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Why does the U.S. continue to betray a courageous, dynamic Muslim leader in the Maldives?

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Here are two facts:

* The United States government continues to remain astonishingly quiet about the rising dictatorship in the Indian Ocean island nation of Maldives, where the charismatic, democratic Muslim leader Mohamed Nasheed has been deposed, cheated out of an electoral comeback, jailed for 13 years and finally forced into exile.

* Last September, the Maldives regime hired the Podesta Group, an influential public relations firm that is close to the Democratic Party, to promote its image. John Podesta, brother of the Group’s chairman, Tony, has been Barack Obama’s Counselor and is the chairman of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

Is there any connection between these two facts?

This site has reported on the appalling US policy failure in the Maldives for several years. In November 2013, we indicted the State Department for not speaking out forcefully as the Maldives regime rigged the elections to prevent Mohamed Nasheed from making a comeback. Nasheed, a young journalist who had been jailed more than 20 times because he fought for democracy, was exactly the kind of dynamic, progressive Muslim that America should have supported enthusiastically. Even conservatives in Britain and elsewhere spoke out vigorously, but the United States confined itself to mild expressions of concern.

Then, last year, we wrote about the disgraceful show trial in which the regime, now headed by Abdulla Yameen, sentenced Nasheed to 13 years in prison for “terrorism.” Nasheed, who is sometimes called “the Mandela of the Maldives,” had accepted the results of the rigged 2013 election and led his Maldivian Democratic Party into nonviolent opposition, but the regime was still frightened by his popularity. Nasheed had also won worldwide renown among environmentalists. The Maldives consists of 200 populated islands that are an average of 4 feet above sea level, and Nasheed has campaigned effectively against the global warming and rising sea levels that could drown his nation. During his time as president (2008-2012), he even held a cabinet meeting underwater, in scuba gear, to dramatize the threat.

Once again, in Europe even conservatives spoke out eloquently against Nasheed’s unlawful imprisonment. It was almost certainly the pressure from Europe that forced the Maldives regime to allow Nasheed to travel to Britain for medical treatment, where he remains in de facto exile.

Once again, the United States was conspicuously quiet by contrast.

Meanwhile, the Maldives regime has even turned on its one-time allies, framing and jailing a former defense minister and impeaching its own vice president. The crackdown, however, does not extend to militant Islamic movements, which carry out increasingly violent attacks on the island nation with impunity and have probably murdered a brave journalist named Ahmed Rilwan, who disappeared in August 2014. An estimated 200 people have already left Maldives to join jihadist groups in the Middle East, which is the highest recruitment rate per capita in the world.

Why is the Podesta Group taking $300,000 to work for this regime — and against Mohamed Nasheed? Why won’t the State Department speak out more forcefully?

The United States could quickly reverse its disastrous and unprincipled policy. Jared Genser, an international lawyer who is representing Mohamed Nasheed, has called for targeted sanctions, aimed at senior Maldivian officials. The island nation is dependent on high-end tourism, and economic pressure directed at a handful of “tourism tycoons” could force the government to back down.

The United States has not hesitated to target sanctions against officials in Zimbabwe, Belarus and Burma. What is America waiting for?

James North
About James North

James North is a Mondoweiss Editor-at-Large, and has reported from Africa, Latin America, and Asia for four decades. He lives in New York City.

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3 Responses

  1. yourstruly
    yourstruly on March 2, 2016, 5:59 pm

    Something’s missing from this article. What is there about the islands that makes them of special interest to the U.S? Does our government plan to exploit the presence of the Maldives’ militant Islamic groups so as to cajole reluctant S. Pacific and Asian nations into granting it additional U.S. military bases?

    • lysias
      lysias on March 2, 2016, 7:13 pm

      Agreement with the UK allowing the U.S. to use Diego Garcia as a military base runs out in December 2016. Pressure has been mounting in the UK to allow the original inhabitants of Diego Garcia, who were forcibly ejected, to go back to the island.

  2. Kay24
    Kay24 on March 4, 2016, 6:33 am

    The US can be quite selective when it criticizes, or pressurizes, other nations, and who it shows support for. The people in this island apparently, because of Saudi Arabia influence, are slowly getting radicalized, resulting in some young people leaving to fight for ISIS. According to Amal Clooney the numbers leaving are high compared to other nations per capita. It is being discussed in Asia that the US is trying to interfere, and change the dynamics in Asia, which means the Maldives may, or may not be, of consequence to the Western world.
    If the US and other Western nations want to fight ISIS, trying to stop the Saudis from influencing Asian nations and radicalizing the Muslims who live there, might be a good way to start.
    SA seems to be slowly turning Sunni Muslims who live in Asian nations against the Shiites who live there. SA is such a devious nation.

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