Myopia in the Maldives

India turns a blind eye to human rights abuses

By Krishnan Srinivasan
  • Published 4.10.16
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The Maldives is a thousand-island nation 1,350 miles southwest of India with a population of 3,50,000, and a member of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. It receives scant attention in the Indian media. Maumoon Abdul Gayoom ruled the Maldives as president with an iron fist for 30 years and enjoyed India's support, to the extent that Rajiv Gandhi as prime minister helped him to thwart a coup attempt in 1988. Some years later, when P.V. Narasimha Rao was prime minister, Rao turned a blind eye to Gayoom sending secret agents to India to spy on suspected political opponents. Unlike the United States of America and the European Union, which claim that their foreign policy is based on universal values they hold dear but whose record is replete with damning evidence to the contrary, India has never taken an evangelical position in championing the cause of democracy abroad when this comes into conflict with its perceived strategic interests. On the whole, this has served the nation well.

The dilemma previously faced by New Delhi in seeking good relations both with Aung San Suu Kyi and the Myanmar army junta over the last couple of decades has now returned to confront India in the Maldives, where Gayoom's half-brother, Abdulla Yameen (picture), who became president in 2013 in a controversial election, seeks to entrench himself with draconian powers of exceptional severity even by third-world standards. And as with Myanmar, the presence of China in our neighbourhood plays a significant part in fashioning New Delhi's attitude.

After Gayoom's long autocratic rule, the Maldives achieved democracy in 2008 with the human rights and environmental activist, Mohamed Nasheed, elected as president in the first freely contested process. With the opening of a Chinese embassy in Male in 2011, Nasheed was suspected by India of being receptive to China, but his real undoing was that he was more effective as an Opposition activist than as a leader, and was deposed by an army mutiny in a thinly veiled coup in 2012 for ordering the arrest of a judge. He was given a jail sentence of 13 years by Yameen on various trumped-up charges, including terrorism. After intercession by India and other countries, Nasheed sought asylum in Britain, from where he is energetically campaigning for international sanctions against the Yameen regime and seeking to unite a coalition of Opposition elements including Yameen's previous deputy Mohamed Jameel, and Gayoom himself, who has fallen out with Yameen and split the ruling Progressive Party of Maldives. Gayoom's daughter, Dunya Mamoun, also resigned from her post as foreign minister, allegedly in protest against the introduction of capital punishment.

The death penalty has been reintroduced after a 60-year period, and other violations of acceptable democratic practices are legion. Journalists are facing harassment and death threats, and three major news outlets, DhiTV, Phi FM and Dhivehi website, have been closed down this year by the government. The uniformed forces are barred from interactions with politicians, bureaucrats or diplomats without special permission. The Islamic card is freely used to suppress opposition and a defamation law makes it a criminal offence, with severe monetary and jail punishments, to "insult Islam or contradict general social norms." Despite heavy restrictions, anti-Yameen rallies regularly take place in a hide-and-seek with the police. The judiciary is corrupt and unqualified. Before the 2008 Constitution, 80 per cent had only a six-month certificate on sentencing. In 2012, one in four had a criminal record.

Among the political opponents imprisoned by Yameen, apart from Nasheed, are the former vice president, Ahmed Adeeb, and Mohamed Nazim, former defence minister, both for treason, and Sheik Imran Abdulla, leader of the Islamist Adhaalath Party, for terrorism. The government has been authorized by a conniving parliament to lease islands without a bidding process. Evidence of massive corruption and money laundering has come to light involving the president himself and his immediate circle, which includes relatives, parliamentarians, judges, officials and police. To cover their flanks from international opprobrium, post-Nasheed regimes engaged the services, at high cost, of lawyers like Cherie Blair, the wife of the former British prime minister, and Patricia Scotland, now the Commonwealth's secretary-general.

The Maldives has come under the scrutiny of two international human rights organizations, the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative and Amnesty International. In February this year, both issued reports highly critical of the government of the Maldives, including claims of "alarming reports of human rights violations, threats to democracy and the rule of law... [A] slide to authoritarianism accompanied by a flagrant disregard to rule of law, good governance and human rights... exacerbated by the rise of radicalised non-state actors relentlessly harassing those perceived to be secular, unorthodox or 'un-Islamic'... the country provides fertile ground for terrorist recruitment... inappropriate judicial overreach and interventionism... a politically motivated and an unfair trial [of Mohamed Nasheed]... political opponents taking part in peaceful demonstrations were arrested... political rallies were attacked by gangs suspected of working in collaboration with the police..."

The United Nations and the Commonwealth have appointed special envoys for the Maldives to facilitate political dialogue, respectively Tamrat Samuel of Eritrea and Willy Mutunga, former chief justice of Kenya. Both have visited the Maldives and made no impact. From his exile in Britain, Nasheed has accused Yameen of one-party and one-person rule and regressing from every article of the 2008 Constitution. This Opposition grouping is expecting to stage a peaceful movement to form a transitional unity government before the next elections due in 2018. In response, Yameen's government is warning of attempts to overthrow it, describing it as a breach of international norms, and has accused Britain and Sri Lanka of collusion with the plotters.

India has reacted to the gross abuses of human rights in the Maldives with detachment. Having been passive during Nasheed's ejection from office, it has watched warily as China increased its influence in the Maldives after Yameen took over as president. President Xi Jinping visited the Maldives in 2014 with promises of huge infrastructure projects, while Prime Minister Modi did not consider it prudent to visit the Maldives, although he has been to Seychelles, Mauritius and Sri Lanka. Ironically, among Nasheed's criticisms of Yameen are allegations of the Maldives becoming increasingly dependent on, and indebted to, China. While professing to be disappointed in India's attitude so far, Nasheed diplomatically states that he believes India is "very aware that democratic institutions must be strengthened in all Indian Ocean countries for stability of the region."

The Commonwealth is not an international organization of the first importance, but has taken the Maldives bit between its teeth. In the conclusions of meetings in February and April of its ministerial group that monitors abrogations from Commonwealth values, that is, after the CHRI and Amnesty reports, a litany of violations of democratic practice was enumerated, including detention and custody of political leaders, absence of separation of powers and an independent judiciary, use of anti-terror legislation to stifle political debate, and infringements of freedoms of civil society, assembly and speech. Both India and Pakistan at these meetings, attended by the Indian foreign secretary, shielded the Maldives from the imposition of sanctions and pleaded for more time for Yameen to make measurable progress.

At the latest meeting of this group at the end of September, the deadline for Yameen to make amends was once again extended till March 2017. The countries in this grouping take the lead on punitive action from its members who belong to the same region as the nation under discussion. In the case of the Maldives, India, Pakistan and the secretary-general are all complicit in turning a blind eye to the flagrant violation of human rights in a Saarc country. The secretary-general is tainted by having been engaged in the past by the regime, and Pakistan's attitude is driven by support for an increasingly Islamist government, its strategic interest and its desire to check Indian influence at every turn. India is necessarily alert to the activities of Pakistan and China in this island chain in the Indian Ocean, but its inability to take a principled stand for human rights and the rule of law is damaging to India's reputation, and will prove more damaging still if and when the Opposition led by Nasheed regains power.

 

The author is a former foreign secretary of India