COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — When Mohamed Nasheed was a political prisoner, his captors either deprived him of food and water or fed him glass. But last month, at a country club here in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo, the first democratically elected president of the Maldives, who has been out of office since 2012, was all smiles over mid-morning tea.
“I will contest the party’s primaries,” Nasheed told Foreign Policy, not long after meeting with leaders of his Maldivian Democratic Party to discuss next year’s presidential elections.
For Nasheed, the decision to once again run for office has guaranteed a game-changing year not only for his own political career but also for the future of democracy in the South Asian island country of about 400,000 people, which has become paralyzed under the administration of the current president, Abdulla Yameen.
In 2012, after more than three years governing the Maldives, Nasheed was forced to resign from office in what his supporters described as a coup orchestrated by members of the opposition party in parliament loyal to another former president, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who is the half-brother of Yameen. At issue was Nasheed’s arrest of the chief judge of the country’s criminal court, who he believed was acting favorably toward Gayoom. Following weeks of protests in the capital of Male, police officers eventually refused to obey orders to break up the crowds, and calls for Nasheed to step down intensified.
In the power vacuum that followed, Yameen rose to power the next year, and in 2015 Nasheed was sentenced to 13 years in prison on terrorism charges related to the judge’s detention. Last May, he was granted political refugee status in Britain after exiting the Maldives under medical leave negotiated by his lawyers.
Among the charges leveled against Yameen are allegations that his administration has underplayed the threat of Islamic extremism in the country and curtailed freedom of expression and assembly, both enshrined in the Maldivian Constitution, through a series of repressive measures, including the passage of a bill criminalizing defamation.
Also at play is the fallout from the release, last September, of a documentary produced by Al Jazeera featuring intercepted WhatsApp messages appearing to show involvement by the Maldivian government in a $1.5 billion money-laundering scheme. Maldivian participants have since left the country in fear for their safety, and foreign journalists have been largely barred from receiving press credentials to investigate the matter any further.
An archipelago in the Indian Ocean, the Maldives was, for much of its history, a sultanate. In 1953, after a period as a British protectorate, the Maldives temporarily abolished the sultanate under the leadership of the country’s first president, Mohamed Amin Didi, who paved the way for advancements in access to education and women’s rights. But these transitional years were not always peaceful. Following the “election” of President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the sole candidate, in 1978, the country spent three decades under dictatorship, with political dissenters subjugated to torture a short distance away from well-heeled tourists lounging at high-end resorts.
In 2008, with enormous international support, the country’s first multiparty parliamentary elections were held. Nasheed, a historian and journalist who had already spent years in jail for speaking out against Gayoom, was sworn in at the end of the year.
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