The first democratically elected president of the Maldives returned home Thursday after more than two years in exile to escape a long prison term. Mohamed Nasheed travelled by boat parade from the airport island to the national capital, Male, where he was welcomed by his party members and supporters. At a news conference, he criticized outgoing President Yameen Abdul Gayoom’s administration as “authoritarian” and said it had put the country under a heavy debt burden.
Yameen’s government had signed a number of infrastructure projects funded by China, which Nasheed had criticized before as akin to a land grab. Nasheed also said there was enough evidence of alleged corruption and misrule against Yameen to prosecute him. Nasheed was sentenced to 13 years in jail in 2015 after being convicted of terrorism for ordering the arrest of a top judge in 2012 while he was president. His trial was criticized internationally for lack of due process, along with those of many other political opponents jailed by Yameen’s administration.
He was offered asylum in Britain when he travelled there for medical treatment on leave from prison. He was recently in Sri Lanka. Nasheed’s return follows Yameen’s defeat in the Sept. 23 presidential election by Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, the candidate of Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party.
Since Yameen’s defeat, courts have freed or granted bail to some of the jailed officials.
The Supreme Court earlier this week suspended Nasheed’s prison sentence until it reviews his conviction at the request of the prosecutor general, a move to prevent his arrest on arrival. Two other people _ an opposition party leader and a former vice president who was Yameen’s running mate in the 2013 presidential election _ earlier returned from exile.
Nasheed had been a pro-democracy activist during decades of autocratic rule and was elected president in the country’s first multiparty election in 2008. He gained international attention as an environment crusader, holding a Cabinet meeting underwater to highlight the dangers that rising sea levels caused by global warming pose to the archipelago nation composed of coral masses just a few meters (feet) above sea level.
He resigned the presidency in 2012 amid public protests against his order to arrest the senior judge and lost the 2013 election to Yameen.
Also on Thursday, president-elect Solih’s nominee was elected speaker with an overwhelming majority, in the first test of strength in the Maldives parliament since the election.
Qasim Ibrahim, who is a coalition partner with Solih won the vote 62 votes for him and 16 against in the 85-member parliament. Ibrahim has returned from exile in Germany after Solih’s election victory.