It was billed as a battle of legal heavyweights over the fate of a former President. On one side, working for the Maldives government for an undisclosed fee, Cherie Blair QC, whose firm has dealt with a string of autocratic regimes. On the other side Amal Clooney, part of a team working pro bono to secure the release from jail of Mohamed Nasheed, the country’s first democratically elected leader.
Ms Blair, known professionally as Cherie Booth, has personally lobbied British government officials in the case. Her partner at Omnia Strategy, the barrister Toby Cadman, has led her work for the Maldives, which stands accused of unlawfully imprisoning Mr Nasheed. In October, the UN found that the terror charges brought against him, and his 13-year prison sentence, were flawed and politically motivated.
In June, Mr Cadman sat next to Dunya Maumoon, the Maldives Foreign Minister and daughter of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, whose 30-year rule ended in 2008 with Mr Nasheed’s election. At a press conference to announce the contract with Omnia Strategy, which Ms Blair chairs, he praised the government’s commitment to democracy despite the criticism of the international community, which he said was “not constructive”.
Mr Nasheed was arrested in February after the disputed detention of a judge while he was President in 2012. He resigned soon after in what he described as an effective military coup, and lost disputed elections the following year to the current President Abdulla Yameen, who is the stepbrother of the former dictator.
Mr Cadman also said in the press conference that Mr Nasheed’s trial “was in accordance with international legal standards” and appeared to suggest his sentence was lenient. “In the UK, it would constitute an offence of kidnapping and false imprisonment for which the maximum penalty is life imprisonment,” he added.
Yet just three months earlier, the barrister expressed a very different view of Mr Nasheed’s plight, and the integrity of the Maldives government. In an intriguing twist in the story of the ongoing legal tussle, The Independent can reveal a proposal written by Ms Blair’s partner and sent to Mr Nasheed’s office in the period between the former President’s arrest and conviction.
In the draft agreement, dated 4 March this year and offered as a joint proposal with BTP Advisers, a London-based lobbying firm, Mr Cadman offered “professional legal and public advocacy services” as well as “the development of a long-term lobbying strategy” to the man he and Ms Blair are now helping to condemn to years in jail.
“Mr Nasheed took the Maldives on the first step toward true democracy,” the lawyer wrote under his own company’s letterhead as part of a proposal which, The Independent understands, also separately referred to Ms Blair. “His arrest and trial is a politically motivated show trial aimed at cementing further an already authoritarian regime,” added Mr Cadman, who denies that Ms Blair’s name was mentioned in the proposal from his company.
In words that might further trouble Ms Blair’s current client, not least Ms Maumoon, Mr Cadman wrote: “The international community cannot allow the Maldives to drift towards a pariah state – there are already clear signs of a military dictatorship, rising Islamic fundamentalism and the abuse of women. This is a return to the dark decades of dictatorship under Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.”
For an undisclosed monthly fee plus expenses, Mr Cadman proposed to lobby the UN, the US and UK governments, and the European Union – all of which have since condemned his current client. He said he could place opinion articles in “key international newspapers” including The Independent, and comment himself on the “worsening authoritarianism in the Maldives” on TV news channels.
A separate social media campaign would “urge an international boycott of the Maldives and its resorts until Mr Nasheed is released, using the hashtags #freeAni and #paradiselost”. (“Anni” is an affectionate nickname for Mr Nasheed). Yet, while later working for the other side, Mr Cadman and Ms Blair dismissed calls for sanctions as “inappropriate and unjustified”.
Mr Nasheed’s office received the Cadman proposal via Charlie Tarr, a lobbyist at BTP Advisers, whose past clients have included Rwanda and Azerbaijan. In a 2011 investigation for The Independent, undercover reporters working for the Bureau of Investigative Journalism filmed BTP’s managing partner Mark Pursey boasting how the firm had created an “attack website” targeted at those who “over-criticised” the Rwandan government over “who did what in the genocide”.
Mr Tarr, who joined BTP in 2010, insisted on sending Mr Cadman’s proposal, as well as BTP’s companion proposal, to Mr Nasheed’s office by file transfer on Skype. The pair had made first contact by phone. “We think it is best to perhaps share our plan with you via Skype rather than email, for obvious reasons,” he wrote. BTP has declined to clarify what those reasons were.
Mr Cadman’s proposal under his own firm, the International Forum for Democracy and Human Rights, does not mention Omnia Strategy, which Ms Blair founded in 2011. Mr Cadman joined Omnia in 2013 and is one of only two partners working under Ms Blair. Mr Cadman strongly denies the suggestion that Ms Blair’s name was invoked during the joint-proposal period.
When it became clear Mr Nasheed’s office could only employ a team pro bono, the Cadman/Tarr proposal was not pursued. Mr Nasheed subsequently appointed Amal Clooney, as well as Jared Genser, a Washington-based attorney, and Ben Emmerson QC, a London lawyer.
In a further twist, BTP also later emerged as a lobbyist for the Maldives government. In October, one of the firm’s team based in Paris offered interviews with Ms Maumoon to media including The Independent, which challenged her record in a report about the growing political chaos on the islands.
A spokesperson for Mr Nasheed’s legal team said: “It’s quite surprising that [Mr Cadman] would pitch both sides in the same dispute. And the fact that he pitched the government having made disparaging comments about it to Mr Nasheed is even more surprising.”
The former President’s office is preparing a complaint to the Bar Council, which regulates British barristers. The council declined to comment on an individual case.
Mr Pursey denied any wrongdoing. He said BTP Advisers never had a contract with the Maldives government, and that its work for Omnia Strategy on the case ended at the start of this month. The firm had not had direct contact with the government when it arranged interviews with Ms Maumoon, he added: “We passed on enquiries to Omnia and they would have arranged them.”
In emails sent to The Independent on 6 November, BTP’s account director Albane de Rochebrune said that Mr Tarr was in Malé, the Maldives capital, and asked The Independent to submit in advance written questions for Ms Maumoon so “that I can forward to the minister”.
Mr Pursey insisted that BTP Advisers never mentioned Ms Blair or Omnia Strategy in any of its correspondence with Mr Nasheed’s team. He added in a statement: “The document was drafted entirely with information and research based on what was publicly available and in the public domain at the time.”
Responding in a private capacity, Mr Cadman also denied any wrongdoing. He said he had disclosed to the Maldives government and his colleagues at Omnia Strategy that he had previously proposed to work for Mr Nasheed. He added: “At no stage were any confidential details discussed that would cause me to be conflicted. A general proposal was submitted through BTP but we received no response and held no further discussions.”
Mr Cadman declined to confirm that Omnia was still working for the Maldives government, which said this week it was “concerned” after the European Parliament called for sanctions to be imposed against officials and businesses in the country. The Maldives foreign ministry did not respond to questions. Omnia Strategy did not respond separately.
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