- By Joshua Keating
Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy
Until last year, Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed was best known for his high-profile advocacy on behalf of small island nations in climate change talks, which included high-profile stunts like holding a cabinet meeting underwater and starring in an acclaimed documentary. But political reality got in the way in March of last year when he was, he claims, forced from power in a coup.
Nasheed first came to office in 2008, in the Maldives’ first multiparty elections, ending 30 years of rule by authoritarian President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. But after taking the presidency he frequently butted heads with the ex-president’s allies in government and, in early 2012, ordered the arrest of a judge who he accused of trying to quash a corruption investigation. The arrest provoked demonstrations, and shortly afterward, Nasheed resigned, later claiming that he had been forced out at gunpoint by Gayoom loyalists. (He wrote about the events for Foreign Policy.)
Nasheed was arrested last March — after taking refuge for several days in the Indian embassy — in connection with the judge’s detention. He is currently awaiting trial and, if convicted, would be ineligible to contest presidential elections scheduled for next September. On Monday, Nasheed caught a break when the country’s high court delayed his trial while it investigates the legitimacy of the lower court that was to hear his case.
With all this going on, FP spoke with Nasheed on Wednesday by phone from his office in Male:
Foreign Policy: Do you believe that you will be able to contest this year’s presidential elections?
Mohamed Nasheed: I don’t think it is certain yet at all. I don’t see the authorities here being willing to accept that. They know they cannot win if we contest. I am unfinished business, because they have to finish me off for their coup to be successful. So there may not let me contest at all.
FP: So what will happen in Maldives if you can’t run?
MN: There’s been a lot of hope among the younger generation that this country can change, that we can change our government though peaceful political activity and through the ballot and not through brute force. A fair amount of people have invested a lot of their life on trying to bring these changes. When they see it vanishing into thin air, there’s bound to be a backlash.
FP: In another recent interview you said, "Usually in a coup you kill the other man, but in this instance I remain an irritant to them." Does that imply that you fear for your safety?
MN: There are always so many rumors going on in Male. Recently we’ve heard the that the Artur brothers from Armenia, who have a history in Kenya, have been in the Maldives. [The Artur brothers are alleged drug smugglers and hitmen from Armenia who have been implicated in a number of crimes in Kenya. Prime Minister Raila Odinga has accused them of a plot to assassinate him.] The police have commented on it and there’s a very big scheme. There are all sorts of reports coming out related to these too people. There are always reports of murder attempts. Always reports of threats.
FP: So why do you think it is that the government has allowed you to remain an "irritant," rather than detaining you or forcing you into exile?
MN: They just couldn’t! They’ve tried so many times. They tried a number of times and somehow every time they try to arrest me and test the waters, there’s been a very big public outcry and outrage. So they just haven’t been able to do that.
FP: This affair started with a showdown between you and the Maldives judiciary, including the arrest of the chief judge before you left office. If you got back into power, do you think you’d be able to work with these judges?
MN: Well, you know the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Judiciary has come and made a very long assessment on the judiciary here. A number of other international agencies — the Commonwealth and other friendly countries — have all had a good look at the judiciary. I don’t think that there is rampant corruption in the Judiciary. The problem is that Gayoom is unwilling to let go. So my feeling is that another election would finally make it very clear that Gayoom is history and then we would be able to have space and room for us to reform the Judiciary.
FP: A number of countries, including the United States and India, recognized your departure as a legitimate transfer of power. The U.S. State Department also endorsed the findings of a Maldivian government commission last August, which found that no coup had taken place. Why do you think these countries are supporting the government’s position?
MN: Governments always have to see if they can maintain some status quo and stability. You can see why the Indian government, for instance, had to recognize the new regime. But I think they were very naïve in thinking that this was a peaceful transfer of power and constitutional. They have seen what has happened since then and now they are coming around and demanding a peaceful election and so forth. I think the international community must learn from what they have experienced in the Maldives.
FP: As you’re no doubt aware, unrelated to your case, there’s also a call for an international tourism boycott of the Maldives over the case of a teenage girl who was sentenced to 100 lashes for premarital sex after she was raped. Are you worried that…
MN: [Interrupting] But this is not unrelated! Yes I am worried, but this is the heart of the matter. The coup was mainly radical Islamists. It was their coup. There was a core group within the military and the police who were very radical in their religious views and came out shouting "Allahu Akbar." They smashed the museum. This was the first flush of the coup. Then the politicians took over. But these politicians are having to introduce a much stricter code of shariah because that was the understanding. The attorney general has submitted to the parliament amendments to the penal code that would allow amputation, beheading, and stoning. This is what the international community totally failed to understand and is still what they are unable to see.
FP: So should the world be concerned about the spread of religious extremism in the Maldives?
MN: Our society here is generally very moderate. That’s why they elected me. That’s why they want to elect me again. I just thing we’ve given too much attention to marginal
groups like these radicals. [The Islamists] contested us in a parliamentary election and did not get a single seat. They contested us in local council elections and did not get a single seat. But after the coup they have three cabinet ministers.
FP: I wanted to just ask you briefly about climate change. What’s your take on the current state of international negotiations after last year’s meeting in Doha and what should be the approach of small island development states like yours going forward?
MN: I think we need to come out with a positive narrative, where we can have more renewable energy, where we can have more jobs out of it — not to equate development and carbon emissions. I would like to see development linked to more production of renewable energy. We need more emphasis on the production of energy without carbon.