Tourism officials describe the Maldives as "the sunny side of life," but for those of us who live there, an archipelago nation of 1,200 coral islands off the southern tip of India, there is a dark side to paradise. This weekend, pro-democracy activists hijacked a government tourism campaign, tweeting that for its inhabitants, the "sunny side of life" is laced with blood, tear gas and brutal police crackdowns.
I was fortunate to be voted into office as the Maldives' first democratically elected president in 2008, ending 30 years of one-man rule by former president Gayoom. But in February this year, I resigned from office, following a police and military mutiny and threats from armed soldiers that they would harm me, my family, and my supporters if I did not step down within the hour. My Vice President, Mohamed Waheed Hassan, who I believe had prior knowledge of this coup d'état, quickly assumed office and stacked his administration with figures from the country's authoritarian past.
Since February, the Maldives has been in a political tailspin: the new regime has launched a violent crackdown, arresting over 700 pro-democracy activists who have been protesting for early elections and the restoration of democratic rule; Amnesty International has condemned the use of cruel, inhuman and degrading punishments against detainees, particularly women; while Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists has decried an erosion of press freedom.
The regime has even arrested witnesses, including Members of Parliament and a former police intelligence chief, who have testified before a Commission of National Inquiry tasked with investigating February's coup. The European Union, India, and the Commonwealth, which represents 54 countries, have all demanded early elections but Waheed refuses to heed the will of the international community, or his own people.
The nation's economy has fared little better than its politics. My administration, with the help of the IMF, managed to reduce the budget deficit from 22% of GDP in 2009 to 9% last year. But since the coup, and the ensuing chaos on the streets, tourists numbers have fallen while Waheed has been forced to reward those who put him in power, with huge tax breaks for wealthy businessmen and fat pay raises for the security forces. As a result, the country is sliding towards bankruptcy, while vital public services such as universal health insurance are being slashed.
On Sunday, Waheed's regime announced it would press criminal charges against me for ordering the arrest of a judge in January. The judge in question, Abdullah Mohamed, stood accused of abuse of office, corruption, political bias and, in one notorious incident, instructed a small girl to act out the sex abuse she had suffered, in open court and in front of the accused. Mohamed was detained by the military after he quashed his own police arrest warrant, and used his position on the bench to halt an official investigation into his own misconduct. I know of no democracy that would passively condone such unlawful actions by a judge.
Waheed's Home Minister, Mohamed Jameel, who promised shortly after the coup that I would spend the rest of my life behind bars, has described the charges against me as "historic" and said it is the government's "first step towards national healing." I was recently elected as my party's candidate for the next presidential election. But if I am convicted of these charges -- which is a given, considering the political bias of the judiciary -- I will conveniently be barred from standing against Waheed or his allies in any forthcoming poll.
The United Nations Human Rights Committee in Geneva, which last week grilled the Maldives on its poor human rights record, had this to say of the judiciary:
The Committee is deeply concerned about the state of the judiciary in the Maldives. The State has admitted that this body's independence is seriously compromised. The Committee has said the judiciary is desperately in need of more serious training, and higher standards of qualification... This must be done to guarantee just trials, and fair judgments for the people of Maldives.
I have been to prison before, during the long reign of former president Gayoom, whose children and allies now occupy high posts in the new government. During six years in Gayoom's jails, I was tortured twice, held in solitary confinement for 18 months and was prevented from witnessing the birth of my second child.
With the advent of these new charges, I face prison again. But I fear that the consequences for our democracy will be worse than for me personally. If Waheed succeeds in putting me behind bars, it will finalize the backsliding of democracy and set a dangerous precedent that permits the overt oppression of political opposition.
My party, the Maldivian Democratic Party, has debated for some weeks whether to call on tourists to boycott the Maldives, in order to stem the flow of money to the regime. But that increasingly seems like an irrelevant question: who would choose to holiday in a country where the beaches are drenched in blood and tears?
And just as tourists may decide to desert our country's beaches, so civil servants are choosing to quit the new president's administration. Since the February coup, the Maldives High Commissioner to London and her deputy resigned in disgust; the Ambassador to the United Nations quit live on Al Jazeera; while on Tuesday the Ambassador to the European Union renounced his position.
The Maldives is a small, far-flung country. There are few foreign embassies based here, and even fewer international journalists. As such, it is difficult for us to highlight just how bad things have become. I encourage the international media, diplomats and human rights organizations to visit the Maldives and conduct their own independent assessments of the situation. I also implore the international community to apply diplomatic pressure upon the regime to restore genuine democracy.
As Waheed's legitimacy sinks further with each passing week, and the country becomes increasingly unstable, I fear there can be one of only two outcomes: either Waheed recognises domestic and international pressure and agrees to hold early elections; or he resorts to increasingly desperate, unlawful and violent measures to maintain his grip on power.
I sincerely hope Waheed chooses to relent and hold early elections; not because my career or my presidency is of particular importance but because Maldivians, just like people everywhere, have the right to be ruled not through coercion, down the barrel of a gun, but peacefully, by popular consent via the ballot box. There can be no other source of a ruler's legitimacy.