It's marketed as a paradise "where sands are as white as the smiles of the locals," but the Maldives appears to be descending ever closer towards a return to autocracy.
Amid growing authoritarianism from its government, which came to power following popular protests against then-President Mohamed Nasheed in 2012, hundreds of opposition activists have been jailed, including Nasheed himself, as well as the vice president and the former defense minister. This comes on top of a serious religious extremism problem — the Indian Ocean island nation is reportedly the country with the largest ratio of its population traveling to the Middle East to join Islamic State (IS) — which has been used as justification for draconian anti-terror legislation.
Nasheed, the country's first democratically-elected president who was much celebrated for his progress on climate change, was released from prison last month to visit the UK on medical grounds. He is currently serving a 13-year sentence for terrorism charges stemming from the detention of a judge shortly before he was forced to resign from power.
His prosecution at the hands of a government headed by President Yameen Abdul Gayoom, the half-brother of the dictator Nasheed replaced, has been heavily criticized by international observers, with Amnesty International branding it a "travesty of justice." He was denied access to a lawyer, denied the right to appeal, and two of the judges assigned to his case acted as witnesses against him during the investigation.
The resulting legal challenge from Nasheed has also pitted two high-profile lawyers against each other. The Maldivian government is represented by a firm headed by Cherie Booth, the wife of former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, while the imprisoned politician is being defended by the prominent human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, who has a pretty famous husband herself.
Since arriving in London, Nasheed has met with current UK Prime Minister David Cameron and sought to bring attention to the political situation in the Maldives. VICE News met him in London last Friday, the same day he was scheduled to return home, though Nasheed didn't seem keen to board a plane any time soon.
He's officially requested leave to stay in Britain longer but hasn't had a reply. "I hope that they will extend my stay," he told VICE News. "After 13 years I would probably have to serve another [term]. Their imagination is very good, they might charge me with anything... the highest charge that was possible."
Educated at a British public school — the top tier of private education in the UK — the 48-year-old won the presidency in 2008 at the expense of former leader Mamoon Abdul Gayoom, who had never previously allowed a contested election during his 30-year rule.
Nasheed has spent half of his adult life in prison, including 18 months in solitary confinement. He says he suspects the one-month release he was granted in January was largely down to Indian, Sri Lankan, and British diplomacy.
He insists his intention is to return to the Maldives at some point, whether the current government want him to or not.
"I think that's probably why they let me come [to the UK], hoping that I will not go back," he said.
Yet in a statement released in late January, the Maldivian foreign minister, Dunya Maumoon — who is President Gayoom's daughter — criticized Nasheed for being "disingenuous at best, and misleading at worst" over his request for medical leave.
"It is now clear his primary goal was to court publicity in the United Kingdom. This is not medical leave, but media leave," she said.
Nasheed said President Yameen had been implicated in money-laundering and a "variety of criminal issues," while overseeing a period of increasing radicalization, which Nasheed said saw four more citizens leave last week to join the 200 Maldivians he says have already joined IS in Syria (out of an island population of 350,000).
Arrests and incarcerations continue too. In October, the government passed a law allowing for cameras to be installed in the homes of suspected IS sympathizers, which critics said would be used to suppress dissent. The president can declare any group a terrorist organization, and anyone who's a member can then be jailed for up to 15 years.
Last Tuesday Tuesday, Sheikh Imran Abdulla, the leader of the Maldives' Islamist Adhaalath Party, was sentenced to 12 years in prison on terrorism charges stemming from a speech he made protesting Nasheed's arrest in May last year.
Husnu Suood — Imran's lawyer — said it was the first terrorism conviction based on a speech in the history of the Maldives.
"We believe the judgment is grossly unfair because he has not called for violence in his speech. He clearly asked the participants at the rally to refrain from violence and had taken all steps to prevent violence," Suood told Reuters.
Nasheed is calling for sanctions on the current president and four people associated with him, in the hope that this would pressure Yameen to release political prisoners and enter dialogue with all of the country's political parties.
"We would like to see his assets frozen abroad, and those who are assisting him in business as well and in the government, some form of restraint placed on them. We feel that would be sufficient to get them to sit down at the table," he said.
Of his meeting with Cameron — who in 2011 referred to Nasheed as his "new best friend" — he says it was "pretty obvious" the British Prime Minister understood the situation in the Maldives, though no promises on future action were made.
"You know politicians don't do that," Nasheed said — however Cameron did later tell parliament that the government would consider sanctions against the Maldives if political prisoners were not released.
Nasheed has also become central to a storm that has erupted around Booth, Blair's wife, whose firm Omnia Strategy the ex-leader says agreed to represent the Maldives government after originally seeking to represent him — a claim the firm denied when questioned by the Guardian.
Nasheed says at the time that approach was made, his representatives had already reached out to Clooney and UK-based lawyer Ben Emmerson, who agreed to take the case pro bono.
Nasheed called Booth's subsequent decision to represent the Maldivian government "sad and unfortunate."
"I wouldn't have expected a former prime minister's wife not to look into these issues," he said. "I am very sad that she decided to do this and I hope that she will decide to apologize."
Meanwhile, he said he was pressing politicians internationally to engage with the Maldives, where he says authoritarianism has largely flown under the radar of the international community owing to the small size of the island chain and the fact it is most commonly seen as a paradise holiday destination.
"It's difficult to associate beauty with brute force," he said.
Amid the claims of corruption within the current government, Nasheed says he received reliable information that $1 billion in cash arrived to the Maldives in a jet last year, before being laundered through government and commercial bank accounts, and then leaving again. He said anti-corruption organization Transparency International (TI) was aware of this incident.
In 2012, Nasheed lamented the difficulty of negotiating the corruption he encountered upon taking power in 2008 in a New York Times op-ed.
"At times, dealing with the corrupt system of patronage the former regime left behind can feel like wrestling with a Hydra: when you remove one head, two more grow back," he wrote.
Nasheed's own record on corruption is not untarnished. The Maldives fell 50 places in Transparency International's annual corruption perceptions index from 2007 to 2011, raising questions about his own commitment to transparency during his 2008-2012 presidency. (The Maldives does not appear in the table from 2012 onwards, though a spokesperson stressed this was due to a lack of information, not because there was no corruption).
But one area in which Nasheed's record is resolutely celebrated is climate change; he acted as a driving force for the global climate change forum COP15 in 2009. He once held a cabinet meeting underwater to highlight the plight of the islands, whose highest points are only eight feet above sea level.
Nasheed spent last year's COP21 in prison, by which time much of his work on the issue had been rolled back in his homeland — with the current regime more focused on fossil fuels, which he calls "obsolete, Victorian technology" — a source of clear distress for him today.
"If you want to be the leaders of tomorrow you have to embrace the latest technology," he said. "Unfortunately the Maldives has lost the moral authority on advocating for that."
Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd
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