By Amantha Perera
Colombi, Sri Lanka, Feb 20 (IPS) – It was a shutdown that was emblematic of the instability plaguing the Maldives in recent months.
On Feb. 8, Raajje TV, an opposition aligned TV channel in the atolls, suspended broadcasting due to lack of security.“RaajjeTV informs our viewers that we have suspended regular broadcast due to attacks on free and independent media, continued threats to RaajjeTV and its staff, following the Police’s decision to slash security to the station and the warning issued by MNDF to media sources over closure of any media stations without any warning,” the station said before it went off air.
Earlier, the Maldivian military had warned that media outlets were airing content deemed harmful to national security.
With a population below half a million, and at least over 150,000 of that jammed into Male, an island of six square kilometers, Maldives has been on a slow boil for years – since late 2012 when Mohamed Nasheed, the country’s first democratically elected leader, resigned and was replaced in 2013 by Abdulla Yameen.
After years of political wrangling in 2015, Nasheed was found guilty of anti-terror charges and sentenced to 13 years in jail. Out on bail in 2016, he fled to the UK and has been living there since. Scores of his supporters and members of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) are either in jail or in exile, many using Sri Lanka as a base.
The slow boil was suddenly put on a high burn earlier this month.
On February 1, the Supreme Court, in a somewhat surprising decision, declared that eight individuals, including Nasheed and seven other high-profile personalities, among them former vice president Ahmed Adeeb, had received unfair trails and should be released immediately.
“After considering the cases submitted to the Supreme Court about violations of the Constitution of the Republic of Maldives and human rights treaties that the Maldives is party to, to conduct politically motivated investigations followed by trials where prosecutors and judges were unduly influenced, the Supreme Court has found that these cases have to be retried according to legal standard,” the Supreme Court said, and Male’s streets were filled with hundreds celebrating the decision.
While the police force said it would respect the ruling, the men were not released and two police commissioners were sent home in two days by President Yameen, who dug in for a fight. Four days after the decision, the Supreme Court was stormed by the military and two Supreme Court judges – including the chief justice – were arrested. Soon after that the Supreme Court, under a different set of judges, annulled the order to release the prisoners. In between, the declaration of 15 days of State of Emergency appeared like a footnote.
The government has charged that former president Abdul Gayoom, who ruled for over three decades until Nasheed defeated him in 2008, had been at the helm of a bribing attempt to sway the Supreme Court and was arrested along with his son-in-law.
For those who have lived through these years of chaos and uncertainty, the future of the islands, sought after by tourists, is bleak.
“An executive with vast powers, in the absence of a functioning checks and balances system, coupled with support from the security services would mean that the executive would dominate all aspects of governance,” Mariyam Shiuna, executive director of Transparency Maldives, told IPS.
“The president controls state institutions through direct and indirect means, and promotes excessive use of force by the security services. All opposition leaders are currently either in jail or in exile. In this environment, Maldives is unlikely to achieve true stability any time soon,” she said.
That assessment seems to be universally shared.
“It is clear that the rule of law in the Maldives is now under siege. We call on the government to refrain from any threats or interference that may hamper the court’s independence as the supreme guardian of the country’s constitution and legislation,” a group of UN human rights experts said this week.
The government says its hand was forced with the Supreme Court acting unconstitutionally and efforts to impeach President Yameen.
The situation is unlikely to ease any time soon as elections, including presidential polls, are slated to be held between 2018 and 2019. Activists say that along with the consolidation of power by the incumbent president, there has been a rising wave of extremism. Last year, liberal blogger Yameen Rasheed was stabbed to death just outside his apartment in Male. The investigation into the murder has been slow and unproductive.
When the current crisis erupted, Nasheed in fact requested regional power India to militarily intervene as it had done in 1988. New Delhi did not respond. However, China, which has major investment in the islands, said that it did not support any external intervention.
“Right now, the president has all the aces. How he got them is the problem – and how he will use them is the bigger problem,” said an activist who was close to the murdered blogger Yameen and asked to remain anonymous.
TI Maldives’ Shiuna fears there will be further erosion of the already feeble checks on the executive branch, especially after the Supreme Court decision which took the government by complete surprise.
“Yamin’s regime is moving towards despotism, if not already there,” she said. “All democratic institutions have been hijacked by the government and it is doubtful if an election will even take place in 2018.”
Two and a half days after it went off the air, Raajje TV came back live, but it will not be that easy to shore up the rapid degeneration of democratic rights.
By Amantha Perera