With the recent judgement of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention that the jailing of former President Nasheed of the Maldives is indeed illegal under international law, it is becoming clear that there is more to the continued detention of this climate change and democracy hero than the mere ambition of an autocratic regime to stifle dissent and opposition.
When he was president, Mohamed Nasheed became internationally recognised for his leadership on climate change. He stood up to the big powers at the ill-fated Copenhagen climate conference in 2009, and captured headlines beforehand with the brilliantly executed PR stunt of holding a meeting of his cabinet underwater to symbolise the threat sea level rise poses to the Maldives islands.
"As president, Nasheed not only angered the autocrats with his commitment to democracy and freedom of speech, but he also threatened the financial interests of the powerful cartel of oil traders who stood to lose billions if the country ditched diesel and converted to solar. What better way for the interests of the fossil fuel industry to be protected than for the lead oil trader to help orchestrate a coup and then assume the presidency himself?"
But Nasheed’s commitment to climate change ran far deeper than mere PR. As his advisor on climate change between 2009 and the coup that unseated him in February 2012, I worked with Nasheed to formulate a plan for carbon neutrality: the Maldives would lead the way not just with words but by becoming the world’s first carbon-neutral nation. Our first act would be to decommission the dirty diesel generators that were the sole source of electricity on each island and replace them with a 100% solar economy.
We will never know whether the plan would have worked. Nasheed was the Maldives’ first democratically-elected head of state, but the former dictatorship never accepted its loss of power when he took over after free elections in October 2008. Forging an alliance with Islamic extremists, the former dictator’s half-brother Abdulla Yameen helped orchestrate a violent coup on 7 February 2012 that forced Nasheed to resign. Yameen then took over as president following a rigged election process. In February this year Yameen threw former president Nasheed into jail on absurd charges of ‘terrorism’ and had him sentenced to 13 years in prison.
Nasheed was not the only one targeted. Currently every opposition leader in the country is either in jail or threatened with it, and 1,700 people who have joined opposition pro-democracy protests are also facing imprisonment. The offices of independent media outlets have been ransacked, journalists have been ‘disappeared’, and – most recently – a lawyer acting for the imprisoned Nasheed was stabbed in the head in broad daylight in the Maldives’ capital Male’.
Nasheed’s renewed fight for freedom has again caught the headlines, assisted by his stellar team of human rights lawyers, Amal Clooney, Jared Genser of Freedom Now and Ben Emmerson QC, all of whom have taken on his case pro-bono. Bizarrely the legal team working for the dictatorship is headed by none other than Cherie Blair, working for an undisclosed sum. At a London press conference earlier this month , in which Amal Clooney announced the favourable UN verdict, Nasheed’s wife Laila Ali mounted a bitter attack on Blair, noting that she “worked tirelessly to ensure that he [Nasheed] would spend the next 13 years of his life in prison”.
Unnoticed by the media however is the fact that as well as suppressing democracy the new Maldives dictatorship has also ditched Nasheed’s climate change targets. Out goes the carbon neutral plan, in comes a new target for tripling emissions by 2030 and importing huge amounts more diesel to generate electricity on the islands. While other coral atoll nations such as the Marshall Islands and Kiribati have submitted ambitious plans to the UN climate body in advance of the upcoming Paris conference, the Maldives has offered a mere 10% cut below ‘business as usual’ by 2030 – one of the weakest targets in the entire world.
There may be good reasons why the increasingly autocratic President Yameen is not interested in climate change: he has announced plans instead to drill for oil underneath the Maldives pristine coral reefs. A coalition of 20 environmental NGOs have pleaded the plan to be halted, but in August last year a German research ship – ironically in the area to supposedly study global warming’s effect on the oceans – was recruited to conduct the first seismic oil explorations.
And Yameen has demonstrated a past fondness for oil. During the long-running dictatorship of his half-brother Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, Yameen was allegedly involved in sanctions-busting oil trading with the Burmese military dictatorship, a lucrative exercise that was estimated during a subsequent investigation to have netted $800 million for a shadowy company partly owned by the Maldives State Trading Organisation – of which Yameen was then chairman. As president, Yameen is once again in control of what remains a fully nationalised oil industry, and stands to gain huge amounts if oil drilling goes ahead.
All of this adds up to a powerful motivation for keeping Nasheed in jail. As president, Nasheed not only angered the autocrats with his commitment to democracy and freedom of speech, but he also threatened the financial interests of the powerful cartel of oil traders who stood to lose billions if the country ditched diesel and converted to solar. What better way for the interests of the fossil fuel industry to be protected than for the lead oil trader to help orchestrate a coup and then assume the presidency himself?
With the opposition muzzled or imprisoned, and pro-democracy protests met with extreme violence by the police, the onus has now shifted on to the international community to enforce the judgement of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. Amal Clooney and her team are pressing for the immediate imposition of targeted sanctions and travel bans on individuals who are key supporters of the regime. Asset seizures might also be an important tactic given the millions generated via oil trading and the Maldives’ lucrative luxury tourism business.