Earlier this month, on Friday the 13th, a former president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, was sentenced to 13 years in prison after a charade of a trial that produced a guilty verdict on “terrorism” charges.
The verdict was highly implausible. Nasheed had won an international award in 2012 for his leadership in nonviolent resistance. It prompted Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) to announce a campaign of mass civil resistance to overturn the judgment and also reform the corrupt judiciary.
International watchdogs and governments otherwise friendly to the Maldives chimed in with severe doubts about the trial and the verdict. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein said he had “strong concerns about the hasty and apparently unfair trial,” and the Indian government called the whole thing “a sham and a travesty of justice.” One Indian diplomat went further, saying that every hearing in the court was “a death blow to the rule of law.”
Known to most outsiders for its stunning beaches, turquoise waters, and five-star luxury resorts, the Maldives is home to more than 300,000 people living on an archipelago about 1,000 kilometers southwest of India. The beauty brings in hundreds of millions of dollars in tourism revenue each year, but also has a way of distracting outsiders from the see-saw conflict between democratic reformers and veterans of the dictatorship that exploited the country for 30 years.
The dictator was Abdul Maummon Gayoom, who overtly modeled himself on Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s autocrat. Then, in 2008, Nasheed beat Gayoom in the first Maldivian election overseen by international monitors, who were present because of threats of sanctions by the European Union and the British Commonwealth.
Unfortunately, less than three years later Nasheed was ousted in a swift and bloodless coup staged by loyalists of the former regime working with elements of the security forces. Gayoom’s half-brother, Abdulla Yameen, was elected the following year, after peremptory changes in election procedures. A leading defender of this month’s show trial was Yameen’s foreign minister, who is the daughter of Gayoom.
A group claiming to be Anonymous has warned the Maldives’ rulers that it would soon release explosive new information about their doings. But what the government’s version of justice has already done to Mohamed Nasheed seems to be a self-indictment. On the day he was arrested for “terrorism,” Nasheed went peacefully with police through the streets, and when he paused to shake hands with someone in the crowd, he was thrown on the ground by the police and unnecessarily dragged by his arms into the courthouse, injuring him.
Nasheed was then denied access to medical treatment, and his lawyers were periodically barred from seeing him. The arrest occurred just days before he was to lead a mass rally intended to generate popular pressure and global awareness about the government’s democratic backsliding.
But the country’s current rulers have produced on their own an even bigger display of their true colors.
Nasheed is now in solitary confinement on an island reachable only by boat, and his arrest has unnerved those Maldivians who may have been sitting on the fence between denial about the character of the regime and the courage to take action. On March 16, the coordinator of the defense ministry resigned, protesting the “brutality” of the government, saying that “remaining in a post under this government is frightening.” His boss, the defense minister, had been arrested in the middle of the night after his door was broken down, terrifying his family.
If the tortuous but mainly nonviolent path toward democracy in the Maldives in the previous decade taught us anything, it is that—unlike most struggles against authoritarian systems— international actors can have rapid influence in the Maldives on the progress or regression of rights and democracy.
Were it not for the European Union’s threat of sanctions against the Maldivian government before the election which introduced democracy, it’s not at all certain there would have even been an election. Will they do the same now that events are shredding the pretense of democracy under the present regime?
In this episode, the regime’s control over the judiciary has provided a veneer of legitimacy by licensing arrests and incarcerations that are, of course, the handmaiden of repression. When this proceeds by one incremental action at a time, international observers often refrain from acting. But now one of the modern period’s most charismatic democratic leaders is threatened again, in a country where journalists have been attacked and abducted, and, by the way, where ISIS successfully does recruiting. These are new conditions that require fresh action.
The Maldives are now, front and center, a metaphor for all civil societies that are hanging by a thread, in the face of shadowy forces that would take down by violence what nonviolent struggle has accomplished. What will the governments that profess faith in democracy do to help faithful people who struggle in faraway places to uphold that same cause?
In the meantime, civil resistance remains the most effective weapon for democracy’s defenders in the Maldives. Nasheed’s followers have years of experience at it, are versed in its strategies and tactics, and are unified, disciplined, and again have the momentum of popular support behind them
When Nasheed was president, his biggest cause was the battle against climate change, because the rising seas threaten to engulf his country. Bill McKibben, one of the world’s leading climate activists, wrote of Nasheed: “He’s already spent too much of his life in jail and now he’s back again, but if the global community stands up to the thugocracy ruling the Maldives he will, I have little doubt, once more restore democracy to his beautiful, vulnerable islands.”