'India needs to help protect democracy in Maldives'

Last month, Maldives, a strategic archipelagic Indian ocean neighbour of India, witnessed tumultuous political scenes with the ruling regime trying to arrest the former president and mascot of the island’s democracy Mohammed Nasheed. Nasheed sought refuge in the Indian High Commission (IHC) in the nick of time, while a court summoned him and the police waited to arrest him.

Nasheed’s political outfit, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) charged that the design of the ruling Waheed regime was to prevent him from participating in the presidential elections coming up in September. The international community seemed to have agreed with this conspiracy charge and wanted the Maldivian government to hold free and fair elections. Their message was clear: Nasheed cannot be excluded from the process.

 India needs to help protect democracy in Maldives

Nasheed with Eva Abdulla .

India, despite considerable public opinion that supported Nasheed, sought to take a seemingly principled stand that it won’t meddle with another country’s sovereignty even while maintaining that it respected Nasheed’s privileges as a former head of state while he stayed put in its building in Male. As the impasse continued - Nasheed staying at the IHC and the Maldivian judiciary and the government in hot pursuit - India sent a team for negotiations to Male. Apparently, they agreed to some common grounds following which Nasheed walked out of the building on 23 February.

In less than two weeks, he was arrested and taken to Dhoonidhoo detention centre, where had been lodged and allegedly tortured during his pro-democracy campaign while Gayoom was in power, felling fears that the government has reneged on its promise to India and he might be tortured again. Amnesty International accused the government of using excessive force while arresting him.

However, he was released four days later, clearly indicating that the government was not keen to keep him in jail.“Honorable judges, this charge against me is a deliberate attempt by the prosecutor general to bar the presidential candidate of the largest opposition political party of this country from contesting the next presidential elections,” he told the court. His case will come up for hearing end of March and he still has a travel ban on him that restricts him to Male.

To get an update of the developments in Maldives and how the MDP plans to take its pro-democracy movement forward, Firstpost spoke to Eva Abdulla, a prominent woman MP of the MDP and an active campaigner for women’s rights in the region. She is a close associate of Nasheed and represents the rare breed of the new generation parliamentarians in South Asia - educated, articulate and tireless.

Following are excerpts from the  interview with Firstpost's senior editor G Pramod Kumar.

 

What were your thoughts when Nasheed was arrested after his weeklong stay at the Indian High Commission, that too with majority public voice in India supporting him?

When he was arrested, our main apprehension was about his physical safety.  As you would have seen from various footages, especially from 7 and 8 February, he was severely brutalised by the uniformed forces, to the point where his life was in danger.  We were very worried that they might use detention as a means to physically harm him. Sending him back to the very arms of those who tried to have him killed…

It's such an irony that he was sent to the same prison where he was allegedly tortured during Maumood Abdul Gayoom's regime. How was he treated there?   Did he get the privileges of a former head of state?

He says he was treated very well this time.  He has remarked on many occasions since his release that there was a tangible difference in the way he was treated by the guards, once he was in detention.  He sees this as sign of the security forces - by many in the forces - opening their eyes to the truth, and the wrong that has been done to this country.

With the new evidence coming from the Parliamentary Committee looking into the CoNI (Commission of National Inquiry) report, new video evidence from 7 February, new testimonies from the ministers who have served under the Waheed regime… the truth has finally become inescapable.

How serious and genuine are the charges against him? I have read from MDP sources that the magistrate in question doesn't have a great reputation. Do you see a collusion between him and the rivals?

There is no doubt that the executive, especially the home minister, who was the former justice minister under Gayoom, is influencing and intervening in the court case.  The court itself is unlawful and the judges were handpicked, almost as if they combed the entire country for possibly the most corruptible judge to head this bench.

Amnesty International, the UK, the US, India, UNOHCHR and even the Special Rapporteur on judiciary have pointed to the irregularities in the trial.  Many have called it a clearly politically motivated trial and the Amnesty called it “selective- justice”.

Nasheed was arrested despite clear international opinion in his favour. How do you read this? Did the international community fail?

The UK, Canada, and the EU were very clear from the very outset to this day. They never recognised the transfer of power as legitimate and have consistently called for early as well as inclusive elections.  This call has only been made more robust over the last month or so.

We have Maldivian public opinion and the support of our international stakeholders to support the momentum going against this illegitimate and very brutal government.

It was said that the Indian government had worked out a deal with the present regime to let him out of the Indian High Commission. Not arresting him was apparently part of that. Was there such a deal? If yes, what are the details?

I can’t comment on this

Many in India saw his arrest as a treachery by the present regime. That they went back on the word they gave to India, but then the moderates in India also say that we shouldn't meddle with the sovereignty of another country. What do you think India should do? Both in the short and the long term?

India will be engaged on the side of democracy and pluralism.  India needs to protect democracy in the region - that is the only way to safeguard its own interest in the region.  Engaging to ensure that the democratic process of a country, a very strategic country that is kindly battling extremist forces and a brutal regime, is not meddling.

You may recall that Waheed even used his Presidential address to Parliament to attack India.

What do you think are the designs of the present Maldivian regime? Is Gayoom still calling the shots?

Gayoom is definitely calling the shots.

Waheed does not have the network or the support-base that is necessary to be decisive and influential. The idea is to eliminate Mohamed Nasheed as a presidential candidate and to eventually kill the MDP. In the process, they want to get rid of the only true pro- democracy movement in the country. Their overall design is to take back the country to where it had been before the onset of democracy: back, and firmly, to the hands of Gayoom.

It's such a tragedy that after a promising period, democracy in the island is floundering. Your thoughts?

The sheer unrelenting momentum of the past year, the fact that the Maldivian people have refused to give into this regime, despite its brutality, is a sign of a very empowered electorate. The pro-democracy movement from 2003 onwards, especially the three years of MDP governance, gave people a taste of freedom and personal empowerment.  They refuse to let that go.

Thousands have been arrested, hundreds prosecuted on trumped up charges, and  even more have been brutalised by the police - women, men and youth.  But, no one is giving up.

Do you think India is doing enough? Is the China factor real? Geopolitics seems to have tied Indian hands - the spectre of China and Pakistan worries India.

China factor is very real.  Waheed, and his defence minister have taken tangible steps to show that this regime’s interest lies with China. For instance haggling with India on GMR, threats to leave the Commonwealth and public speeches by the regime’s leaders undermining india and lauding China show that the regime is very serious about building China as the Maldives’ big brother.

What are MDP's plan for the immediate future?

Elections! Win the presidential elections and set Maldives firmly back on the path of democracy and good governance, especially judicial reforms.

Updated Date: Mar 12, 2013 09:22:03 IST