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Maldives' VP on jailed ex-president Nasheed: 'A celebrity politician is not above the law'

Following a UN panel ruling that the jailing of former Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed was illegal, incumbent Vice President Ahmed Adeeb speaks exclusively to DW about the contentious case and claims of rights abuses.

The government of the Maldives has been under increasing international pressure in recent months over the jailing of several opposition politicians, including former President Mohamed Nasheed, who was sentenced in March to 13 years in prison on terrorism charges. Although his jail sentence was commuted to house arrest in July, he was taken back to prison last month in a surprise move that drew fresh criticism from the UN and the United States.

Human rights organizations have also slammed the trial of the 48-year-old politician - found guilty of ordering the arrest and detention of a senior judge when he was in power - as politically motivated. More recently, a UN panel ruled that the jailing was illegal and called for Nasheed's immediate release, arguing the trial was seriously flawed. The government of incumbent President Abdulla Yameen, however, rejected the ruling, saying it would "not be made to act on the basis of a non-binding opinion."

Last month, Nasheed's London-based barrister Amal Clooney and Washington-based lawyer Jared Genser traveled to the island nation in the Indian Ocean to press for his release.

Maldives former President Mohamed Nasheed waves sitting in a boat as he is taken back to Dhoonidhoo prison after a court dismissed his appeal against his arrest in Male, Maldives. Maldives' jailed ex-president will not appeal his 13-year sentence because the court has not released all documents from the first hearing to prepare a case, his lawyer said Wednesday (AP Photo/ Mohamed Sharuhaan, File)

Nasheed was sentenced in March to 13 years in prison on terrorism charges

Nasheed was the country's first democratically elected leader. He ruled from 2008 to February 2012, when he was forced to resign following a mutiny by police and troops.

In an exclusive DW interview, incumbent Vice President Ahmed Adeeb (article picture) talks about the controversial conviction as well as attempts to review the case, and responds to claims by rights groups that the government is muzzling peaceful protesters.

DW: Human rights groups accuse President Abdulla Yameen's government of muzzling peaceful protesters, silencing critical media and civil society, while at the same time abusing the judicial system to imprison opposition politicians. What do you respond to the criticism?

Ahmed Adeeb: The Maldives is a young and vibrant democracy. The last decade has not been perfect, but we have a functional multi-party electoral system, a free press and an independent judiciary.

Both the UN and the Commonwealth endorsed the findings of an independent inquiry that showed that former President Mohamed Nasheed resigned voluntarily in 2012. Nasheed quit because his coalition collapsed and there were weeks of popular protests against his government over the illegal detention of a senior judge by the army on his orders.

Since his resignation, the Maldives has held one democratic and internationally-monitored presidential election – which Nasheed lost to President Yameen - as well as parliamentary elections in which Nasheed's party was again defeated.

The incumbent government has repeatedly proved its democratic credentials. The media need to look at the facts on the ground and compare them to Nasheed's track record in office.

But the criticism against your government has been mounting, and it comes at a time when your administration has filed criminal charges against key opposition figures.

Nasheed's own lawyers, during their visit to the Maldives last month, conducted press conferences with the international media freely and without any form of interference. Supporters of the opposition groups have held demonstrations in the capital without fear of any reprisals. These are very simple, clear facts.

However, when former President Nasheed was in power, he padlocked the Supreme Court, arrested the Criminal Court's chief justice and opposition MPs, and even tried to abolish the independent office of the prosecutor general, which would have allowed him to arrest anyone who disagreed with him. In contrast, today we are seeing that a fair and independent judicial process is being allowed to run its course, free from any political interference.

The government believes that a strong democracy must protect the human rights of the most vulnerable segments of the population. Members of the United Nations Human Rights Council praised the Maldives' commitment to these rights, especially children and the disabled, during the review of its Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in May 2015.

The Maldives has also made great progress in strengthening the protection of women's rights through the enactment of the Domestic Violence Act, the Prevention of the Sexual Harassment and Abuse Act, and Sexual Offences Act.

Rights group Amnesty International argues that Nasheed and two other imprisoned opposition politicians - former defense minister Mohamed Nazim and MP Ahmed Nazim - are victims of politically motivated trials. Do you agree?

Former President Nasheed has based his defense on his international celebrity status, calling for global pressure to make us drop the case. He is also using wildly inaccurate claims about democracy and justice on the islands to mask the details of the case against him.

Police detain an opposition supporter during a protest demanding Maldives President Yameen Abdul Gayoom resign and jailed ex-president Mohamed Nasheed be freed, in Male', Maldives, Friday, May 1, 2015 (AP Photo/Sinan Hussain)

At least 140 protesters have been arrested in the Maldives since February

The international media needs to look at facts about the Nasheed case, not just the PR hype. Just because the case involves celebrity lawyers and celebrity politicians shouldn't blind the world to the fact that we need to maintain law and order in our country.

The truth is that the case fulfills the requirements of an independent judicial process, and that the former president has been prosecuted because he ordered the army to illegally abduct the chief judge of the Criminal Court until popular street protests forced him to release him after three months.

The arrest and detention was also condemned by many international organizations. The former president himself admitted this very fact in an article for The New York Times and on BBC's Hardtalk. These are not fictional or imagined stories cooked up by the government, but admissions by Nasheed himself.

Why is Nasheed being portrayed as a "terrorist," and to which extent he poses a threat to Maldives society? Also, do you intend to review the case?

The case is being reviewed, and the former president must answer the question as to why he is intent on sabotaging it. The prosecutor general has asked the Supreme Court to look at the process and evidence presented at the former president's original trial to see if there were any deficiencies that led to his eventual prosecution.

Yet, Nasheed tried to undermine last month's High Court hearing, using the opportunity for political grandstanding rather than making his case in the court. The fact that his legal team - Amal Clooney and Jared Genser - left the Maldives before the High Court made its decision, lays bare the cynical approach of his supporters to circumvent the legal institutions of the Maldives. However, we have already seen during his time in office that Nasheed had very little respect for these institutions anyway.

According to rights groups, at least 140 peaceful protesters have been arrested since February, and were only released on conditions that severely limited their rights to take part in further demonstrations. Why doesn't the government allow Nasheed's supporters to protest freely?

Lawyer Amal Clooney (L) and Laila Ali, wife of Mohamed Nasheed, sit together after a press conference at the National Press Club April 30, 2015 in Washington, DC, regarding attempts to get Ali's husband Nasheed released from prison (Photo: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Last month, Nasheed's laywer Amal Clooney (left) traveled to the island nation to press for his release

The government is happy to invite any international media group or observer to come to our capital city to watch and report on opposition rallies. All demonstrations are attended by members of the human rights commission, as well as the Police Integrity Commission.

This ensures protestors are given their democratic right to protest, and the police cannot act with impunity. Under no circumstances does the government or any associated agency order arbitrary arrests. We take action only when there is credible evidence that a protestor has engaged in serious public order offenses or violence. Even then, the proper legal channels are available to the accused.

The only examples of the Maldives security forces having to resist civilians with force are when government buildings came under direct attack. How would you expect security forces in any civilised democracy to react? We see countless examples across the world - even in countries that are bastions of democracy and freedom - of police brutality and improper use of surveillance by state agencies.

Ahmed Adeeb is the Vice President of the Maldives.

The interview was conducted by Gabriel Domínguez.