By N. Sathiya Moorthy*
By granting political refugee status to the jailed former Maldivian President Mohammed ‘Anni’ Nasheed, now in the UK, ostensibly on an extended medical leave, have the two played into the hands of the incumbent leadership of Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom? The Maldivian government has described the British decision as saddenin’, but how really and exactly saddened is the camp of President Yameen remains to be seen in the coming weeks and months.
The British government had granted “political refugee status” to Nasheed, his lawyer Hassan Latheef said in Male. In a statement from London, Nasheed said that “given the slide towards authoritarianism in Maldives”, he and “other opposition politicians feel we have no choice but to work from exile – for now”.
The Yameen government, however, expressed unhappiness at the British decision. “Former President Nasheed was granted exceptional leave for a specified period of time so as to seek medical treatment that, as suggested by his legal team, was not available in the Maldives,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement, adding that the UK had not informed the government about the asylum-decision.
“This latest development clearly demonstrates that the intention (of Nasheed) was to seek to avoid serving his prison sentence…Thus again, the former President has once again exhibited a distinct lack of commitment to the legal process and continues to manipulate the process for political gain, believing that he remains above the law”, the statement added.
In a telephone interview to the London correspondent of The Hindu, Nasheed “spoke of his plans for building a coalition of Maldivian opposition forces in exile in Britain, and of pressing their case in international forums…The advice that I have received is that it would be best to stay away from jail, and then see what can be done while being outside”.
Nasheed did not think that his ‘physical absence’ would result in the weakening of opposition to Yameen. “I don’t think the resolve of the people of the Maldives for freedom and democracy, and good governance, is that weak,” The Hindu quoted him as saying. He said that the Maldivian Opposition was stronger now and so was his own position than in 2004, when he was a co-leader of pro-democracy forces against then President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, half-brother of Yameen.
In 2004, too, the UK had granted him political asylum. Then, “we were able to organize ourselves into a political entity as a political party. We were able to galvanise the people into political activism, amend the constitution and get back home, get the party going and then have our first free and fair elections,” Nasheed recalled.
“Today we have a wider platform or coalition that we think will come to a definite understanding in exile”, he said, adding that he and his party, the Maldives Democratic Party are “in conversation” with other parties like the Jumhooree Party and former Vice-President Mohamed Jameel Ahmed, who quit last year while in the UK and was impeached not long thereafter. Nasheed claimed that Jameel Ahmed, who was involved in anti-Gayoom opposition in the past but, charted his own course viz Nasheed and the latter’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), until at present.
To The Hindu, Nasheed also spoke of his resolve to take Maldives’ case to “multinational institutions like the United Nations and other international judicial forums,” while lobbying with individual governments, particularly those in the Indian Ocean region, for recognition of the new entity in exile. India, he told The Hindu, would view his efforts “in a favourable light and engage with such a grouping, which would be in the best interest of the people of the Maldives and the Indian Ocean at large”.
Already, the UN Group on Arbitrary Detentions has sided with Nasheed over his arrest, conviction and sentencing under anti-terror law in the Judge Abdulla case, when he was President in January 2012. The US Senate and the European Union are also on his side, and so has been the British House of Commons.
However, Nasheed camp’s hopes of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) taking up Maldives on its ‘Agenda’ has not materialised thus far. If anything, the Yameen leadership has paid scant respect to their dead-line oriented do’s and don’ts on political reforms, starting with freedom for Nasheed and the rest. In sheer disgust, it would seem, Nasheed, who had sworn earlier by the Commonwealth, started calling for ‘Commonwealth reforms’ – apart from political and judicial reforms back home in Maldives.
In his interview to The Hindu now, Nasheed once again “expressed his disappointment at the weak resolve of the Commonwealth Secretariat in supporting the cause of Maldives, alleging that it has ‘failed to impress upon the government’ the need for reform”. According to him, “Commonwealth Secretariat is being very childish in hiding behind semantics. They refuse to say if the Maldives issue is in the formal agenda, even while the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group says it is.”
In this background, does the new British initiative an admission that they may have to go a long way for and in the company of Nasheed, for ensuring his ‘freedom’ as and when he landed in Maldives? Considering that the UK is the founder and head of the Commonwealth, does it also mean that the government of Prime Minister David Cameron may have over-shot their expectations from the organisation? And in the process, have Nasheed and his fellow-travellers from Maldives shot themselves too in their feet?
The question this arises if the current British decision is an interim or alternative effort to keep the Nasheed fire alive, though not necessarily his flag flying just now. If nothing else, Nasheed’s extended ‘medical leave’ ended on 18 May. Either he would have to apply for a further extension to the Maldivian jail authorities, and to their satisfaction – over his medical condition, or return home to serve much of the rest of the 13-year prison-term.
President Yameen had not very long ago declared that he would take up with the nation’s Supreme Court, the question of handing down an early verdict on Nasheed’s appeal against the trial court sentence and the subsequent High Court’s rejection of the ‘unilateral’ State’s appeal, as without locus standi. However, no reports have quoted the Government as moving the SC, formally or otherwise, in the matter.
It’s now a chicken and egg question if an early SC order in the matter would not have forced the British hand to grant refugee status to Nasheed – or, if the Yameen government had anticipated such a course, hence possibly did not press for an early SC order. Either way, now the British decision has frozen the issue in time, though the SC might still come up with its order of one kind or the other, in absentia.
In the normal course, even to receive a favourable verdict from the Supreme Court, absolving him of all charges in the ‘Judge Abdulla case’, Nasheed may have to be present. If the SC rejected his appeal, he would have to serve out the term. If the SC ordered fresh trial or a fresh High Court appeal, again, he would have to be present in Maldives.
Independent of the positions taken by the Nasheed camp/defence and the British government, and other international supporters, in the eyes of Maldivian government and court(s), Nasheed could be declared an absconder from the local laws and judiciary. Would it now flow that the British government is an ‘accessory’, too, though there are clear UN conventions on the grant of ‘political refugee’ status in the case of individuals?
What if the Maldivian government now asks for the British government’s assistance to get Nasheed back to Maldivian prisons and Maldivian courts? Or, what if the Maldivian government seeks the help of Interpol to nab a ‘proclaimed offender’ nearer home, after following the due processes in Nasheed’s absence? These are academic questions and the chances are that the Maldivian authorities might let things lie there, without seeking to pressure the UK onto rebounding even more.
Independent of the foreign ministry’s observations, Yameen’s reaction to the British asylum-decision is possibly bereft of diplomatic insinuations but more of philosophical politics – and not political philosophy. Even if one seeks asylum in a foreign country, they should understand that the Maldives is where Maldivians want to live and should not do anything that would weaken the people and the country, he was reported to have said at a government function in Haa Alifu Hoarafushi.
Yameen said that the country is being described badly on the international stage due to the misrepresentation of the people who do not respect the thinking and regulations of Maldivians. The President said that the people of the country were kept from the development they deserve due to the conflict created by a group of people and those people are now seeking asylum abroad.
Through the past months of Nasheed’s case and later on his medical treatment overseas, Yameen has been playing the development card viz the other side’s democracy agenda. More recently, he even referred to Lee Kuan Yew’s ‘Singapore model’ (which put development ahead of democracy) and with the support and blessings of the West, including the US and the UK.
In doing so, Yameen also seems to be moving the nation slowly but surely away from tourism-centred economy to development-centric one, with funds from China and Saudi Arabia in particular. He has also begun balancing the two in this regard, or so it seems — thus seeking to be in the good books of the US, which has close links with the Saudis and the larger Indian neighbour, which has problems with China.
On the domestic front, too, despite Nasheed’s claims to a stronger opposition and more organised one than against Gayoom, a broader coalition is nowhere in sight. The Jumhooree Party (JP), which he told The Hindu, was being contacted for support, is now in Yameen’s company.
For instance, JP founder Gasim Ibrahim, who had polled an ‘all-transferrable 25 per cent vote-share in the first round of the 2103 presidential polls, backed Yameen against Nasheed in the second, run-off round. After being in the Nasheed-MDP camp in the early weeks and months of the anti-Yameen street-protests in early 2015, Gasim and his party are back in the ruling combine, led by President’s Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), with Gayoom as the chair.
By staying away from the country and its judicial system, Nasheed may end up losing his right to contest the presidential polls – whenever held. A year or two ahead of the schedule can still be a possibility. In political terms, should Yameen get re-elected (whatever the background and means), it could be projected as a referendum in his favour and against Nasheed’s methods. Thus, both Nasheed and his British supporters may have played into the hands of Yameen, who is a tart different from Gayoom, who had got used to his ways and might not have known how to handle a younger, more versatile and imaginative leader like Nasheed.
Nasheed, however, has little choice. If he were to return home, there is no guarantee that the court(s) would grant him freedom in the ‘Judge Abdulla case’ now or after a re-trial or re-appeal of whatever kind and form. It’s also one episode that the Yameen leadership would want to flag to the outside world, as the evidence and public ‘confessions’ of Nasheed on camera are strong against him.
Either way, it’s a difficult choice for Nasheed to make. Either way, he would have to trust a presidential candidate who is not himself. His experience with the 2008 vice-president running-mate, Dr Mohammed Waheed Hassan Manik, may have made him trust the rest even less – but at the same time, not that there are not enough aspirants within his MDP, who would want his popularity and votes, but with no possible guarantees for Nasheed’s return to home/freedom and to the nation’s highest office, which his supporters still feel, he has was robbed off, not just once but twice – 2012 and 2013 polls.
*N. Sathiya Moorthy is the Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation. He can be reached at: [email protected]