Joan Smith:The sea rises and democracy falls in the Maldives



The Maldives is one of the world's upmarket holiday destinations, an archipelago of turquoise lagoons and palm-fringed beaches. Until four years ago, visitors were unwittingly supporting a nasty dictatorship where beatings and torture were routine. Then, in autumn 2008, the dictator, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, was turfed out in the country's first democratic elections. The new president was my friend Mohamed Nasheed, a former political prisoner who soon began making a name for himself on the international stage.

I first got to know Anni, as he's known, around 10 years ago. I met him in London and found him remarkably resilient for someone who had spent six years in jail, 18 months of it in solitary confinement. He is passionate about human rights, with a dry sense of humour and an apparently endless store of patience which convinced him that his Maldivian Democratic Party would one day triumph over the regime.

When he became president, Anni quickly established himself as an environmental campaigner, achieving almost rock-star status. He forced the world to recognise that the archipelago, which is only two metres above sea level, faces extinction because of global warming. His government set up a health system, pensions and the country's first university. It struggled to modernise the judiciary, attracting criticism for some of its actions, but promoted the country as a functioning Muslim democracy. Last year, David Cameron even described Anni as his new best friend. But less than two months ago, Anni was deposed in an alleged coup.

Anni says he was forced at gunpoint to resign on television by military officers loyal to the old regime. He was placed under house arrest and the vice-president, Waheed Hassan, took over. As soon as Anni was released, he led a protest march in the capital, Male, where he was beaten up along with his party's interim chair, Moosa Manik. According to Amnesty International, another protest march earlier this month was violently broken up by the police, who used batons and pepper spray.

Outside the Maldives, Anni's friends have watched events unfold with horror. To begin with, the abrupt change of government didn't receive as much attention as it deserved because it was stage-managed to look as though Anni had resigned of his own will. But a campaign to restore democracy is gathering pace: the EU has expressed concern about political unrest and the Commonwealth has called for early elections.

Now there's worse news for Hassan's government in the shape of a documentary called The Island President. The film follows Anni's career, showing him in the Maldives, where he witnesses coastal erosion, and moving easily among world leaders. It's an affectionate portrait of an unassuming man, who suddenly finds himself taking calls from prime ministers and uses it to force climate change up the world's agenda.

At the London premiere on Thursday, I was torn between enjoyment and anxiety, pleased to see Anni on the screen but worried about his safety and that of democracy campaigners in the Maldives. Earlier this month, Anni wrote an impassioned article and I don't think I can do better than give him the final word: "The world has a duty not to sit passively by as the flame of democracy – for which Maldivians have fought so long – is snuffed out in our islands once again."

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