Trouble in paradise: The darker side of the Maldives

Public lashings. Religious extremists seizing power. A gay blogger with his throat slashed. Few of the million annual visitors to the Maldives will recognise the hellish side of these heavenly islands

Malé

Hilath Rasheed, the first openly gay and secular blogger in the Maldives, was about to walk through his front door one afternoon last year when he felt the box-cutter slice through his neck.

It took a moment to notice the blood pouring down his shirt. As his attackers sauntered off, Hilath staggered to the main road, clutching the loose skin over his throat with one hand. He managed to hitch a lift to hospital from a horrified motorcyclist. When a doctor in the emergency room asked him to move his hand away, a policeman and nurse fainted.

Following a miraculous recovery – doctors told him there was less than a 1 per cent chance of surviving such an attack – Hilath, 35, now lives in exile in Sri Lanka. He misses home, but a country where it is illegal to be non-Muslim and violent forms of religious fundamentalism are on the rise is no place for a homosexual secularist, he says.

"Extremism is the biggest threat my country faces," he said at a coffee shop in Colombo. "I was the first person to talk openly about homosexuality and religious freedom. People said I was brave, but often I think I was stupid."

Recent weeks have put a spotlight on Islamic fundamentalism in the Maldives after a 15-year-old girl who had been repeatedly raped by her stepfather was sentenced to 100 lashes for "fornication". A petition by the global advocacy group Avaaz has been signed by more than two million people demanding a tourist boycott until the flogging sentence is annulled.

In a rare interview at his home this week, President Mohammed Waheed told The Independent that he strongly opposes the court ruling. "This case should not have come to the courts at all. We see this girl as a victim," he said, adding that he has set up a committee to "understand what went wrong".

But that sits awkwardly with his recent decision to enter into a coalition with the religious Adhaalath party with elections to be held in September.

In a recent statement, Adhaalath backed the flogging, saying: "The purpose of penalties like these in Islamic shariah is to maintain order in society and to save it from sinful acts. We must turn a deaf ear to the international organisations which are calling to abolish these penalties."

Few of the million visitors to the Maldives each year see this side of the country. Most are whisked off to uninhabited resort islands before even setting foot on the crowded, alcohol-free capital of Malé. But the flogging case was not an isolated incident – Islamic hardliners, many trained in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, have become a shadowy but powerful presence here. They are blamed for a raid on the national museum last year in which a priceless collection of ancient Buddhist artefacts was destroyed. They are also thought to be behind the killing in October of a member of parliament who had spoken out against extremism. The police have made little progress in either case.

Religious conservatives were also the driving force behind weeks-long protests that toppled the country's first Democratic President, Mohamed Nasheed, in February last year.

Mr Nasheed's election in 2008 had ended 30 years of dictatorship, but his liberal, Western style was used by opponents to paint him as un-Islamic – even a secret Christian. Although Mr Nasheed resigned on live television, he later claimed it was done "with a gun to my head" and that he was the victim of a coup.

The new President says the changeover was perfectly legal. But eyebrows were raised when he gave ministerial posts to the son and daughter of the former dictator Maumoon Gayoom, and chose three religious leaders from the Adhaalath party for his cabinet, even though the party holds no seats in parliament.

Dr Waheed defended his choice this week, saying: "They want to ensure Islamic values are protected. We are all working with that in mind."

Out on one of the Maldives' 200 inhabited islands, Mr Nasheed and members of his Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) were back on the campaign trail last week, hoping they can regain through the ballot box what was lost to the mob.

On most islands he receives a hero's welcome, still the man who endured torture and years behind bars to bring democracy to the country. But this day's campaigning brought him to the island of Huraa: as stunning as the rest, with its turquoise waters, palm trees and white sands, but a stronghold of conservative forces.

Women greeted Mr Nasheed with a table of whisky bottles to imply his alleged love of alcohol. As he tried to address a small crowd in the town hall, they stood outside shrieking maniacally in an attempt to drown him out. Attempts to approach them for their views almost triggered a riot.

"They are screaming because they are losing and they know it," Mr Nasheed said at his hotel later that evening. "The coup has actually been a blessing in disguise. It exposed the mullahs. When they took jobs in government, it became obvious that they were just using religion for political ends. Hardly anyone is joining their rallies now."

It is not yet clear whether Mr Nasheed will be allowed to stand in September's elections. The current government and judiciary are doing their best to throw him in prison for his attempt to arrest a senior judge during the final days of his presidency. So far, his trial has been delayed by technicalities, but there are fears that more extreme measures are about to be deployed.

"There is no question that they wanted me dead during the coup," Mr Nasheed said. "They have unfinished business with me."

Such fears have put his supporters on edge. The islands have been gripped in recent weeks by news that a pair of alleged Armenian gangsters known as the Artur brothers have been photographed in the company of government ministers. Rumours quickly spread on social media that they were assassins sent to kill Mr Nasheed.

The brothers – who use the names Artur Sargsyan and Artur Margaryan – made international headlines in 2006 after being kicked out of Kenya amid allegations they had built a drug-trafficking empire with links to the highest government offices. They were deported only after pulling guns on customs officials in a Nairobi airport.

The Maldives government says they were in town to set up an investment company, and has hastily cancelled their permits in the wake of the media attention, but the episode showed how tense the political situation has become. "Everyone is worried about [Mr Nasheed's] safety," said Eva Abdulla, an MDP politician. "Things look calm, but if he is jailed or killed, there will be huge amounts of violence on the streets."

Despite their grievances, the MDP had its fair share of controversies during its time in power. The party was accused of bribing opposition MPs, sidelining critics and failing to clean up a deeply corrupt judiciary when it had the chance. Mr Nasheed's decision to arrest the judge was condemned internationally and only fuelled the protests that led to his downfall.

"It's true that we made mistakes," Ms Abdulla said. "We underestimated how much power the old regime still had and they managed to build a lot of anger against Nasheed. But the coup has jolted people out of their apathy. People have realised that their new democratic rights are quite precarious."

Mr Nasheed hopes that his focus on development will ultimately drown out the religious rhetoric.

He is particularly fond of his decision to allow locals to open guest houses on inhabited islands, which were banned. That is starting to break the monopoly enjoyed by millionaire resort owners, and bring tourist dollars into the rural economy for the first time.

He is also touting a financial-support scheme for single mothers – a particular hit because the Maldives happens to have the highest divorce rate in the world. "All the opposition can do is wave alcohol bottles at us," one of Mr Nasheed's campaign organisers said, walking away from the screaming women on Huraa. "We have actual policies, and eventually that will get through to people."

Unwelcome guests: The 'Artur Brothers'

The "Artur brothers" have caused quite a stir since they arrived in the Maldives last year.

Having reportedly registered the company "Artur Brothers World Connections" on the islands in October, it was not long before local media began to pick up on news reports from Kenya dating back to 2006 which alleged that the pair – who go by the names of Artur Sargsyan and Artur Margaryan – were involved in a drug-trafficking ring with links to some of Kenya's highest officials.

Their activities allegedly culminated in a dramatic exit from Kenya, in which they pulled guns on customs officials. Media investigations later said the pair had been so close to senior government officials that they were granted Kenyan citizenship, and even appointed deputy police commissioners. They have also been said to hold Armenian, Czech and French passports. This month, photos of the Arturs appeared online apparently in the company of the country's Defence Minister, Mohamed Nazim, and the Tourism Minister, Ahmed Adheeb.

Their presence coincided with a comment issued by the islands' ousted leader, Mohamed Nasheed, in which he expressed fear for his life. According to reports, in 2011 the former Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga accused the brothers of involvement in a failed assassination plot against leading opposition figures in 2005. The brothers are said to have told a press conference that they were merely businessmen, who had been approached by the opposition to fund a campaign for regime change in Kenya.

In a statement on his website dated 4 April this year, the President of the Maldives, Mohammed Waheed, said he had been told that the brothers were in the country in January but that they "had not broken any laws". It said the brothers "were being monitored by the police" and "the administration later decided to ask them to leave once their visa extension expired".

This week, Mr Adheeb told Minivan News that he had "advised them to leave peacefully and they agreed", adding that the pair "have now left". Police have since recommended that an investment licence issued to the brothers by the islands should be revoked.

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