A RECENT survey conducted by holiday agency Agoda.com asked 15,000 customers to choose their “dream honeymoon resort”.
The Maldives, a nation in the Indian Ocean made up of some 1,200 islands and atolls, came out on top with a resounding 20.3% of the vote.
Tourism is big business in the Maldives. Last year, well over one million visitors came to soak up the sun and sea. It has a population of around 350,000. Just under half of those visiting were from Europe and many were Irish. For approximately €1,500 you can fly from Dublin and spend a week in what is undoubtedly a paradise.
But away from the swathes of white sand and palm trees, is a country of volatile politics and human rights abuses led by an increasingly oppressive regime.
At a nighttime court session held last week, in the capital Malé, Sheikh Imran Abdulla, leader of the moderate Islamic Adhaalath Party was convicted on terrorism charges. His crime? A speech against the government of President Abdulla Yameen, delivered at a rally last May which, the Maldivian government claimed, incited protesters “to confront police”. Some 175 of those attending the rally were arrested along with Abdulla.
At his trial, the defendant’s lawyer claimed that his client had instead “taken all steps to prevent violence”. But this was not good enough for the criminal court and, as it stands, Abdulla will spend the next 12 years in prison. The Adhaalath Party leader’s sentence is just one more example of what appears to be a return to despotism.
“Yameen is becoming more dictatorial by the day,” says Dr Azra Naseem, a Maldivian post- doctoral Research Fellow in the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University.
“The powers of the state are no longer separate; all three are under control of the executive. Yameen’s party has a parliamentary majority which is used to amend the constitution, or pass new legislation, to suit the party’s dictatorial ambitions. The country’s lack of judicial independence is now infamous, and has been criticised by almost every international organisation and authority on justice.”
In his protest speech, Abdulla had called for the release of Mohamed Nasheed, a secularist and the country’s first democratically elected president.
Nasheed came to office after a 2008 election that saw him win over 53% of the vote in a run-off. His opponent, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, half- brother of the current president, had been in power since 1978 and had ruled the country as a personal fiefdom.
When in 2011, Nasheed, ordered the military to arrest a judge, who he accused of blocking corruption cases against members of the former president’s government, it led to rioting.
Nasheed’s opponents seized the opportunity, accusing him of abusing his power by calling in the army to do the job of the police. Weeks later, Nasheed was out of office in what most observers agree was a coup lead by supporters of the Gayoom family.
In 2013, the country held a presidential election. Nasheed was defeated in a run-off. Shortly thereafter he was arrested on trumped up charges of terrorism and last March, sentenced to 13 years in prison.
“There are over 300 officially accepted definitions of terrorism in international discourse,” says Dr Naseem. “None of them include an order issued by an incumbent president to arrest a sitting judge as an act of terrorism.”
Curiously, the government allowed Nasheed to travel to London last month for specialised medical treatment. While there he highlighted his country’s current situation. Some governments are listening. India and the US have expressed concern and are calling on all parties to get around the table.
Abdulla Yameen seems unmoved. If anything his grip is tightening. Late last September, Maldivians woke to the news that an explosion on a boat had almost killed both he and his wife.
Rumours circulated that the attempt on his life came from within his own Progressive Party.
Yameen’s vice president, Ahmed Adeeb, who was away on government business at the time of the blast, was arrested on his return and charged with the attempted assassination. Adeeb has since been impeached and charged with plotting to kill the president. This is despite an FBI investigation which found no evidence of explosives on the boat.
If convicted, Adeeb faces up to 25 years in prison. After the event, and in a demonstration of paranoia worthy of Joseph Stalin, Yameen forced the members of his ruling party to pledge allegiance to him. But while international pressure is being applied to the president, he does hold a trump card — extremism.
For most Maldivians, life is a far cry from the ideal presented by travel agencies. Malé, the capital, is a densely populated city of over 100,000. Many young men are out of work. Drug dealers and gangs vie with one another in an area of just six square kilometres. There is another factor, the Maldives, away from the resorts of course, is an already religiously zealous state.
The law prohibits the practice by Maldivian citizens of any religion other than Islam, and the constitution precludes non-Muslims from citizenship, voting or holding public office. On top of all this, money to build houses of worship and schools has poured in from abroad resulting in a growth of conservative strands of Islam.
Radicalism has found a foothold here. Recently, violence against moderate preachers and campaigners has resulted in death. Last September a rally in support of militant religious groups marched defiantly through the streets of the capital and it is estimated that since 2013 between fifty and 100 young men have left the capital to fight in religious wars abroad.
As a consequence, Yameen, just months after the lifting of a 60-year moratorium on the death penalty, introduced tough new terrorism laws earlier this year.
According to the new legislation, the government can obtain a court order to fit suspected religious militant sympathisers with electronic tags.
Suspected sympathisers can also be prevented from travelling abroad. Most worryingly perhaps, the new laws allow the president to declare any group a terrorist organisation and it is this that is being used against Yameen’s opponents.
“The Anti-Terror Bill passed this year has yet to be applied to any of the would-be, or has-been, Jihadists,” says Dr Naseem.
“So far, the only use made of that piece of legislation is crushing dissent.”
There is trouble in paradise.