N Sathiya Moorthy
A piquant situation may have arisen in Maldives, on the domestic front and also for its relations with India, after the trial court in suburban Hulhumale’ issued a second order to the nation’s police to produce former President Mohammed Nasheed, who has been in the Indian High Commission in capital Male, for standing trial in the ‘Judge Abdulla abduction case’, at 4 pm on Wednesday, 20 February. The police is said to have approached the Maldivian Foreign Ministry, which in turn is expected to ask the Indian High Commission to help comply with the court orders.
There was nothing surprising about the court order, after it was clarified that the earlier order for the police to produce Nasheed on Thursday last had lapsed owing to non-compliance, with the former President staying put in the Indian High Commission. Legal issues, however, remain as to the future course of judicial action. Questions thus remain as to the possibility of the court declaring Nasheed as a ‘proclaimed offender’, or try him ‘in absentia’, if he chose to stay on in the Indian High Commission. The local laws on the subjects do not seem to be clear.
The Maldivian Penal Code provides for ‘offences committed outside Maldives’ by persons punishable under the local law. The Indian High Commission being the territory of India for all purposes of local laws and international conventions, if the court decides to proceed accordingly, what consequences it will have on Nasheed, legally, and on his presidential candidature, politically, remains to be seen.
The law also provides for ‘contempt of court’, punishable with imprisonment up to six months, or house-detention up to a year, or a fine up to MRf 12,000, or a combination of all, with the detention term not exceeding six months – half the minimum one-year term prescribed for disqualification from elections. Independent of the ‘Judge Abdulla abduction case’, the Government may be tempted to proceed against Nasheed, possibly for political reasons but citing legal provisions, if cadres of his Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) take to the streets in violent ways as they did after the change-of-power on February 7 last year.
Broadly-speaking, ‘acts against the State and disharmony’, including ‘conspiracy to remove the President from office or overthrow of the Government, are punishable with exile for life, or prison-term between 10-15 years, with discretion for the Judge to convert up to five years of those term to be served in ‘rigorous imprisonment’. With Nasheed and the MDP having already demanded the resignation/removal of President Waheed, pending fresh elections, any street-protests by MDP cadres to press the demand being construed as an offence under the law may have consequences, including disqualification from contesting the presidential polls, which Nasheed is resisting at present in the ‘Judge Abdulla case’.
These are ‘worst-case scenarios’ that the Nasheed defence and the MDP leadership would have been seized of. The list could include the Election Commission acting on the erupting demand for de-registering the MDP as a ‘terrorist organisation’, particularly if the courts, if moved were to uphold public pronouncements to the effect by some police sources, as quoted in local media. Nasheed’s legal team should also be looking into – if they have not done so before he evaluated all options early on – the legalities of his having to walk out of the Indian High Commission, to file his nomination papers, campaign and contest the elections.
For his part, the president of the Election Commission (EC), Fuad Thaufeeq, has questioned the wisdom of the demand for de-recognising the MDP, as sought by Ahmed Ibrahim “Sandhaanu” Didi, President Waheed’s Human Rights Advisor. Citing membership figures, Taufeeq has argued the political propriety of de-registering the party with the largest membership of 47,000 in the country, which is more than the total membership of the second and third largest parties, namely the Dhivehi Rayyathunge Party (DRP) and the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), each with a membership of over 22,000.
“Protesting is a constitutional right granted to all people”, the local media quoted the EC chief as saying. “That is not a reason to terminate any party. The EC, to date, has not seen any reason to terminate any political party. We are also observing the activities of the parties,” Thaufeeq continued. “I am appalled that Ahmed Ibrahim Didi would call on us to do such a thing. Since freedom of expression is a constitutional right…. Ibrahim Didi has a right to call for MDP to be terminated, and MDP has a right to call for Nasheed’s trial to be postponed. There is no valid reason here for a party to be terminated,” he said.
India and ‘inclusive elections’
The court order may have put New Delhi in a fix. In a first of its kind for any country with a mission in Male, the Maldivian Government summoned Indian High Commissioner Dynaneshwar Mulay to the Foreign Office on Sunday (a working day in the country), and handed a note. In a quick response, the High Commission said that it had not allowed Nasheed to indulge in any political activities from inside the mission.
From the unexpected commencement of Nasheed’s stay in the High Commission, India has been calling for ‘inclusive elections’, a view shared by the UN, the US and the UK. More importantly, New Delhi has reiterated its commitment of non-interference in the internal affairs of Maldives, and called for a dialogue among the nation’s stake-holders, to sort out issues of democracy (as highlighted by Nasheed’s decision). The High Commission also clarified that only family members and a few friends called on Nasheed in the mission.
What may have added to the ire of the Maldivian Establishment was reports that Nasheed had tweeted from within the mission, first about his seeking refuge and being granted one. This was followed reportedly by another tweet from Nasheed, demanding President Waheed’s resignation and the institution of an interim government to ensure ‘free and fair’ presidential polls. His party has since been issuing statements to the effect.
For and against
On the domestic front, the existing situation is sure to sap the MDP of its energies, which from time to time have been diverted to the court case and related politics and protests. The party is however in an advantage on the ground, if only to an extent, as Nasheed had launched the campaign for this year’s presidential polls almost from the very day that he quit office last year, and made it a part of the MDP’s pro-democracy political existence and electoral platform. The MDP also did not lose much time in naming Nasheed its presidential nominees, through primaries, where he was elected unanimously.
Media reports have quoted India’s Minister for External Affairs, Salman Khurshid, saying that Nasheed could not stay on in the Male mission indefinitely. High Commissioner Mulay, for his part, has been engaging with various political parties and leaders in the Government to try and set the dialogue-process going. He met with DRP presidential candidate Thasmeen Ali and PPM’s presidential hopeful Abdulla Yameen (the party primaries for electing a nominee are due on March 30) in this regard.
Thasmeen Ali had said that he found no reason for Nasheed to stay on in the Indian mission (after the earlier court order for the police to produce the latter had lapsed). Former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, whom the MDP has been habituated to say was behind all controversies to put Nasheed and the party out of active politics, has distanced himself from the present situation. On return from Malaysia, Gayoom told newsmen that he did not intend interfering in the matter, and the incumbent Government was capable of normalising ties with India.
A lot will depend on how Nasheed reacts to the current court order for his production. Having crossed the Rubicon, so to say, there is little that he can do now to reverse it, other than to appear before the court. Nasheed’s decision too will be dependent on how far he and his party can go in continuing to hand India a fait accompli of sorts, and how far New Delhi can go along with the unilateral actions and/or inactions of the other.
(The writer is a Senior Fellow in Observer Research Foundation)