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Maldives ex-president eyes risky political comeback

Mohamed Nasheed was president of the Maldives until he was forced from office and imprisoned. From exile in London, he tells DW that he wants to make a comeback to protect his country from sinking under a "dictatorship."

The former president of the Maldives and co-founder of the country's democratic party has been arrested more than a dozen times. He has spent a total of over five years of his life behind bars and has been humiliated and abused. "Was it just pure madness that helped me to persevere?" Nasheed said with a short laugh, adding: "It definitely wasn't courage - that much I am sure of."

"It was brutal," he said. "I was beaten over and over again and they urinated and spit on me." But he said the worst part of being incarcerated was the loneliness and separation from his wife and family.

"I spent 18 months in solitary confinement," he said. "There you think in very small steps. I told myself, 'I am going to get through today.' This was followed by another day and that's how a week would pass. And then I told myself, 'I'll get through the next week.' And that's how it continued."

Nasheed's ordeal ended in January 2016 when he was permitted to leave prison to have an operation in Great Britain. He said the government let him go because of continued pressure from home and abroad. A few months prior, he had been sentenced to 13 years in prison ostensibly for "acts of terrorism." Many observers, including the EU, doubt that he received a fair trial.

Nasheed has since not returned to the Maldives. He remains in London, where he has been granted political asylum.

Caught between dictators

Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, Präsident der Malediven (AP)

Former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom (pictured here in 1997) ruled the Maldives for 3 decades

The modern history of the Maldives is tumultuous, and Nasheed has been a central figure. He won the first ever democratic election in the South Asian island country in 2008, which ended the decades-long autocratic rule of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.

A student of marine biology and an environmental activist, Nasheed was seen by many at home and abroad as a figure of hope for democratic transformation in the Maldives. In 2009, he earned international fame by holding a cabinet meeting 5 meters (20 feet) underwater on the sea floor to draw attention to the problem of rising sea levels.

Nasheed stepped down in 2012, but according to international observers, he was forced from office in conditions resembling a coup. At the time, Nasheed asked the police to help counter anti-government demonstrations, but they refused and instead joined the protestors.

Malediven Unterwasserabstimmung (AP)

Nasheed signs a document during an underwater "cabinet meeting" in 2009

"Yes, I was forced from office," he said. "A few days prior, I could have used force, which would have been my only option and was something that all of my advisors told me to do." But Nasheed said he decided against using violence and that he doesn't regret it.

"We didn't come to government just to arrest and oppress people or to fight," he said "Even with mutinous police or groups that wanted to destabilize the government, there is no reason to start a witch hunt and play the role of strongman."

Nasheed ran for election the following year and won the first round, but was short of an absolute majority. The high court annulled the voting results under dubious circumstances. After several attempts, Abdulla Yameen, a conservative half-brother of the former dictator Gayoom, won in a runoff vote victory.

Why didn't Nasheed try to fight the election results? "At the time, the country had been somewhat in a state of emergency for two years," said Nasheed. "We were standing on the brink of civil war," he noted, adding that he was convinced that the Maldives would have completely collapsed into chaos had he not stepped down.

A distant observer

Malediven Präsident Abdulla Yameen verhängt Notstand (Imago/Xinhua)

Abdulla Yameen has been President of the Maldives since 2013

From exile, Nasheed is closely watching developments at home. "The Maldives are once again a dictatorship," he said and indeed, human rights and democracy have been severely damaged there in recent years. For example, five journalists from the country's only independent broadcaster were arrested and prosecuted a few weeks ago.

"Numerous opposition leaders are either exiled or in prison," said Nasheed. "17,000 more people are also currently being investigated or are standing trial and are incarcerated."

"In December 2016, local elections were to have taken place, but the government is continuing to postpone the date," he added. A new date has yet to be given and Nasheed doesn't believe that local elections will happen anytime soon.

A hotbed for IS terrorists?

Another worrying development, says the former president, is that over 350 Maldivian citizens have joined the ranks of the so-called Islamic State terror group. In per capita terms, no other country in the world has so many of its citizens affiliated with the outfit, Nasheed pointed out.

These figures are, however, contradicted by others like Dunya Maumoon. In an interview with the German broadcaster ARD in early 2016, Maumoon - who was then serving as the nation's foreign minister - stated that the government was taking the problem seriously, but at the same time warned not to exaggerate it. 

 "We have a population of about 350,000 and we believe the number of fighters to be in the range of 40 to 50. Even after taking into account the number of family members who have accompanied these fighters, the total figure remains below 100," she said at the time, noting that terrorism was a global problem and that they were doing everything to keep the Maldives a safe country.

Wahlen auf den Malediven Mohamed Nasheed (Reuters)

Nasheed speaks to supporters during an unsuccessful election run in 2013

However, in a report published by the Kellogg Institute at the Northwestern University in the US last year, researchers concluded that the Maldives ranks second worldwide - behind Tunisia - in the number of IS foreign fighters to overall population.

Nasheed mainly blames external actors for the growing number of IS fighters from the Maldives. "Saudi Arabia has drawn many of our students to its universities, where they have been trained and radicalized. The Saudi interpretation of Islam is only half a step away from what the IS propagates, thus giving us a breeding ground for terrorism."

The Maldives alone cannot counteract this problem, says Nasheed, underlining that the country needs external support.

Returning to the path of democracy 

Mohamed Nasheed says he would prefer to return to the Maldives as early as possible. "But if I were to fly back now, I would be thrown into jail right away." It's not Nasheed's first time living in exile. "After facing persecution for 15 years and imprisonment several times, I fled the country in 2003 and founded a political party from Sri Lanka."

The Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) is today the nation's largest opposition party.

Nasheed says he wants to contest again in the presidential elections due in 2018. But as of now, he is barred from taking part due to his controversial criminal conviction in 2015. Nevertheless, the beleaguered leader doesn't want to accept defeat without a fight. He argues that as a Maldivian citizen, he must be allowed to participate in the election.

"I will stand as a candidate in my party primaries. And I hope they will vote for me." The president, Nasheed reckons, is worried about the MDP's strength. "He knows we will clearly beat him."  

When asked about Maldivian democracy, Nasheed stressed that he remained optimistic, while stressing that the country needs to ensure the rule of law, gender equality and freedom of expression, as well as implement a minimum wage and social programs. "It is important that we return to the path of democracy."

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