The first democratically elected president of the Maldives has begun a 13-year jail sentence amid calls for protests and an international tourism boycott of the paradise islands.
Mohamed Nasheed, a hero of the climate change movement and friend of David Cameron’s, was found guilty of terrorism in a trial that his supporters described as politically motivated.
His conviction - for the arrest of a judge in 2012 - comes three years after he resigned as president in what he has described as a military coup.
In a statement, Nasheed, the leader of the opposition, asked the people of the Maldives “to take all of your lives in your hands and to go out onto the streets in protest”.
Sir Richard Branson, a friend of the former president, led calls for a boycott. “[I] Urge everyone worldwide who believes in freedom to boycott the Maldives until true democracy is restored,” he tweeted.
Current president Abdullah Yameen beat Mr Nasheed in disputed elections in 2013. His half-brother Maumoon Gayoom was the oppressive leader whose 30-year rule ended when Nasheed won democratic elections in 2008.
Nasheed, who had been imprisoned and tortured under Gayoom’s regime, gained global fame in 2009 when he hosted an underwater cabinet meeting before the UN climate change conference in Copenhagen. Prime Minister David Cameron later described him as “my new best friend”.
Amnesty International called his conviction a “travesty of justice”, adding in a statement: “This trial has been flawed from start to finish, and the conviction is unsound… the government of the Maldives has proceeded with this sham trial for political reasons.”
After Mr Nasheed's arrest on 22 February, his lawyers resigned in protest, claiming they had no time to prepare a proper defence. Two of the three judges in the case had acted as state witnesses against him, Amnesty added.
Prosecutors and Maldives government ministers stood by the verdict, denying political influence and saying that Mr Nasheed was free to appeal.
Mark Lynas, the environmental campaigner and former climate adviser to President Nasheed, said he feared for the stability of the Maldives, while also calling for global action.
“It’s incumbent on the international community to take strong action, including suspending the Maldives from the Commonwealth,” he told the Independent on Sunday. “I also don’t think people should fly to these paradise islands and sun themselves on the beaches when we know the leader of the opposition is rotting in a jail cell.”
Luxury tourism accounts for almost a third of the Maldivian GDP. The UK government issued a travel advisory to visitors to the country after Mr Nasheed’s arrest.
Hugo Swire, a Minister of State for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, said yesterday: “The Government of Maldives must ensure that former President Nasheed is accorded full legal rights throughout any appeal.”
In an interview with The Independent last November, Mr Nasheed warned against the growing threat to democracy of Islamic extremism in the country, where he says evidence links Isis to radicalised gangs, and the gangs to the government.
Ahmed Rilwan, a journalist in the capital Male, was abducted by gang members last August and remains missing, presumed killed.
“We have big issues with the democratic gains that we made during the last ten years slipping away,” Mr Nasheed said.Reuse content