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Jailbird for President?

A colourful look at the many infamous presidential incarcerations across Maldivian history.

Farah Ahmed
15 May 2018, MVT 01:19
TOP L-R: Caricatures of former presidents Ameen Didi, Ibrahim Nasir, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. BOTTOM L-R: Caricatures of former presidents Mohamed Nasheed and Mohamed Waheed, and incumbent President Abdulla Yameen. IMAGE: JAUNA NAFIZ
Farah Ahmed
15 May 2018, MVT 01:19

A colourful look at the many infamous presidential incarcerations across Maldivian history

From Maldives’ first president being ‘handed over’ to an angry mob that beat him senseless, to its first democratically elected president being ousted in an alleged coup d’état; Maldives definitely has a history of being less than kind to its leaders.

As recently as February 2018, Maldivian journalists wrote an unprecedented headline: Maumoon Abdul Gayyoom – Asia’s longest serving autocrat – arrested by his half-brother and incumbent President Abdulla Yameen. He was later charged with terrorism.

These were scandalous times in Maldives’ recent history, but it didn’t come as a massive shock to the public.

Table detailing the incarceration of former presidents, Mohamed Ameen Didi, Ibrahim Nasir and Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. IMAGE: JAUNA NAFIZ/THE EDITION

The tables above and below serve as evidence that all of Maldives’ elected presidents have spent time incarcerated, in one way or the other. To have been arrested or served time, has nearly become prerequisite to being elected president. In fact, a popular anecdote amongst locals, especially after a politician is released from custody, is to congratulate them on finally becoming fit to serve as President.

Table detailing the incarceration of former presidents Mohamed Nasheed and Mohamed Waheed, and incumbent president Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom. IMAGE: JAUNA NAFIZ/THE EDITION

Although it may seem that this prerequisite did not apply to the first two presidents of the Maldives, their respective demise proves to be no less tragic.

Records indicate that even in the early stages of his political career, the popular view on Ameen Didi was fairly negative. During his time as the Valee’ul Amuru (head of state), he prohibited the import and use of tobacco, which exacerbated public disdain for him as well as the cause. When he officially assumed office in 1953, there was no grassroots support, nor was he popular among the Male’s intellects, or the revolutionaries.

Ameen departed to Sri Lanka for medical treatment shortly after being sworn in. This is when the revolutionaries began plotting against him. He was informed via Telex that the “situation” in the capital was deteriorating. The revolutionaries advised him to return immediately and told him nothing more.

Upon his return, they travelled to receive him. But instead of returning to Male, the boat set sail to Dhoonidhoo. He was told that a mob had gathered in protest and that if he went to Male, his safety cannot be guaranteed. Ameen knew that his fate was sealed. The revolutionaries took over power the same day.

Four months after being held in Dhoonidhoo, in a counter-revolution planned by his in-laws Ibrahim Hilmy and Shamsuddin Hilmy, Ameen returned to Male to take back power. They believed that the Bandeyrige (current Bandaara Koshi, the military headquarters) was still loyal to him. But it did not turn out to be so; they rejected him and handed him over to the havaru (the angry mob) that had gathered outside the Bandeyrige.

Ameen was brutally beaten, violently assaulted and thrown on a boat, naked. He passed away a few months later at the age of 43, from injuries sustained from the attack.

Although Ibrahim Nasir’s fate was not as cruel as his predecessor’s, he was widely slandered and disparaged by his successor, Maumoon Abdul Gayyoom. Nasir, who ascended to presidency in 1968, was a modernist known for his somewhat totalitarian rule; but he was credited as a great administrator that only exercised the constitutional rights that were granted to him. The parliament at the time even approved his re-election for a second term, although he expressed wishes to retire and leave the country.

In 1978, Nasir departed to Singapore and never returned to Maldives. Sources indicate that he didn’t keep in touch with anyone from Maldives either.

However, he was charged in absentia with corruption, embezzlement and plotting to overthrow the government. All his property was seized by the state, except Velanage. Maumoon famously made songs defaming Nasir and ran campaigns that libelled the leader whose accomplishments include negotiating Maldives’ independence from the British.

Evidently, bearing the most tragic past of all Maldives’ leaders is Mohamed Nasheed.

No administration has been gentle in its treatment of Nasheed since the beginning of his political career.

Hailed by locals as Maldives’ champion of democracy for introducing liberal reforms, and known globally for his dedication to climate change advocacy, numerous claims were made by Nasheed and his supporters protesting continual violations of Nasheed’s fundamental rights during Gayyoom’s administration.

He reported being gruesomely tortured in prison; some of his accounts include sleep deprivation, being served food with crushed glass, being tied to an electrical generator, and long periods of solitary confinement was a norm during these periods.

Nasheed has collectively spent the equivalent of an entire presidential term incarcerated, but only served in office for approximately three years before being reportedly forced to resign at gunpoint, as he later recalled.

Most recently, he was ominously sentenced to 13-years of imprisonment on terrorism charges March 13, 2015 by Yameen’s administration (precisely 10 years after terrorism charges were first levied against him) in what was widely regarded as a ‘show trial’ as it grossly lacked due process. No one is quite certain of what is ahead for Nasheed in his political career at this time.

Incumbent President Abdulla Yameen and interim President Dr Mohamed Waheed appear to have spent the least amounts of time behind bars. In fact, Yameen’s period of incarceration was presumably spent comfortably in a bungalow in Aarah (the island of presidential retreat) with military personnel outside his room.

The former defense minister was later convicted by the Supreme Court for the wrongful detention of the president. The state had even compensated him for the ‘mistreatment.’ Despite the numerous graft allegations levied against Yameen during his half-brother Gayyoom’s presidency, he successfully evaded arrests, while Dr Waheed was famous for leaving the country whenever trouble loomed.

But perhaps the most interesting phenomenon that runs throughout this unfortunate trend of Maldives’ jailbird presidents is that each leader was ousted by his noble vice.

Just as the revolutionaries plotted against Ameen and left him to the mob, there were several attempted coups during Nasir’s presidency too – namely “Bodu Buraasfathi” and “Kuda Buraasfathi” (‘big’ Thursday and ‘small’ Thursday, respectively). Nasir’s vice Ahmed Zaki was arrested and banished in March 1975 for attempting to overthrow the government. Gayyoom was also arrested with Zaki, on the same charges.

Later, when Nasir decided not to seek re-election, in 1978 the parliament, as per the old Constitution, convened to nominate a presidential candidate. While they initially favored Nasir (he garnered 45 votes in favour while Gayyoom managed to secure three in the parliament ballot), another ballot was called in June where Gayyoom secured 27 votes in his favor.

In November 1978, Gayyoom was elected president, and remained in the post until Nasheed succeeded him in November 2008.

It was during Gayyoom’s presidency that we became familiar with the word ‘Bagaavaaiy’ or ‘coup’ for the first time, after the infamous 1988-coup attempt led by local man Abdullah Luthufi, assisted by mercenaries of a Tamil secessionist organization from Sri Lanka, in order to overthrow the government.

The attempt was quashed with the assistance of the Indian armed force that came to Maldives’ rescue.

The term ‘bagaavaaiy’ and all its colorful variations, however, did not enter our vocabulary until 2012, when Dr Waheed was accused of crossing Nasheed and playing a key role in ousting him before his presidential term expired.

While Maldives Committee of National Inquiry (CoNI) report deemed that the transfer of power on February 7, 2012 was legal, it was not the sentiment shared by the opposition; they believed that Dr Waheed – his vice – had doubled crossed Nasheed.

President Yameen, on the other hand, already has two axed vices, one of whom was accused of plotting an outrageous assassination plot against him while his original running-mate is currently in exile in England.

Meanwhile, Gayyoom remains in prison and Nasheed is still in exile. All the leaders of Maldives’ opposition are either incarcerated or in exile. The presidential election has been announced for September, and the Elections Commission has even begun compiling the voters’ registry. Yameen has officially announced his candidacy as well.

If history is indicative of anything, it is that whoever emerges victorious and assume power in the Maldives, would be in for an eventful five-years to come.

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