On March 13, former President Mohamed Nasheed began the first day of a 13-year prison sentence on charges of “terrorism.” For those of us who witnessed the birth of democracy in the Maldives in 2008 and its desperate battle to cling to life, news of his sentencing sounded more like a death knell than a court ruling.
The Maldives, an island chain off the Southern coast of India, is home to nearly 400,000 people. It attracts tourists and climate change activists (ours will be one of the first nations to sink if the world keeps warming), but few foreigners stay long enough to learn our history or about our struggle for the freedom affluent visitors often take for granted.
Our hard-won freedoms are now slipping through our fingers. When Mr. Nasheed, an eloquent dissident who had spent several years in prison and in exile, was elected president in our first free and fair elections in 2008, his victory renewed hope for a future in which we could have a say in how the country is governed. Instead, political persecution has intensified, civil society is silenced and media intimidation has become the norm. The United Nations, several Western governments and many local observers have expressed grave concern over the unfair process followed in Mr. Nasheed’s case as well as legal cases involving other politicians and warn that our democracy is rapidly eroding.
Our courts are prosecuting critics; our Home Ministry has dissolved the Maldives Bar Association, a vocal critic of the judiciary since its founding in 2013; government-aligned thugs are widely suspected of physical attacks on protesters and opposition figures; and journalists are harassed, arrested and silenced. Organizations like mine, Transparency Maldives, which works to eliminate corruption and promote open governance, operate under the menace of threatened dissolution by the state. I worry for the personal safety of our staff.
Though the Maldives achieved independence from Britain in 1965, the post-colonial era did not bring freedom. For 30 years, we endured the authoritarian government of President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who was “elected” to six successive terms. My generation grew up in an environment where free expression and political participation were a figment of the imagination.
Then, in the early years of this century, as human rights violations multiplied along with protests, riots and arrests, the political arena began to open up. A violent crackdown on opposition protesters in 2003 here in the capital city was a turning point. Spearheaded by Mr. Nasheed, momentum for political change led to mass civil unrest. For the first time, there was international pressure on Mr. Gayoom, who pledged to implement democratic reforms.
Prior to 2003, I had never heard of Mohamed Nasheed, though he had been arrested many times in the 1990s for speaking out against the regime and sought political asylum abroad. He returned to the Maldives in 2005 and emerged as the beacon for democratic hopes. In 2008, as leader of the Maldivian Democratic Party, he won the country’s first free and fair presidential elections.
Nevertheless, the power struggle continued. In February 2012, Mr. Nasheed was forced to step down in favor of his vice president after weeks of public protests ignited by the arrest of the chief judge of the criminal court, Abdulla Mohamed, who was accused of political bias and corruption. Mr. Nasheed’s critics asserted that they were acting to preserve the integrity of Islam and protect the Maldives from foreign influence. In elections the following year, Mr. Nasheed lost to Yameen Abdul Gayoom, a half-brother of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who is widely believed to command the support of the military and the police.
Admittedly, Mr. Nasheed is a divisive politician. To some, he represents the vanguard of democracy and reform; for others, he is a dangerous, anti-Islamic figure. He advocates a liberal approach to religion, is critical of Islamic fundamentalism, worked to open diplomatic relations with Israel and sought closer ties with the West. But even his harshest critics concede that democracy would not have come without his struggles. This yearning for true democracy and an end to authoritarian rule explains why even some of his former opponents have joined in calling for his exoneration and release.
In 2013, the United Nations special rapporteur for the independence of judges and lawyers, Gabriela Knaul, criticized the failure of the country’s judicial system — which is widely seen as favoring the Gayoom regime — to address human rights violations or acknowledge conflicts of interest. Mr. Nasheed’s trial confirms her assessment.
In response to a recent report submitted by the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives to the United Nations Human Rights Council, the Supreme Court initiated a suo moto case against the commission on the grounds that the report itself undermined the independence of the judiciary and the sovereignty of the state.
Though the case has stalled, it sends a strong message of intimidation. If the Supreme Court can take on the Human Rights Commission, an independent state body, how will local nongovernmental organizations fare? Civil society is increasingly forced into self-censorship due to fear of persecution.
Critics are silenced by trumped up allegations and lawsuits. Last year, the head of the Election Commission and his deputy were fired two weeks before parliamentary elections because they had criticized the Supreme Court’s intervention in the 2013 presidential elections. The Supreme Court had undermined the commission’s authority when it annulled the first round of voting and delayed the run-off beyond the constitutional limit. The head of the Election Commission was given a suspended six-month prison sentence for contempt of court.
It is not only state persecution that the government’s critics fear. In August 2014, a Minivan News journalist and outspoken critic of religious extremism, Ahmed Rilwan, disappeared. His whereabouts are still unknown. Three suspects were detained in September, but no prosecutions have been announced.
The international community needs to put pressure on the government to halt its crackdown on opponents and dissidents from all parts of the political sphere. Without basic freedoms and space for dissent the Maldives is slipping back to the dark days of dictatorship.
Every day I fear for the security of my staff and the survival of my organization. Staff members have received threats on social media, including direct death-threats. Even as I write this I fear for the repercussions on my organization and myself.
Mariyam Shiuna is the executive director of Transparency Maldives and a Ph.D. researcher on democracy and violence at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.