UPDATE: On March 13, the Maldivian regime found Mohamed Nasheed guilty of “terrorism” and sentenced him to 13 years in prison.
Once again, some combination of cowardice and incompetence at the U.S. State Department is jeopardizing the freedom — and possibly the life — of a dynamic, progressive Muslim leader in the global south. Mohamed Nasheed, who was once the elected president of the Maldives, the Indian Ocean island nation, has been violently dragged into a courtroom to face a show trial that might end with him going back to prison, this time for 15 years.
Once again, most of the outside world has expressed outrage, including an eloquent article by a conservative British candidate for Parliament. Once again, the Obama administration is conspicuous by its reticence, saying nothing beyond a couple of bland, boilerplate statements.
We have been here before. In late 2013, I reported how the old regime in the Maldives, after first toppling Nasheed in a coup, illegally postponed new elections three times to thwart his reelection effort. The regime’s anti-democratic tactics prompted a storm of international protest; Canada’s (conservative) foreign minister even marched in a pro-democracy demonstration in New York.
But the Obama administration said little, even though Mohamed Nasheed is exactly the sort of popular, nonviolent, principled Muslim leader that America should fall all over itself to support. Many Maldivians are fluent in English, so back then I asked the Twitter community at #Maldives to try and explain the embarrassing silence from Washington. Several responded that the U.S. had been negotiating a Status of Forces agreement that might have included a military base in the island nation, and may not have wanted to antagonize the old regime.
America apparently got nothing for selling out the brave Maldivian democratic movement. In early 2014, after the old regime was safely “reelected,” it rejected the military arrangement with the U.S. Is it possible that the State Department’s continued cowardice is a renewed effort to get a base?
Mohamed Nasheed is also extraordinary because he speaks out forcefully on climate change. He has continually issued passionate warnings that global warming is causing rising sea levels that threaten the very existence of his country. The Maldives consists of 200 populated islands, which are an average of only 4 feet in height. Nasheed was one of the stars of the 2009 Copenhagen climate change conference, and a terrific documentary film called The Island President chronicled his pro-environmental efforts, which included holding a cabinet meeting underwater, in scuba gear, to dramatize the danger to the Maldives’ 300,000 people.
Nasheed now faces up to 15 years in prison. The British conservative candidate, Benedict Rogers, proposes sanctions targeting the overseas assets of the regime’s leaders. The U.S. knows how to impose such sanctions; it just applied them to a group of Venezuelan officials. When will it finally act in the Maldives?