Change in the Maldives 
A Mysterious Coup

The Maldives’ former president is not about to go quietly

Calling for Justice? An MDP protest against the coup. Photo by dying regime via Flickr.

Calling for Justice? An MDP protest against the coup. Photo by dying regime via Flickr.

In the European mind, the Maldives is a tranquil island paradise, full of exotic settlements and sun-kissed beaches. A year ago, the archipelago’s president was Mohamed Nasheed, 44, a charismatic man admired by environmental campaigners for his impassioned calls to reduce carbon emissions as he battled to save his nation’s very existence from the constant threat of rising sea levels. Nasheed was feted by Western leaders for his commitment to democracy, taking power in coalition in 2008. He had struggled for almost 20 years against then-president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. These were first directly democratic elections in the Maldives since the end of British rule in 1965.

In February 2012, however, Nasheed resigned in controversial circumstances. His time in government had not always been rosy domestically: cabinet ministers from other parties in the coalition resigned in protest against an alleged lack of respect for the Maldivian constitution. Following protests in the capital, Malé, Nasheed stepped down. At first he accepted that the people wanted a new leader; he pledged to obey their wishes.

Since then, however, the former president’s story has changed significantly: he now accuses forces loyal to Gayoom of making him resign at gunpoint and manipulating the Maldivian judiciary. As of November 2012, Nasheed is facing trial for the illegal arrest of a judge whilst in office. It is a dramatic fall in his homeland for a man once so popular in the world. It is doubtful whether we can take Nasheed at his word. The circumstances behind his resignation and his flaunting of a court order to remain in Malé give food for thought.

A disputed decision

In a column for the New York Times, the day after his resignation, Nasheed alleged that his fight for democratic reform had been doomed from the start. He claimed that, as the Maldivian legal system comprised mainly judges handpicked by Gayoom, the former president was protected and so no charges could be brought against him for alleged abuse of power.

Nasheed argued that Gayoom’s legacy has been a barrier to progress since then: establishment figures loyal to the former president have, he said, thwarted attempts at democratisation. Furthermore, Nasheed claimed in the article that “police officers and army personnel loyal to the old government mutinied and forced me, at gunpoint, to resign”. He painted a picture of himself as a true reformer, committed to making his country a modern democracy.

Nasheed’s party, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), commissioned a legal report investigating the events of 7th February 2012. The report concluded that Nasheed had resigned under duress. It also accused Mohammed Waheed Hassan’s government of committing numerous human rights violations and criticised the security forces for undermining fundamental freedoms in the Maldives.

Nasheed’s account was largely corroborated by the report, although it did not claim that the “coup d’état” was planned far in advance. However, it is worth remembering that a report commissioned by a party to a dispute is likely to contain bias. In fact, an official inquiry in the Maldives dismissed Nasheed’s claims and concluded that he had stepped down voluntarily. The inquiry indicated that there were problems with the rule of law in the country, especially police behaviour towards civilians, but its findings largely backed up the claims of President Waheed and the new government.

It should be remembered, however, that this inquiry is not necessarily independent of the government, and so the claims made by both sides are still strongly disputed.

Human rights, such as freedom of speech, had improved during Nasheed’s time in office, despite various crises. They have slumped in the year since his resignation.

The lasting effects

A less clear picture emerges when we consider the circumstances surrounding his arrests in April and October 2012. The first was for violating a court order not to leave Malé; he fled the capital after he was released from detention on the condition that he returned for questioning. He was again arrested on the 8th October, for repeatedly ignoring court summons and having illegally arrested a judge while he was in office.

As of November 2012, his trial has not yet taken place but supporters of the MDP claim that Nasheed, who was on a campaign tour of the southern islands at the time, was arrested violently. They accuse the government of a politically motivated trial to stop Nasheed running in the next elections, scheduled to take place by July. If Nasheed is found guilty, he is likely to face jail or banishment to a remote island.

The overall picture, then, of Nasheed’s battles with the new government and the Maldivian courts appears to be mixed. There are conflicting stories over the reasons behind his resignation. There is no clear-cut evidence for either side as of yet, both fighting their corner. The reaction of the new government to the scheduled elections will be telling.

Nasheed likes to portray himself as the revolutionary democrat of the Maldives. But if the July elections are free and fair, it will prove the new government is also able to conduct elections fairly, weakening his appeal.

Although he is admired internationally, Mohamed Nasheed’s domestic reputation is more suspect: the result of the court case, and the way it is conducted, will go some way into illuminating which side is in the right.