Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist, a former Parliamentary Candidate, and is Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission.
A fortnight ago, I sat in a London hotel with the former President of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed. He took out his mobile phone, and scrolled down to open a text message he had received.
He passed it to me. It was the infamous image of the American journalist James Foley kneeling, before he was beheaded, in an orange shirt next to his hooded captor who was brandishing a knife. But superimposed onto it was Nasheed’s face. The chilling message read: “You’ll be next”.
I first met Nasheed in 2006, when I visited him under house arrest. He was the opposition leader in a country ruled at the time by Asia’s longest serving dictator, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. Nasheed, who had founded the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) and led his country’s struggle for democracy, had been in and out of prison, solitary confinement and house arrest. He had been beaten and tortured.
He was his country’s Nelson Mandela or Aung San Suu Kyi. And I had the privilege of visiting him while he was still detained.
I was in the Maldives on behalf of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, and my report from that visit made a small contribution both to the Maldives’s subsequent – albeit short-lived – transition to democracy, and the Conservative Party’s friendship with the MDP. In 2008, Nasheed was elected President, and a transition to democracy and the rule of law, including reform of the judiciary, began.
But the old dictator Gayoom, in an unholy alliance with radical Islamists who dislike Nasheed’s progressive outlook and corrupt judges who hated his attempt to clean up the judiciary, orchestrated a coup d’etat in 2012 that forced Nasheed from office.
New elections were promised, delayed, and eventually held in November 2013. Nasheed contested them, was ahead in the first round, but after the Supreme Court intervened and annulled the results, delaying the elections twice, his rival Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom, brother of the old dictator, won in the final run-off after playing the religion card. And the Maldives is reaping the whirlwind today.
On 5 September, at least 200 people marched through the central thoroughfare of Male, capital of the Maldives, waving the flag of the so-called Islamic State (IS) – or ‘ISIS’ or ‘ISIL’ as it is alternatively known. They called for the implementation of full Shari’ah law. “To hell with democracy,” said their banners. “No Shari’ah = no peace”.
An estimated 200 Maldivians are currently fighting for ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Out of a population of just 345,000, that is an alarming number.
It would appear that elements of the Maldivian police and military are involved too. As Nasheed told The Independent recently: “they have people in strategic positions within both”. Yameen’s regime came to power backed by Islamists, and he has so far been reluctant to confront them.
Indeed, it would appear that the Yameen regime is intent on pandering to the Islamists, as his brother Gayoom did before. In the latest infringement on freedom of expression, Yameen has recently announced new regulations requiring government approval of all poetry and prose publications. The nails in the coffin of the Maldives’ nascent democracy are being hammered in one by one.
Even more serious than censorship of poetry, however, is the increasing number of abductions and violent attacks on those who dissent – the most recent case being the disappearance of journalist Ahmed Rilwan. Rilwan was last seen just over a month ago.
On 8 August, he returned home very late at night. At 2am, an eye-witness reported seeing a man in dark clothes – believed to be Rilwan – being forced at knifepoint into a vehicle outside his home. He has not been seen since.
Rilwan wrote regularly about Islamic extremism, corrupt politics and the gang culture that is terrorising the archipelago. There appears to be an inter-connection between all three, with political actors and criminal gangs working in collaboration with radical Islamists to silence dissent. It is not known whether Rilwan is dead or alive.
The Maldivian government has been shockingly inactive on his case. The police do not appear to be doing much to find him. The President has said he has no comment. And a climate of impunity is sweeping this idyllic holiday destination.
Rilwan’s disappearance is hardly the first of its kind in the Maldives in recent years. Indeed, it is part of a pattern. In 2011 Aishath Velezinee, an outspoken activist and member of the Judicial Services Commission nominated by then President Nasheed, was stabbed in the back in broad daylight in the centre of the capital three times, in what she calls “an assassination attempt”.
On 4 June, 2012 a blogger, Ismail Hilath Rasheed, who campaigned specifically for religious freedom and tolerance, and other human rights, was stabbed in the neck. He had already been attacked twice before, because he organised a peaceful demonstration for religious tolerance. Now in exile in Sri Lanka, he says: “I don’t think the Maldives is safe for me anymore”.
Other journalists, parliamentarians, dissidents and their families have been threatened. I am told that there is a list that has been drawn up of 500 allegedly ‘un-Islamic’ people largely made up of democracy and human rights activists, to be targeted – by radical Islamists involved in criminal gangs with the blessing of corrupt politicians. And all this in one of the world’s most idyllic, honeymoon tropical paradises.
And it’s not just dissidents. Last year, a 15 year-old girl who had been raped by her step-father was threatened with 100 lashes for the crime of “fornication”. It took an international campaign to stop the authorities from enforcing this.
Three years ago, David Cameron described Mohamed Nasheed as his ideal “best friend”. The Conservative Party sent teams of advisers to help Nasheed when he was President. But since the coup, Britain has been worryingly willing to accept the new order. Hugo Swire issued a statement expressing concern about human rights, and that certainly is welcome. But now, there is a need to do more. There is a need to show our ‘friendship’, not simply to people, but to shared values.
As a friend not just to the MDP but more importantly to democracy and human rights in the Maldives, Britain’s Coalition Government must increase pressure on Yameen to tackle radical Islamism head-on.
He must order a full investigation into the disappearance of Rilwan; he must provide protection for Nasheed and others; he must condemn those celebrating ISIS and calling for full Shari’a; he must root out Islamist elements from the army, police and government; and he must put the Maldives back on the path of democracy and human rights.
If, within a reasonable timeframe, he fails to do so, we must respond in language he understands. Condemning his complicity with radical Islamism and gang culture; freezing assets; launching a targeted boycott of particular tourist resorts.
Yameen is playing with fire, and if this impunity continues and the flames blaze out of control, it is the Maldives’ hard-won democracy that will go up in smoke and our fingers that will be burned.