Maldives' Diplomatic Campaign, Including a Presidential Dash to India, Has Not Helped Much

India will not push the Maldivian government too far, lest it rolls into China’s lap. But it remains unhappy with Malé’s seemingly arbitrary actions, especially the jailing of opposition figures.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, right, shakes hands with Maldives' President Yameen Abdul Gayoom before a delegation level meeting in New Delhi, India, Monday, April 11, 2016. Yameen Abdul Gayoom is on a two-day visit to India. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup)

Narendra Modi with Maldives’ President Abdulla Yameen. Credit: PTI

New Delhi: Just over a week ago, Maldives President Abdulla Yameen had asked for India’s “continued support” against any “punitive action” by the Commonwealth Ministerial Advisory Group (CMAG) – the oversight body which monitors so-called “commonwealth values” in member states.

After the CMAG gave a largely negative assessment about democratic progress in Maldives at its meeting in London on April 20, India on Friday noted that New Delhi was aligned with the commonwealth body’s appraisal and remedial measures.

“India is a member of CMAG. After its deliberation, a concluding statement has been issued. Obviously being a member of CMAG, we are party to the statement. I think that statement speaks for itself. I have nothing further to add,” Ministry of External Affair’s spokesperson Vikas Swarup said. Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar represented India at the CMAG meeting.

He added that India has “always supported stability, development, democracy and pluralism in Maldives”. “This is a long standing position and was most recently articulated during President Yameen’s visit to India”.

At a press conference in the Maldivian capital after Yameen’s return, a senior Maldivian minister claimed that India had conveyed that “in a democratic country, institutional say carried more weight than one particular individual’s welfare”. This seems to say that the Indian and Maldivian government were emphatically on the same page over the treatment of former President Mohamed Nasheed. However, the discussions, from India’s views, had been more nuanced.

Sources here said India was not going to push the Yameen government too far, lest it rolls into China’s lap. But at same time, New Delhi has not been happy with Malé’s seemingly arbitrary actions, especially the jailing of opposition figures – and this was conveyed quietly, behind closed doors, say Indian officials. A senior official noted that while India was ready to have Maldives’ back, the Maldivian government has to also “help us to help you”.

Malé’s repeated change in stance on the extension of Nasheed’s medical leave, just on the eve of the CMAG meeting in London, was widely noted.

Maldives foreign ministry, just as after the February meeting, was the first to announce the conclusion of the CMAG – but in a selective manner, belaboring that the country was not placed on the formal agenda.

This was disingenuous, as the CMAG statement clearly mentions that Maldives remains under the microscope – with a period of five months till September to show “clear, measurable progress” on six fronts as delineated at the meeting in February.

The main opposition party, Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), welcomed the CMAG’s message. “CMAG’s continued review of the Maldives’ political situation is a clear sign that it is taking action against the Maldives for failure to commit to reforms as outlined in their concluding statement in February,” said MDP spokesperson Hamid Abdul Ghafoor.

The Wire has highlighted the main points from the CMAG statement, as well as, provided a context to the concerns raised by the Commonwealth body.

Political dialogue

Progress on political dialogue, initially by representatives of political parties, appears unfortunately to have been limited to date. Ministers therefore hoped that the very recent attempt at proximity talks facilitated by the United Nations would bring the Government and opposition representatives closer to purposeful and forward-looking dialogue in the coming months. Ministers reaffirmed the importance which they attached to all political parties participating constructively in the formation of a clear roadmap and specified timeframe for progress, and to seeing evidence of concrete steps taken and progress achieved by all to address specific issues on a political dialogue agenda.

In February, the Maldivian government had offered to restart talks with the opposition – six months after the previous efforts collapsed when Nasheed was asked to return to jail from house arrest. The new initiative was a non-starter, with the opposition, MDP and the Adhalaath party, insisting that the government release their imprisoned leaders first. The latest offer for talks had come a few hours before the CMAG meeting, with the addition that the government was ready for the imprisoned opposition leaders to sit at the negotiating table.

To revive talks, Tamrat Samuel, senior advisor in the UN’s department of political affairs, arrived on April 15 and held detailed discussions with all stakeholders. Still, with no indication that the government would free the jailed leaders, success of a UN-brokered roundtable between political parties who don’t trust each other, seems like a long shot.

Release of political prisoners

CMAG underscored the continued importance of the Government facilitating the prompt release from detention of political leaders in order to help restore confidence in the overall political environment in Maldives, including in the fundamental freedoms of association, assembly and speech. In this context, Ministers noted with disappointment that the Government had, in recent days, revoked the medical leave granted to some senior political figures.

For the Maldivian opposition, this is the linchpin. After Nasheed was convicted, the jails began to fill up quickly with other leaders who had once been on Yameen’s side – former defence minister, Colonel Mohamed Nazim; former alliance partner Adhaalath party leader, Sheikh Abdulla Imran, and Yameen’s former vice president, Ahmed Adeeb.

On April 18, the government announced the extension of Nasheed’s medical leave, but then immediately cancelled it the same day – before a review of the u-turn was ordered ahead of this week’s CMAG meeting.

Currently, Nasheed is in London, while Nazim and Imran were transferred to house arrest earlier this month. Given the past history of abrupt decision-making by the government, the trust-deficit is substantial and the opposition is not in a mood to demand less than a full reversal of the convictions.

Promotion of space for civil society and dissent

Recalling their recommendation for practical confidence-building measures to promote freedom and space for civil society, Ministers expressed their concern that there was little or no evidence of substantive progress achieved in the areas of concern raised. In this context, Ministers noted the recent introduction in the People’s Majlis (Parliament) of a broad-ranging Defamation Bill seeking to recriminalise defamation and statements against national security. Ministers highlighted the importance of Government leadership in advancing a legislative framework reflecting the commitment of Maldives to the Commonwealth Charter and to the required inclusive political dialogue, in particular by the Government addressing legislation concerning free and open public debate as well as antiterrorism.

Last month, Maldives’ ruling party introduced a defamation bill in parliament, which would impose heavy penalties, jail terms and even revoke licenses of news organisations if they published “defamatory content”. There had been an immediate outcry from the Maldivian media, with concerns raised that it could ring the death knell for the industry. A sit-in protest outside president’s office on April 4 was dispersed with the use of pepper spray and the overnight arrest of 16 journalists. Not surprisingly, the arrests garnered international attention, with foreign envoys meeting the arrested journalists to send a message to the regime. Just two days later, the parliamentary majority leader proposed a modification to the draft defamation bill  – but there was no talk of its withdrawal.

Misuse of anti-terror laws

In this regard, Ministers expressed serious concern that anti-terrorism legislation continued to be misused in a politicised manner, including against public officials. They urged the Government to take urgent steps to address this and the ongoing concerns regarding due process in judicial cases.

There are fears that Maldives is the weak link in the security architecture in South Asia, with at least 100 Maldivians said to be active in the Syrian civil war – a disproportionately high number for a country with a population of just 350,000. Despite these concerns, the most visible use of the 1990 anti-terror law has been against political leaders. Last year, Nasheed was convicted to 13 years under the anti-terror law for arresting the chief criminal court judge, while Imran got 12 years under the same legislation for addressing an anti-government rally. Recently, charges were filed under the anti-terror law against a magistrate judge and a former prosecutor general for allegedly forging an arrest warrant for Yameen.

The tougher, new anti-terror legislation approved in October 2015 further fueled worries among the opposition and media that it will be used to suppress criticism of the government.

Independence of judiciary

CMAG reiterated the importance of timely action by the Government to strengthen the separation of powers and independence of the judiciary, in accordance with previous Commonwealth recommendations. They noted that some progress had been made with the passage in the People’s Majlis of the Criminal Procedure Bill – and the assurance given by the Government that this represented some progress – and urged that other substantive measures be undertaken.

In 2013, the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) special rapporteur on the independence of judiciary and lawyers, Gabriela Knaul, visited Maldives and produced a scathing report. She raised questions, among others, about the selection of judges and the “misinterpretation about concepts of independence of judiciary and accountability”. Two years later, Knaul continued to find large gaps in the legal system. On June 16, 2015, the Maldives Supreme Court ruled that the submission of the Maldivian Human Rights Commission before the UNHRC during the Universal Periodic Review was “unlawful”, earning a sharp rebuke from Knaul.

On the same lines, members of a fact-finding delegation of International Commission of Jurists to Nasheed’s trial last year did not find any improvement, but also feared that there was further “erosion in the independence, impartiality and integrity of judiciary”.

Incidentally, India had offered to train Maldivian judges and law officers as far back as 2013, but it did not really take off. During the recent visit, Yameen mentioned that discussions were held on the training of “magistrates and justices”.

This section in the concluding statement did have a small amount of praise for Maldives government, with CMAG acknowledging that the Maldivian parliament passed the long-pending Criminal Procedures Bill. It was approved on April 20, the same day that nine Commonwealth ministers met for second time this year to talk about Maldives.

Capacity building by Commonwealth

Ministers welcomed recent discussions between the Government of Maldives and the Commonwealth Secretariat on technical assistance. They encouraged the Government and the Secretariat to commence speedy implementation of agreed plans. Ministers underlined the Commonwealth’s commitment to the closest possible consultation and cooperation with all other international partners working with Maldives.

This was probably, the least contentious area, with Maldives again garnering a rare positive phrase and Yameen also talking about the need to learn about governance from India, Singapore and international organisations.
Maldives has threatened to leave the Commonwealth on multiple occasions, with the rhetoric usually becoming shriller ahead of a scheduled meeting of CMAG to discuss the Indian Ocean island nation. But, the government then changed tack from a confrontation mode to conciliation after the pressure from the international community did not relent.
The Commonwealth, of course, had been a major international actor in Maldives’ political development. But, there are mixed feelings in Maldives about its effectiveness. It was a Commonwealth-backed Commission of National Inquiry which had legitimised the transfer of power after ‘resignation’ of Nasheed as president – leaving behind a trail of bitterness among the opposition, which still lingers on.

Appointment of special envoy

CMAG welcomed the commitment of the Secretary-General to appoint a high-level Special Envoy to Maldives to support a sustainable political dialogue process leading to a stronger climate of pluralism and inclusive elections in 2018, and to encourage the strengthening of democratic institutions and culture in Maldives.

While the Maldives government had invited the Commonwealth to appoint a special envoy, the framing of the scope of the role of the officer shows that the international community’s long term plan is to have a free, fair presidential elections in 2018. The insertion of the word ‘inclusive’ is a throwback to the last presidential elections when this term featured in nearly all statements from foreign countries as an euphemism for Nasheed to take part as the opposition candidate.

In the run-up to the controversial 2013 presidential elections, the international community, including India, put sustained pressure on the interim Mohamed Waheed government to ensure Nasheed’s participation in the polls.

According to the Constitution, Nasheed will not be able contest in 2018 presidential elections since he was sentenced to 13 years imprisonment. A candidate cannot have been convicted and sentenced to a jail term of more than 12 months, “unless a period of three years has elapsed since his release, or pardon for the offence for which he was sentenced”.