In the Maldives, a Coup in Paradise

After toppling a dictator in 2008, the Maldives’ first democratically elected leader has been violently ousted.

Sinan Hussain / Getty Images

When Mohammed Nasheed announced his resignation on Tuesday, less than four years into his presidency, it took the world’s leading honeymoon destination by surprise. He was after all the first democratically elected President of The Maldives, a tiny archipelago in the Indian Ocean where the world’s rich and famous come to holiday on the silver beach and in the turquoise sea. But once he announced a day later that it was indeed a coup—that he had been forced to resign at gunpoint by rogue elements of the police and the military—all hell broke loose.

A darling of the international media and a vocal member of environmental conservation, Nasheed became the president in 2008 after leading street protests for five years and defeating Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who had ruled the Maldives with an iron-fist for 30 years, in the country’s first democratic election.

Twenty-four hours into his resignation, the Maldives were plunged into turmoil. “Yes, I was forced to resign at gunpoint. There were guns all around me and they told me they wouldn’t hesitate to use them if I didn’t resign,” Nasheed said after meeting members of his Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) on Wednesday afternoon. Paul Roberts, communications advisor to Nasheed painted a dramatic picture of the coup from an undisclosed location.

“Nasheed was brought into the president’s office by these armed personnel, around 50 of them, in unmarked vehicles. There were senior military men we’d never seen before. They forced him to go on national television and announce his resignation,” Roberts, a 32-year old British citizen, told The Daily Beast. “It was an effective coup d’etat orchestrated by opposition leaders with the backing of the security forces,” he added.

After Nasheed’s public statement, thousands of Maldivians took to the street to protest. But they then faced a brutal crackdown by the police. Eyewitnesses say that Nasheed and a large number of MDP members were marching peacefully through the streets of the capital Malé when police attacked them first and then failed to protect them from a violent counterdemonstration.

Videos have emerged of police brutality. Nasheed was seen to be dragged out by policemen from a shop where he was hiding. MDP chairperson and member of parliament Reeko Moosa was first attacked by the police and then a mob attacked him with broken glass bottles. Police reportedly did not stop them. Moosa is fighting for life in a hospital in neighboring Sri Lanka. At least five MDP members of parliament are detained at the Dhoonidhoo Detention Centre, an island prison.

”We are extremely concerned about the latest developments in the Maldives,” said Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific director. “The new authorities must ensure the right to freedom of expression and assembly and we want to see an investigation into the attack on Mohamed Nasheed and other protesters. Those responsible for the attack on demonstrators must be brought to justice.”

Nasheed’s wife, Laila Ali, has fled the country and sought refuge in Sri Lanka along with some other family members.

On Thursday morning, things got messier. The chief judge of the criminal court ordered the arrest of Nasheed—the same judge whose arrest on Jan. 16 for corruption charges acted as the catalyst for Tuesday’s coup. “This is a judge who was appointed for life by former dictator (Mamoon Abdul) Gayoom. He has numerous corruption charges against him. We had to clean the judiciary, or else, how could we take our nascent democracy forward. And today we have paid a violent price for it,” Ibrahim Hussain Zaki, special envoy to Nasheed and one of the country’s senior most politicians told The Daily Beast over Skype.

But despite the arrest warrant, police refused to carry out the orders. “They feared that things will further spiral out of control if Nasheed was arrested. Even the Western world or India might intervene then,” says London-based Dave Hardingham, founder of Friends of Maldives, who is now galvanizing human-rights agencies and lobbying the British government to intervene in Maldives. “Unlike Arab Spring, where dictators were being thrown out, here’s the first democratically government of a country being overthrown at gun point,” he added.

Gayoom, Asia’s longest-ruling dictator, reigned over Maldives for 30 years before he lost to Nasheed in ’08. Gayoom’s police had locked up Nasheed in jail at least a dozen times.

Some 500 miles off the tip of India, the Maldives have gone through a sea-change since 2008, when Nasheed was sworn in. The road to democracy in Maldives, a string of 1,192 mostly uninhabited coral atolls, was painful.

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“But the demise of democracy can also be very quick,” says Nazim Sattar, a younger brother of the deposed president, adding, “if the world does not wake up and take notice.”