement in the matter was a pre-requisite in similar cases in other democracies, both for internal and external travel, by prisoners. There was also a growing feeling in friendly circles that Nasheed and the MDP were making things difficult for themselves and their friends more than already, by their unilateral, unconventional and at times unacceptable positions and decisions.
Be as it may, the last-minute hitch placed in the way of his clean departure for the UK and also the over-enthusiasm of friends in countries like Sri Lanka and the US may have now discouraged the Yameen leadership from going forward with any reconciliation measures that it might have had in mind, once Nasheed returned from medical care in the UK, to serve the remaining part of his 13-year prison term.
It is also unclear if the ‘leave’ conditions permit prisoner Nasheed to meet with leaders like Sri Lanka’s President Sirisena while overseas. It could tantamount to political activity, generally banned for prisoners on ‘medical leave’. It could also strain bilateral relations of the kind as no Government in Yameen regime’s place is likely to take kindly to such ‘unusual gestures’, which do not find mention in the protocol of different nations, or in any bilateral charter.
One way out, and possibly the only way out, for the commencement of political negotiations just now is for the Maldives Supreme Court to uphold Nasheed’s delayed appeal, and throw out the trial court conviction in toto. In the absence of a thorough exoneration, Nasheed may not be able to contest the 2018 presidential polls, either. Without total freedom for Nasheed, the MDP is not going to return to the negotiations table for any serious reconciliation talks. With it, the Yameen Government may not have much else to offer, where it would be heard with any seriousness.
Though centred now on Nasheed, his freedom and eligibility to contest the presidential polls, democracy reforms and political reconciliation have other elements to it, too. Without the participation of Nasheed’s MDP, any negotiations now would not make sense. However, it remains to be seen if ‘victory’ of the kind that they want in the ‘Nasheed case’, if achieved, would enthuse the MDP to talk of ‘political reforms’ or go back to their unjustified demand for Yameen’s ouster, as was in end-2014 – which alone might have triggered the revival of the pending case against him and all that have followed since.
For his part, much as Yameen may be seen as the centre of the government’s decision-making apparatus, he too would be facing various pulls and pressures from the traditional Gayoom loyalists, whose perception of the MDP and Nasheed cannot be swept entirely under the carpet, in the name of their traditional support for brothers Gayoom-Yameen. A stage may have already come within the ruling PPM polity, wherein the decision-making apparatus is a two-way street, where the grassroots-level mood could not be entirely overlooked by the leadership, as is often presumed.
It has been so even in the case of the MDP. There are other players, smaller in comparison, like tycoon Gaim Ibrahim’s Jumhooree Party (JP), and jailed religion-centric Adhaalath Party (AP) leader, Imran Abdulla, Their parties too are as much grassroots-driven as they are perceived as personality-centric. It is more so in the case of AP, where religious traditionalists still hold sway, to a greater or lesser extent. It does not however mean that the leaderships in any or all the political parties in the country could be brought around by their respective leaderships.
It would also imply that media speculation/conclusion on the kind of influence that the Nasheed ‘leave’ could have, for instance on India, for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, to make his promised visit to Yameen’s Maldives early on. There could be many imponderables before that stage could be reached. That would include the yo-yo-like Yameen approach to Nasheed’s freedom, political negotiations, et al, and Nasheed-MDP’s own approach to any evolving situation or a concession that has been purchased for their benefit, by the international community and/or others.
*N. Sathiya Moorthy is the Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation. He can be reached at: [email protected]