Gone at gunpoint
By Azra Naseem
11 February 2012
President Mohamed Nasheed’s ‘resignation’.
As the sun rose over Male on 7 February, the Maldives’ first democratically elected president, Mohamed Nasheed, was being held at gunpoint by a dozen or so military officers. He faced a stark choice: resign or allow the country to be drowned in a bloodbath. For Nasheed, a pro-democracy campaigner and former prisoner of conscience who played a pivotal role in toppling former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s 30-year-long dictatorship, the choice was clear. He would resign.
Gathered outside the military compound at Republic Square – so named for being the scene of a failed coup against Gayoom’s regime in November 1988 – were prominent members of the opposition and clergy. Also present were several hundred protestors, many of whom had been on the streets of Male for 22 consecutive nights, demonstrating loudly and often violently against a decision made by Nasheed’s government to take Abdulla Mohammed, the chief judge of the Maldives Criminal Court, into military custody. President Nasheed had arrived at the scene, where protests had continued all night, around 6:30 am.
The president had barely been escorted into the military’s headquarters before celebrations began in the square. ‘He has resigned!’ people shouted and cheered. It was as if those outside could see through the high walls of the military compound, as if they knew what was about to happen within those walls. As triumph thickened the air over the square, and as Nasheed was being forced to write his letter of resignation, the country’s main television stations were already announcing his resignation. The state television broadcaster, MNBC, had been taken over by defecting members of the Maldives Police Service early that morning.
Videos exist, although not yet in the public domain, of armed officers forcing MNBC staff down on their knees as part of the takeover. Pictures circulating on social-media sites show about 70 security personnel in uniform posing triumphantly in the MNBC compound taken shortly after (see accompanying photo). As television stations pre-emptively announced Nasheed’s resignation, prominent opposition leader and 2013 presidential candidate Gasim Ibrahim, who had earlier been at Republic Square, now appeared on VTV, his own television channel. He was beaming widely. ‘He has resigned? It has finally happened? … Alhamdh lillah, Allah akbar!’ he cried. ‘Thanks be to Allah! God is great!’
The Islamic prayer sounded unnatural coming from a man known less for his religiosity than for his womanising, and for owning one of the biggest stakes in the country’s tourism industry. But it was not surprising. A majority of Maldivian politicians have been drawing much strength – of the political if not the spiritual variety – from Allah in recent times. ‘Rejoice’, Gasim said, ‘the deed is done!’ Shortly afterwards, VTV switched to discussions about the Prophet Mohamed’s conquest of Mecca in 630 AD. The analogy was clear: the god-fearing Maldivian opposition had successfully defended the country from an ‘enemy of Islam’, and saved its people from the path to hell that the anti-Islamic and amoral Nasheed had set them on.
Over an hour after the announcement of his resignation had been made on the national media, Nasheed himself appeared on television and reiterated the announcement. ‘I sincerely believe that if this government is to remain in power, substantive force – which would harm many citizens – will become necessary,’ he said. As someone who had ‘never wished to rule by force’, he announced, he was resigning.
Almost within the hour, Nasheed’s vice-president, Mohamed Waheed Hassan, was sworn in as the new president. Present at the ceremony were prominent opposition figures including Abdulla Yameen – former president Gayoom’s brother, a 2013 presidential candidate and a defendant in a lawsuit alleging embezzlement of over USD 800 million from state funds. Administering the oath to Waheed was Speaker of the Parliament Abdulla Shahid, also a prominent member of Gayoom’s regime. In his first address to the nation as president, Waheed thanked the Maldives Police Services for the sacrifices they had made. ‘Today is the day the rule of law has been established in the country perfectly,’ he proclaimed. Asked by journalists to comment on reports of a coup, the new president pulled at the lapels of his freshly pressed suit, shrugged slightly, smiled from the corner of his mouth and replied: ‘Do I look like somebody who would bring about a coup d’etat?’ That question was his answer to one of the key questions facing the beleaguered Maldivian democracy.
Waheed denies not just that he fits the profile of a typical coup instigator – whatever that may be – but also that he had any role to play in the events that led to his former boss being held at gunpoint. Lacking the charisma that has made Nasheed a well-liked figure both in domestic and international circles, Waheed currently has very little popular support. Not a single member of his Gaumee Itthihad Party (GIP) occupies a seat in the Parliament. The opposite had been true when he first joined Maldivian politics, in the early 1990s. In Waheed’s own words, he had enjoyed ‘unprecedented levels’ of support back then.
Waheed blames the loss of his popularity on a smear campaign by former President Gayoom’s brothers-in-law in the lead-up to the parliamentary elections of 1989. He served briefly as an MP but left Maldivian politics behind after three months as, according to his personal website, his constituency ‘was unable to offer him support due to restrictions on political activity’. Since re-joining the Maldives’ turbulent political landscape, in 2005, after working abroad with the United Nations, Waheed positioned himself as an intellectual above the ‘dirty politics’ of a small-time country such as the Maldives. His status as a former UN official and his doctorate from Stanford, the first such accolade earned by a Maldivian, helped him carve out this niche. The three years he served as vice-president was spent in relative obscurity, however. He rarely made any impact or contribution to the country’s social or political discourse.
This changed in mid-January this year, when President Nasheed ordered the military to detain Judge Abdulla Mohamed. Waheed condemned the action, highlighting the unconstitutionality of the act and his general aversion to any such behaviour. Using his blog, where matters of national concern and personal matters (such as his birthday) receive equal importance, he expressed shame at President Nasheed’s decision. Citing the Maldives Constitution of 2008 and various instruments of international law that prohibit arbitrary detention, Waheed described himself as bewildered by the fact that the judge’s arrest was ‘not an issue for everyone in the country’. ‘I am ashamed and totally devastated by the fact that this is happening in a government in which I am elected the Vice President,’ he wrote. Waheed’s shame with the government, however, was not sufficient to cause him to resign.
Remaining ensconced within the government, Waheed publicly sided with the opposition forces that had been staging violent demonstrations across the country since 16 January this year, when Judge Abdulla was taken into custody. On 31 January, at 1:00 in the morning, Waheed welcomed into his official residence the leaders of eight opposition parties and a coalition of NGOs known as the December 23 Alliance. Under the banner ‘Defending Islam’, the latter had staged the largest religious demonstration in the history of the country on 23 December 2011, and has since played a crucial role in constantly highlighting alleged anti-Islamic activities of President Nasheed’s government.
A week after opening his doors to the alliance leaders (who went directly to his home from marching on the streets of Male), Waheed was present at Republic Square on 7 February, when President Nasheed was escorted into the military headquarters by officers who had sided with the opposition’s plan to depose him. They then held the president inside at gunpoint.
Wholly missing from the discourse of Waheed, the self-proclaimed champion of the rule of law, were the violations of the Constitution that allowed Judge Mohamed to be on the bench in the first place. When Abdulla Mohammed was first appointed, during Gayoom’s rule, he already had a criminal conviction for public proclamations of sexist and extremist ideology. During his tenure, several more complaints of various types – including allegations of misogyny, sexual deviancy and of throwing out an assault case despite a confession by the accused – were filed against him at the Judicial Service Commission (JSC).
On January 26, the online Maldivian newspaper Minivan News published in full a letter sent in July 2005 by then-Attorney General Hassan Saeed to President Gayoom detailing several specific allegations against Judge Abdulla. Among them was a detailed account of how, while presiding over a sexual offence case in May 2005, the judge made two children identify the accused in court before making the children ‘act out the indecent act in the presence of the perpetrator and the rest of the court’. Hassan Saeed – currently deputy leader of the minority Dhivehi Qaumee Party (DQP, or Maldives National Party) and one of President Nasheed’s most vocal critics – was a prominent member of the opposition forces calling for the release of Judge Abdulla.
It was widely reported in the international media that Nasheed had ordered the detention of Judge Abdulla after he ‘released a government critic’. Using the word ‘critic’ to describe Mohamed Jameel, the individual in question, is to use the term so loosely as to lose its meaning. Police arrested Jameel following the publication of a pamphlet accredited to the DQP, the party he leads. Entitled ‘President Nasheed’s Cunning Plans to Destroy the Islamic Faith of Maldivians’, the 30-page pamphlet alleged Nasheed’s administration of harbouring an overarching anti-Islamic agenda that underpinned all governmental actions and policies. Jameel’s leadership in authoring such a pamphlet is doubly remarkable given that, while serving as Gayoom’s justice minister in 2007, he defied religious scholars to appoint the country’s first women judges. Furthermore, he later resigned from the post, citing Gayoom’s failure to take action against the increasing Islamist militancy in the country.
According to the pamphlet, Nasheed’s ‘major project’ in government involved a broad range of plans. These included allowing other religions into the country, normalising alcohol consumption, deciding to ‘aid Jews’ and forsake Palestinians, acting against Islamic states, indulging in amoral activities, embracing modernity while rejecting Islam, using Christian priests as ambassadors, disputing Islamic morals and humiliating religious scholars. Not only were some of these accusations blatant lies – the alleged appointment of Christian priests as national emissaries, for instance – but the pamphlet also defamed specific individuals with no regard to their potential slander. Other ‘offences’ Nasheed was accused of, such as attempting to increase religious tolerance, appear laughable to any supporter of democracy.
When presented to Maldivians, however, all of this proved anything but harmless. Nowhere else has an entire people been radicalised as widely and as successfully during the US-led ‘war on terror’. While weaving in verses from the Quran, the pamphlet equated deposing President Nasheed to performing a religious duty, and called upon all Maldivians to do whatever they could to obstruct his rule. Yet despite the blatant use of god for political purposes and the clear basis for a defamation case, the Criminal Court headed by Judge Abdulla released Jameel.
Wagging the dog
For Judge Abdullah, this was not an exceptional decision. Nasheed’s home minister, Hassan Afeef, speaking to the media shortly after the judge’s arrest, listed 14 instances where Judge Abdulla had obstructed police duty by various means, including withholding warrants, ordering the police to conduct unlawful investigations and disregarding decisions by higher courts. ‘In the name of holding ministers accountable’, Afeef said, Judge Abdulla had once released a murder suspect who went on to kill again. The Maldives Constitution prohibits the removal of a judge from office ‘during good behaviour and compliance with judicial ethics’.
For the lawful removal of a judge from the bench, however, the JSC has to find the person either grossly incompetent or guilty of gross misconduct before submitting a resolution for dismissal to the Majlis – the country’s main legislative body – which must pass it by a two-thirds majority. The JSC formed a complaints committee to investigate the cases against Judge Abdulla in December 2009, which met 44 times but failed to present an update report every 30 days as required by law; indeed, it had not presented a single report as of March 2011.
In November 2011, for the first time in its history, the JSC brought to a conclusion an investigation into judicial misconduct, which found Judge Abdulla guilty of violating the Judges Code of Ethics by being politically biased. Before the JSC’s findings could be published, Judge Abdulla filed a suit against the JSC at the Civil Court. Remarkably, the Civil Court ordered the JSC, an independent commission appointed under the Constitution to oversee the judiciary, to take no action against Judge Abdulla until the court allowed it. The tail was wagging the dog.
In fact, the JSC has been under the control of judges loyal to former President Gayoom’s regime since its inception. In 2010 it dismissed as ‘symbolic’ Article 285 of the Constitution, which required the judiciary to be cleaned up and brought into line with democratic standards and norms by August of that year. In so doing, it allowed several unqualified judges as well as many with criminal convictions to remain on the bench. A year after this fundamental failure of the JSC to carry out its constitutional duty, and helped by the Majlis’s failure to hold the JSC accountable, Judge Abdulla was found holding court over the judicial oversight body – and the country’s entire judiciary. By then, there was no democratic institution left in the country that could halt his abuse of the country’s justice system.
The crowds that came out to protest the military detention of Judge Abdulla were criticising Nasheed for acting outside of the constitution in detaining a judge. They numbered a few hundred at most, a paltry sum compared to the thousands that took to the streets on 8 February to demonstrate against Nasheed’s forced resignation. Had there been reasoned discussion in the public sphere over Judge Abdulla’s actions and the unconstitutional acts that allowed him to be on the bench in the first place, a peaceful – and lawful – resolution for the matter could have been found. Instead, opposition parties used the media as an enraged public bulldog rather than as a public watchdog. Every night for three weeks, the privately owned television stations VTV and DhiTV broadcast footage of the protests with voiceovers designed to enflame rather than calm public emotions. At times, footage of the protests was digitally manipulated to make the crowds look bigger than they were. At other times, recorded footage was shown as ‘live’, giving the false impression of ongoing protests when there were, at times, none at all.
As the media added fuel to the fire, opposition leaders, MPs and activists joined the protestors, stoking anger and inciting hatred. On several occasions, prominent figures in the opposition called on the protestors to charge at the police monitoring them, and to attack people and damage property. Foremost among those inciting violence was Umar Naseer, vice-president of the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM). This is the most recently formed party loyal to Gayoom, led by his brother-in-law, Yameen.
When President Nasheed arrived to address the people in Republic Square on 7 February, the 23rd day of this violence, several police officers had joined the protestors. Around 80 members of the military soon followed them.
After the coup
On the afternoon of 8 February, ex-president Nasheed attended a meeting of his Maldives Democratic Party (MDP). Brimming with even more energy than usual, Nasheed told his supporters that his resignation had been forced, at gunpoint. He declared President Waheed’s government illegitimate and accused the new leader of having assumed power by colluding with opposition leaders in a well-orchestrated coup. Galvanised by his speech, MDP supporters spilled onto the streets of Male in their thousands, calling for President Waheed’s resignation and new elections.
What followed was the most brutal police crackdown the Maldives had seen since its transition to democracy. Men and women, many of them young, were brought to Male’s two hospitals in their dozens, often suffering from head injuries after being battered by police batons. Police surrounded both hospitals, refusing entry or departure at their whim. Several officers remained within hospital premises. Eyewitnesses reported several cases of the police pepper-spraying relatives and friends of the injured who refused to leave the vicinity as commanded.
As had become customary during their three years of broadcasting, the two privately owned television stations openly sided with the opposition. Instead of broadcasting the usual propaganda, however, they chose to broadcast cartoons. The hijacked state broadcaster, MNBC One – renamed TVM (Television Maldives), its moniker during Gayoom’s regime – followed suit. The only television pictures of the police crackdown were on Raajje TV, the country’s smallest station with the lowest audience figures. By then it was also the country’s only independent television station. In the afternoon that same day, police cut their cables, forcing Raajje TV to broadcast for several hours as a radio station. At one point, members of the security forces threatened Raajje TV with vandalism if they did not stop live streaming on the Internet.
Social-media sites and smart phones, however, thwarted attempts to hide the brutality and chaos in Male from the rest of the country and the international community. Videos soon emerged on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter of police in full riot gear brutally beating members of the public. Several officers wore not only helmets but also balaclavas to hide heir faces. Late in the afternoon, a video emerged of Nasheed and former MDP Chairperson M P Mariya Ahmed Didi being dragged out of a shop by individuals dressed in police uniforms. In another video, police were chasing Nasheed through the streets of Male, while in yet another police manhandled and verbally abused him. The man who had been the commander-in-chief of the armed forces only 24 hours ago now seemed a common criminal in the hands of the police.
One of the highest-profile casualties of the day was MDP Interim Chairperson (and MP) Moosa ‘Reeko’ Manik. In an interview given to Rajje TV while in intensive care at hospital, a weak and bleeding Manik recounted how he had been beaten to a pulp by a group of police officers until he lost consciousness. As news of the brutality in Male filtered down to the atolls, violence and vandalism broke out across the country. Protestors, the majority of whom were MDP supporters, headed for the police stations on many islands. Some forced police officers to strip off their uniforms; others locked police officers out of their stations. Some officers willingly left to join the protestors. On one island, protestors forced police officers onto a boat and banished them. In Addu Atoll, which hosted the 2011 SAARC Summit, protestors torched police stations on the islands of Hithadhoo and Gan as well as the Addu Police Training School.
As the country burned, the new president remained silent. His major act of the day was to swear in a new defence minister and a new home minister. The post of the former went to Mohamed Nazim, formerly a prominent figure in the security forces under Gayoom. The Home Ministry is now led by Mohamed Jameel, whose release by Judge Abdulla had instigated the events that ultimately toppled Nasheed’s government. The following morning, the Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Nasheed. The man in charge of the Criminal Court? Judge Abdulla Mohammed.
Looking for leadership
The international community has responded rapidly to the evolving situation in the Maldives. Known globally as one of the world’s most exclusive holiday destinations, rarely does the Maldives exist in the outside world’s consciousness in any other form. Events of the last few days, however, have moved the Maldives from the travel desks to the news desks at all media organisations. The country’s recently acquired intimacy with Islamist politics has meant comparisons with current turmoil are being drawn with Syria, Egypt and other conflict-addled countries of the ‘Islamic world’. Nasheed himself has drawn attention to the threat from Islamists in an op-ed piece in the New York Times on 8 February.
Condemnations of the violence of that day and of the arbitrary arrests of various MDP leaders and supporters, and the continuing social unrest, have come fast and furious from Western countries as well as national and international organisations. Also pouring in are messages of support for Nasheed from environmental campaigners who, within a short period of time, made significant contributions to the international climate change debate.
Closer to home, rumours that India is ready to send military assistance to help the situation has created a substantial ripple, if not a storm, among the country’s chattering classes. A large number of Internet rumours began claiming late on 9 February that Indian military resources were at the ready, waiting for a signal from the Maldives. The rumours have evoked memories in the collective Maldivian mind of the 3 November 1988 coup, when the Indian Army arrived within hours to successfully rescue the country from coup’s organisers and their hired Tamil mercenaries.
Amidst reports in both Indian and local media of Nasheed sending the Indian government a request for help, rumours also circulated of Indian warships at the ready for dispatch to the atolls. In India, the government was criticised for its failure to rapidly send in forces as Rajiv Gandhi did in 1988. Nasheed denied on 10 February that he had asked for Indian military intervention. He admitted, however, that he had requested India ‘to help us resolve this police revolt,’ and had ‘warned [India] that this was going on’.
In fact, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was among the first foreign leaders to congratulate President Waheed, pledging the ‘Indian government’s full support’ in a telephone conversation on 8 February. When asked if he felt let down by India, Nasheed, who had actively cultivated relations with Prime Minister Singh during his three years in power, evaded a direct answer, instead alluding to shared ideals and policies between Maldives and India.
Although India rushed to recognise the legitimacy of Waheed’s government, popular protests and the police crackdown on the streets of Male appear to have cooled New Delhi’s ardour. New Delhi officials warned the new government not to harm the deposed president, and Prime Minister Singh is currently sending his special envoy, M Ganapathi, to take stock of the situation. Some Indian analysts, meanwhile, have criticised India for failing to ‘act like a big power’, by not acting faster and stronger in the unfolding crisis. Their worry is that the hesitation may have cost India the opportunity to play a decisive role in the affairs of the region, leaving it to Western powers – or China – to fill the leadership role.
Meanwhile, members of the international community, including high-level delegations from the Commonwealth and the United Nations, remain active in the Maldives. The US, which has recognised Waheed’s government as legitimate while grudgingly conceding that there is some room for doubt, has dispatched Assistant Under-Secretary Robert Blake to the Maldives.
Which international body or foreign State takes the lead in helping resolve the current crisis in the Maldives remains a secondary concern for Nasheed and his supporters. ‘My policy in international relations is very simple,’ he said on 10 February. ‘Find a friend and be good to that friend.’ Whether he finds such a friend remains to be seen. One source of support Nasheed does not doubt is the will of the Maldivian people, who are still hoping to be governed democratically. ‘In the absence of international support,’ Nasheed said, ‘we will have to go back on the streets and demonstrate.’
~Azra Naseem holds a PhD in International Relations from the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University, Ireland and is currenlty based in Male.