Not every ex-president forced into exile would have the chutzpah to allow himself to be filmed laughing and shrieking with delight as he takes part in an impromptu office-chair derby. But then Mohamed Nasheed, the 49-year-old former president of the Maldives, and the country’s first to have been democratically elected, is no ordinary ex-president.
The extraordinary footage of Nasheed flying down a corridor on his five-wheeled steed was shot last month during behind-the-scenes fun and games at the British literary event Hay Festival, where he gave a talk about the Arab Spring, and was quickly leaked to the media.
Nasheed had good reason to celebrate. Having fled apparently trumped-up terrorism charges in the Maldives earlier this year, he had just been granted political asylum in the United Kingdom.
On Tuesday, however, he had rather less to laugh about when his country’s supreme court upheld the 13-year prison sentence hanging over his head.
The Maldives government, his UK legal team said after the ruling, “has made it clear that it intends to use its court system to silence opponents, including Nasheed and every other opposition leader”. The ruling was “the final rubber stamp on a corrupt trial, and confirms that the constitutional guarantee of due process is not worth the paper it is written on in the Maldives”.
But whether or not Nasheed is ever able to return to his own country, he can perhaps comfort himself with the thought that he has become the cause célèbre of the UK’s intelligentsia, impressed by a former public schoolboy who not only knows how to party, but also whose principled battles on behalf of democracy and the environment have earned him the sobriquet “The Mandela of the Maldives”.
If that sounds a little grandiose, Nasheed’s own website isn’t bashful in proclaiming him “a figurehead for the promotion of human rights and democracy in Islamic countries, and an international icon for action against climate change”.
Mohamed “Anni” Nasheed was born into a middle-class family in Malé, the capital of the Maldives, on May 17, 1967. He attended schools locally and in Sri Lanka before being sent to England at the age of 14 to finish his secondary education at Dauntsey’s, a coeducational boarding school in Wiltshire.
His next stop after A-levels was Liverpool, where he pursued maritime studies at John Moores University, but he wasn’t to pursue a career in his country’s all-important seafaring sector. Today, the university lists him as one of its notable alumni, claiming that “Nasheed’s political journey began at LJMU”.
By 1991, Nasheed had begun writing articles for Sangu, a Maldivian political magazine, highly critical of the country's long-established regime. His outspoken journalism saw him arrested and, he would later claim, tortured, and he spent six months under house arrest before going to prison, where he endured 18 months in solitary confinement. In all, he claims, he was arrested 20 times by the old regime.
After his release, he kept up his criticism of the government, and on April 3, 1996, he was sentenced to a further two years in prison after writing an article suggesting that the Maldives’ 1993 presidential and 1994 general elections had been fixed. Days after the sentence was passed, Nasheed was classified by Amnesty International as a prisoner of conscience.
The international high profile did his political career no harm. In 1999, he was elected as a member of parliament for Malé, but his troubles were far from over. Shortly afterwards, he was accused of stealing state papers – a “politically motivated” charge, according to the BBC at the time – and forfeited his seat.
It was then that Nasheed’s fate became entwined with that of 19-year-old prison inmate Hassan Evan Naseem, a drug offender who in September 2003 was allegedly beaten to death by guards in a Maldives jail. Nasheed demanded a doctor examine Naseem’s body, and the subsequent revelation that he had been tortured before his death triggered widespread riots.
Between Nasheed's return to the Maldives in 1991 and fleeing to the UK in self-imposed exile in 2003, The Guardian reported in 2012, Nasheed had been "jailed 16 separate times [and] missed the births of his two daughters", Meera and Zaaya.
In London in November 2003, Nasheed formed the Maldivian Democratic Party, and the following year was granted political-refugee status in the UK.
Amid signs that the regime was relaxing its grip, he again returned to the Maldives in 2005. His MDP and other political parties were recognised by the government as legitimate, but while campaigning to raise support, Nasheed was arrested during a protest in August 2005 and charged with terrorism for “inciting violence against the president”. The charges evaporated, however, and in November 2008, after democratic reforms introduced by President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom in the face of increasing public demand, Nasheed successfully ran for the presidency, winning 54 per cent of the vote, ousting the man who had ruled the Maldives for 30 years.
The new era began well. In October 2009, Nasheed won international attention and acclaim, becoming a darling of the climate-change movement, when he staged the world’s first underwater cabinet meeting to highlight the threat of global warming to his low-lying state of 1,000-plus islands. That December’s UN climate change conference in Copenhagen had to succeed, he said, otherwise “we are going to die”, and he committed his country to achieving carbon neutrality within 10 years.
Soon, however, Nasheed and the Maldives would have more immediate problems. "The threat from the ocean suddenly seemed to recede," noted The New York Times, "as a more immediate battle unfolded in the streets of the capital, Malé, with security forces and supporters of Mr Nasheed clashing."
It became increasingly clear that the opposition would do all it could to sabotage the work of Nasheed’s government. In 2011, British prime minister David Cameron may have described the Maldives’ leader as “my new best friend”, but back home, Nasheed was finding himself increasingly friendless. After a series of demonstrations against the new government, matters came to head when the military joined forces with the protesters, and on February 7, 2012, Nasheed quit. “It will be better for the country in the current situation if I resign,” he said in a statement. “I don’t want to run the country with an iron fist.”
The following day, in an article for The New York Times, he claimed he had been the victim of a coup, aided and abetted by his own vice-president, and that his resignation had been at gunpoint.
Within a month of being ousted, Nasheed was appearing, somewhat bizarrely, on The Late Show in the United States, joking with veteran presenter David Letterman as part of a promotional tour to promote The Island President, a documentary about his environmental efforts that carried the optimistic tagline: "Can this man save the world?".
Over the next three years, Nasheed was subjected to a surreal series of arrests, on various charges. “One time they said it was terrorism, another time they said it was acting against the constitution, another time they said it was alcohol,” he later recalled.
Finally, in February 2015, he was charged under anti-terrorism laws and sentenced to 13 years in prison for the “abduction” of a judge, whose arrest on charges of corruption he had ordered in 2012, while president.
The trial, objected Amnesty International, had been “flawed from start to finish, and the conviction is unsound”. The charges, said the UN, had been politically motivated. John Kerry, the US secretary of state, said Nasheed had been jailed “without due process” and that he feared for the future of democracy in the Maldives. But by now, Nasheed had picked up a valuable ally, the British-Lebanese human rights lawyer Amal Alamuddin, wife of George Clooney.
Almost a year into his sentence, in January this year, Nasheed was unexpectedly released on licence and allowed to travel to the UK for spinal surgery, on the condition that he return to the Maldives after his treatment to serve the rest of his sentence.
But within days of his arrival in the UK, Alamuddin accompanied Nasheed and his wife to 10 Downing Street for a meeting with his old “best friend”, David Cameron. Nasheed was seeking refugee status in the UK, which he was granted by the British government in May.
“[Current Maldives leader] President Yameen has jailed every opposition leader and cracked down on anyone who dares to oppose or criticise him,” Nasheed said in a statement. “In the past year, freedom of the press, expression and assembly have all been lost. Given the slide towards authoritarianism in the Maldives, myself and other opposition politicians feel we have no choice but to work from exile for now.”
Following Tuesday’s decision by the Maldives’ high court to uphold Nasheed’s 13-year prison sentence, “for now” could prove to be some time. On the plus side, he should have plenty of opportunity to hone his chair-racing skills.
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