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To Catch a President

by Mark Hay

March 4, 2015
Mohamed Nasheed, former president of the Maldives, at the presentation of the Climate Vulnerability Monitor in London, December 3, 2010. Photo by Camadrilena via Wikimedia Commons

Towards the end of February, authorities in the Maldives arrested the nation’s ex-president, Mohamed Nasheed (ousted in 2012), in a great show of force. The sitting government claimed that the raid on Nasheed’s home, executed via anti-terror laws, was a win for justice in the little island nation—finally nabbing the now-opposition leader for the unlawful arrest of a senior judge in 2012. But to most international observers, unfamiliar with Nasheed or Maldivian politics, the arrest is not celebratory—just confounding. Yet if one cares to scratch the surface, it’s pretty clear that this arrest, flying under the radar thanks to the nation’s relative obscurity, is a troubling case of political maneuvering that may portend destabilizing unrest in the near future.

For those who don’t know him, Nasheed is a former marine scientist, prisoner of conscience, founder of the Maldivian Democratic Party, and the island nation’s first democratically elected president. He came to power in 2008 for an intended five-year term after the three-decade dictatorship of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. While in office, he earned international accolades for his commitment to democracy and his climate change activism, which included an underwater press conference highlighting the threat of rising sea levels to low-lying island nations. These efforts were documented in the critically acclaimed 2011 film The Island President.

Yet in February 2012, the popular Nasheed stepped down (at first it seemed of his own volition, but now he claims he was driven from office by force) more than a year early after a series of violent uprisings by citizens and security forces. The uprisings were inspired by his arrest of Criminal Court Chief Judge Abdulla Mohamed on corruption charges; his opponents claimed he’d unlawfully used military forces for a civilian arrest and acted without due process or proper evidence. Rather than topple the whole government, opposition forces duly replaced the fleeing president with his Vice President, Mohammed Waheed Hassan, seemingly in deference to proper constitutional and judicial order in the course of the power change.

However, despite this seemingly reserved and orderly response and transition, within weeks the government issued an order for Nasheed’s own arrest but gave no details of the charges. Their efforts to nab and jail the ex-president were so aggressive that Sri Lanka accepted Nasheed’s bid to send his family overseas for protection, lest the new regime should try to harm them.

Protester sports a "Free President Nasheed" shirt. Photo by Dying Regime via Flickr

At the time, Nasheed evaded prison thanks to a little serendipity and strategic maneuvering, but almost exactly a year later police tried to arrest him again on charges of abducting Judge Mohamed in 2012. Many locals noticed that the timing of the new arrest would, if carried out, invalidate Nasheed from running in the upcoming 2013 presidential elections, which he planned to contest. Yet Nasheed evaded jail once more, only to lose the elections in controversial polls to the half-brother of the ex-dictator, Yameen Abdul Gayoom.

Tellingly, after this political row, security forces mostly left Nasheed alone for two years. But their most recent bid to arrest the ex-president came again right after a potential challenge to the sitting regime arose from Nasheed’s camp. The arrest came just weeks after the Jumhooree Party, a group of key Gayoom supporters, broke away to join Nasheed’s MDP in a bid to challenge the parliamentary supremacy of Yameen Gayoom and his allies.

Nasheed unsuccessfully sought temporary asylum in Bangalore, telling officials in India he feared arrest as a direct result of this most recent intrigue. And sure enough, soon after this prophecy, the courts threw out the old, failed abduction warrant and issued a new, more powerful claim. The courts asserted that under the nation’s broad, aggressive anti-terror laws, Nasheed’s arrest of the judge in 2012 had challenged national stability and security. This was almost certainly no coincidence of timing, given that just before Nasheed’s arrest the state also detained Defense Minister Mohamed Nazim and MDP Chairman Ali Waheed on terror charges—signs of a purge and a power grab in the face of waning central control.

Police clash with protesters calling for the release of Mohamed Nasheed. Photo by Dying Regime via Flickr

Nasheed’s arrest was no calm, quiet affair either. Aired on state television, the ex-president was brutally manhandled, and his supporters were dispersed with pepper spray and accused of destructive, anti-state rioting. Then the battered opposition leader was dragged, not to a hospital for treatment, but directly to an island jail to await a prison sentence of up to 10 years in solitary confinement.

This arrest is certainly a show of selective, anemic justice, prosecuting one ex-ruler on questionable, trumped-up charges while his dictatorial predecessor and the regime that surrounded him go unpunished for numerous well-documented crimes. This appears to be recognized on the streets of Malé, with MDP officials promising to challenge the regime over the suspect arrest and the public’s fears of violent crackdowns.

If protests do erupt and turn violent, it’ll be a problem not just for the Maldives, but also for the world. Unrest in the island nation would threaten more than the integrity of their government, the upcoming elections, and the security of their vital luxury tourism industry—it could pit China and India, each with their own strategic interests in the little country, against each other. And any source of conflict between these two superpowers is sure to bode ill for everyone. It seems that Gayoom and company have opened a can of worms by arresting the ex-president, but how the affair will influence the fate of Nasheed, Mali, and the wider world, remains to be seen as his case plays out in the coming weeks and months.

Preview image courtesy of the United Nations Development Programme via Flickr

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To Catch a President