A day after former president Mohamed Nasheed was sentenced to 13 years in jail on terror charges, opposition leaders in Maldives called for a civil disobedience movement to bring down President Abdulla Yameen’s government and replace it with what they call a “people’s government”.
Leaders of the Maldives Democratic Party (MDP), which met late Saturday night, also called for targeted international boycott of businesses which support the ruling Progressive Party of the Maldives, a threat directed at powerful oligarchs who dominate the tourism-dependent economy.
MPs of the ruling party have also introduced a bill in parliament, the Majlis, that will make it ineligible for convicted criminals to run for elections or hold membership of political parties. If the bill passes, Nasheed’s political career will end.
Hundreds of party supporters gathered outside MDP offices in Male, urging party leaders to take an aggressive stand in defence of Nasheed.
Late Friday night, a Male criminal court sentenced Nasheed on the charge of having ordered the military detention of Criminal Court Chief Judge Abdulla Didi in January 2012. The arrest of the judge sparked a crisis, leading to a coup in which Nasheed was dethroned.
The Maldives criminal court began its hearings, the tenth in just 24 days, at 9.15 pm Friday. Following closing arguments by prosecutors, the judges adjourned proceedings. But the court reconvened around 11 pm to deliver the judgment.
Early Saturday, Nasheed aide Shauna Aminath tweeted on behalf of the former president, asking supporters “to take all of your lives in your hands and to go out onto the streets in protest”. “These judges have no fear of the day of judgment, and no shame in this world”.
Though Male shops and businesses operated normally through Saturday, police sources said the government was bracing for protest marches when government offices reopen on Sunday — the day after the Maldives weekend.
Police sources said the government plans to transfer Nasheed to a special cell it is constructing inside Maafushi prison, the site where the democracy movement began in 2003 following the murder of teenage prison inmate Hasan Evan Nasheem and the shooting of three fellow inmates.
Led by Nasheed, the movement overthrew President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the half-brother of President Yameen, in 2008. Nasheed was unseated four years later in what his supporters said was a Gayoom family coup, carried out with the backing of the establishment loyal to them.
International reaction to the sentencing of Nasheed was sharp, with the United Kingdom’s Foreign Office minister Hugo Swire saying “we are concerned that the former president’s trial has not been conducted in a transparent and impartial manner”.
The United States’ embassy in Colombo also voiced concern, saying it was “particularly troubled by reports that the trial was conducted in a manner contrary to Maldivian law”.
New Delhi, which has acted in close concert with the United States and United Kingdom, also voiced “deep concern”.
“We are deeply concerned over the developments in the Maldives. We are monitoring the situation there,” said the spokesman of the Ministry of External Affairs. Prime Minister Narendra Modi chose not to visit Male on his Indian Ocean tour.
The late-night judgment was just the latest in a series of legal steps which have raised eyebrows internationally. Two of the three judges who had heard the case, P G Muhtaz Muhsin and Abdul Bari Yusuf, provided sworn evidence to investigators probing Didi’s detention, which was placed in evidence before them. Nasheed’s legal team also resigned from the case, saying there were not given adequate time to prepare for the trial.
“This was a clear violation of Islamic Sharia and law and also international judicial principles,” Nasheed’s legal advisor Hassan Latheef said. “The prosecution, witnesses and the judge cannot be the same parties.”
Government spokesperson Ibrahim Muaz Ali, responding to criticism that the government had rigged the trial, said President Abdulla Yameen had no wish to “jail opposition politicians or plunge the country into civil unrest”.
“We have a system of separation of powers,” he said. “In a democracy, the head of state does not interfere in judicial proceedings and is not to blame for court proceedings. Political leaders in other countries, such as Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka, have been summoned and tried in court as well,” he said.
MPD member of parliament Eva Abdulla, however, attacked the conduct of the trial judges, saying the late-night judgment “was a stellar example in work culture for all judges everywhere in the world”.
“In our courts”, she said, “cases against paedophiles, murderers and drug-dealers run for years, but here there was this.”
The court’s proceedings, opposition leaders allege, were rushed in order to beat the coming-into-force of the new Maldives penal code, which is scheduled to kick in April. The new code will displace the pre-democracy era terrorism laws under which Nasheed was tried. The Maldives’ existing penal code was drawn up before 2008, when the first democratic elections were held.
Nasheed now has ten days to file an appeal, but the MDP says it has no confidence in the judicial process. “There is zero chance that this verdict will be reversed on appeal,” Abdulla said.
The judgment is being read by experts as a key test for Maldives’ fledgling democracy. “This is the moment when the people of the Maldives will be tested on whether they really want a democracy or not,” said analyst and writer Maryath Mohamed. “In the years since the democracy movement flowered, people have generally enjoyed high incomes and stable lifestyles. The government is gambling they won’t jeopardise that for a principle.”