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From prison to the presidency: one man’s journey to power in the Maldives

Our Own Correspondent

Mohamed “Anni” Nasheed was sworn in as president of Maldives on November 11, exactly 30 years to the day his autocratic predecessor, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom had ascended to the top post. It was sweet revenge for the 41-year-old Nasheed who had spent six years in prison trying to organize his supporters and to create space for political involvement. The 71-year-old former president who ruled the island archipelago, considered it an affront that anyone would contemplate replacing him when he had “done so much” for the 1,000-island-state.

But reality caught up with him when four years ago international pressure forced him to allow multi-party elections. The second round of elections on October 29 finally ended Gayoom’s long-reign. When all the votes were counted, Nasheed had secured 54 percent outstripping the incumbent by 8 percent. Nearly 87 per cent of the country’s 209,000 registered voters had cast their ballots (Maldives’ total population is a mere 300,000 but as a tourist paradise, its earnings are quite high). In the first round held earlier in October, no candidate garnered the requisite 50 percent vote as required by law, thus necessitating a run-off. All previous elections — six in all — were “won” by Gayoom because no opponent was allowed to stand against him.

Nasheed was graceful in victory. “I want a peaceful transition,” he told reporters as results were coming in. “I want my supporters to be calm.” Ibrahim Hussein Zaki, acting head of opposition party, said, “We have embraced democracy for the sake of the next generation and the people of the Maldives.” He went on, “Gayoom will accept this. He has ruled for 30 years. It should be a very short and harmonious transfer of power.” And it was.

Educated in Sri Lanka and Britain, Nasheed’s political activism put him on the wrong side of the former president. He founded the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) together with Mohamed Latheef in Nov-ember 2003 and led a coalition of six opposition parties to victory but it did not come easy. His criticism of government policies landed him in jail several times. In 1991, Amnesty International declared him “Prisoner of Con-science” when he was imprisoned for writing for the popular political magazine Sangu. On April 8, 1992 he was sentenced to three years in prison for “withholding information”. He was released in June 1993 but rearrested in 1994 and 1995. In 1996 he was sentenced to two years imprisonment for another article that was critical of government policies.

Once out of prison, he was elected member of parliament in 2000, a rarity for government critics, representing the people of Malé. Six months later, in 2001 he was tried and sentenced to two and half years banishment on charge of “stealing” unspecified “government property” from H. Velaanaage — former residence of Gayoom’s predecessor, Ibrahim Nasir (died on Nov. 23, 2008). Nasheed’s supporters believe it was a fabricated charge motivated by malevolence intended to silence him. This was later confirmed by a letter leaked to the Dhivehi Observer (of Ahmed Shafeeq Ibrahim Moosa) that had been sent by then Minister of Construction and Public Works Umar Zahir to the former Minister of Defence (now High Commissioner to Delhi) Anbaree Abdul Sattar.

The letter, dated October 31, 2001, was published on the paper’s website on October 10, 2005. According to this letter, Nasheed did take some files from the residence but they were about to be destroyed by the government considering them of little value. According to Umar Zahir there was no area in the residence from which the public was barred. In his letter, he further stated, “Later that day I did check the storage place from which Mohamed Nasheed apparently took that material. There was nothing there that could be of use. There remained only old written materials and books. Those things have now been burned.”

The stifling political atmosphere forced Nasheed into exile. He first went to Sri Lanka, the first destination for all Maldavians going out of the country, and then to the UK where he was granted political refugee status in 2004. Eighteen months later, Nasheed ended his self-imposed exile, returning to Malé on April 30, 2005. The MDP was not officially recognized as a political party yet but he started promoting it anyway. He did not have to wait long before the government granted recognition to the MDP on June 2, 2005. That, however, did not mean the end of his troubles. When he organized a sit-in at the centre of the Republican Square to mark Black Friday on August 12, he was promptly arrested.

This led to civil unrest in Male’ as well as some of the Atolls. While government spokesman Mohamed Hussain Shareef claimed that Nasheed had been detained for “his own safety,” the state announced on August 22 that he would be charged under the Terrorism Act. Jennifer Latheef, daughter of the MDP co-founder, was also arrested and sentenced on October 10th to a 10-year prison term under the same Act. Both Nasheed and Jennifer were participating in a peaceful vigil; the government, however, felt so threatened that it locked up the two political activists. One hopes that under Nasheed such practices would not be repeated.

He also has other problems facing him, not the least of which is the fast shrinking space available to live on. The sea is rising and the Maldavian islands are disappearing as a result of climate change. In his inaugural address on November 11, Nasheed referred to this and said his government will have to seek other places for his 300,000 people to live if the sea continues to rise at this pace.

The 71-year-old former president, Gayoom, has finally left the scene. He was tenth out of 25 siblings. His father, clearly an active man, had eight different wives. His early education was in Egypt when he was among 15 students sent to study there on government scholarship. Graduating from Al-Azhar, he ran foul of his own government when he sent a letter, signed by his fellow Maldavians in Egypt, to then prime minister (later president) Ibrahim Nasir to reconsider his decision to establish diplomatic relations with Israel. The Maldivian government promptly stopped their scholarships. This led to shelving his plans to do a PhD and thus he spent the next 24 years in “exile” because he was blacklisted by the government.

Considering his mistreatment at the hands of the government, it was reasonable to expect Gayoom to be more tolerant of such criticism himself. Not a chance. In the early nineties, when Crescent International’s Malaysian edition, Muslimedia International, criticized his policies, Gayoom officially complained to the then Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed. This resulted in the closure of Muslimedia International, much to the disappointment of its many readers in Malaysia and Indonesia. It was soon launched on the web under the same name (www.muslimedia.com) out of reach of the strong arm of the law, in Malaysia or anywhere else.

It is too early to tell what kind of political dispensation will emerge in Maldives but there is hope that the young activist president would be far more tolerant of dissent than his easily irritable predecessor.

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 37, No. 10

Dhu al-Hijjah 03, 14292008-12-01

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